Torch

by Scott Smith

Let’s say our house is the least desirable object on the property. It was a box with two levels, a dry basement, and a roof that didn’t leak. That was about the nicest things you can say about it.

A lovely feature of the home was no outside faucet. In the lower level, on the east side, was a room that never got finished. It ran the width of the house and was really narrow (4-1/2 feet?). The floor was concrete so I called it the concrete room.

The concrete room was an after thought. I knew this because the interior wall of the concrete room had siding and windows. I couldn’t decide if the previous owners wanted a utility room or a sun room. What we had was neither.

In this room we did have spigots for a washer. I ran our outside hose into the concrete room — ugly, but effective. Well, it did work until I stripped the faucet.

Replacing kitchen and bathroom fixtures was nothing new to me. This was different. It turned out that the spigot was part of a kit; you couldn’t simply replace the faucet because it was sweated on to the pipe. I discovered this when I took a pipe wrench to the faucet and turned until I snapped the copper pipe that’s below the basement’s kitchen sink. Maybe I should backup.

Another unique feature was how water runs in the lower level. There was a kinda-sorta second kitchen that had a sink. If you turned it on, water flowed out of an uncapped pipe in the down stairs bathroom — water also came out of the faucet. I have yet to figure out how to cap that pipe (I’m sure that’ll be an interesting post some day).

Beneath this sink was where water to the stripped faucet came from. And, no, when you turned it on the concrete room faucet, water did not leak into the bathroom. Seemed like it should, but it didn’t; let’s move on.

All of the pipes are copper and sweated-on. After a quick Google search, I found some instructions on sweating copper pipe. Didn’t seem that bad at all. One guy made it seem kind of fun.

I’m off to Richland’s True Value — my second trip of the day (I bought a pipe wrench) — with my shopping list. One of the True Value guys assisted me with parts, supplies and tools. Driving home, I figured I’ll be done with this little deal by noon, which left me plenty of time to prep the pasture for the fence people who may show on Friday.

I decided to cut below the elbow that connected to the faucet kit. The hardware guy was right: it’s hard to cut pipe with a tiny, cheap pipe cutter.

The instructions I downloaded all said to dry-fit the pipes. I didn’t do that. I prepped the copper pipes, and then went straight outside with my propane torch, wheel of solder, flux and copper.

Without much fuss and only one small injury (I dripped hot solder on my leg), I had fused the corner joint to the threaded copper piece that I wrenched on to the faucet unit. For a first sweat, I was feeling good. No bubbles or other signs of a solder job not done well.

I was almost giddy. My pops was going to be so proud of me, his worthless son (worthless in all things mechanical unless it has a computer chip and motherboard) was going to sweat copper pipes.

I attempted to insert the faucet back through the hole in the wall. No good. Having now attached the right angle copper fitting, I couldn’t get it through the hole. A dry run would have been a good idea.

Interior monologue: No problem. I’ll just chisel that hole a little bigger.

I tried making the hole bigger but only succeeded in tearing out siding. I made a third trip to the hardware store. As I was trying to locate a concrete bit, the hardware guy sidled up to me. I told him my sad story. He said to use a chisel. I had, I explained. He said to use a smaller one. Fine.

The smaller one made no difference. The thought of having to remove the elbow pained me. Fortunately, I grabbed another elbow while at the store — just in case.

Note to reader: As my various home repair projects go south, I tend to buy more. By my third or fourth trip to a hardware store, I clear-out whole aisles that deal with my particular problem. I realize a lack of confidence is at the core of the problem, but — well, there it is.

Despair was setting in. I stared at my fine workmanship. Oh. I realized all I had to do was twist off the threaded copper piece. So I did.

The faucet unit was in place and I wrenched the copper back on and discovered I’m a couple of inches short of the copper pipe  running from the water source. Yeah, I should have dry-fitted the damn thing.

75 miles had been driven that day, and all of it was going back and forth from True Value. I grabbed a little 1/2″ copper fitting. I perused the aisle, looking for more parts or chemicals or what-have-you to solve my problem. Near the flux I saw this copper epoxy syringe deal. I decided that sweating was still going to work.

Under the sink. I dry-fitted the parts — like a glove, as they say. I turned off the water pump (we have well water) and opened the faucet near the pump. Seven or eight gallons of water had been drained. I opened the shut-off valve under the sink. More water drained into the bucket.

I stuffed rolled-up white bread into the copper pipe. Confident that I now had a dry pipe, I was ready to sweat.

On one of the downloaded docs, the author suggested I pull out several inches of solder and bend the tip at a right angle. By doing this, I would more safely be able to apply solder to the pipe.

Copper fittings ready; solder ready; torch ready; work-space cleared of flammables. I got the torch going as well as the foam insulation, drywall and the stud near the copper pipe.

The foam insulation turned a galactic purple, emitted a pungent, chemically odor, and got me high. After deciding free-basing insulation was a bad idea, I used a drywall saw to cut away foam and drywall from the area. I sprayed down the wood stud with water.

I readied my tools and supplies again. I alternated heating the pipe with the torch and spraying water near the workspace. The stud was charred and smoked. The foam continued to discharge odors and glow. I applied the solder with little hope of a good outcome. I was sure I didn’t get the pipe hot enough; I feared I would set the house on fire if I continued to torch.

Both joints were soldered — ugly work. It looked good enough. I let the water flow. Laura manned the bucket beneath the new spigot. She said no water came out. Much to my amazement, no water came out of the freshly soldered seams.

But soon, bread oozed from the new seams, followed by water spraying everywhere. Soaked and frustrated, I contacted my father. I wanted him to say something like go to the hardware store and get a tube of this and that’ll patch-up your leaks.

He didn’t. He said it but I knew it: I had to tear it all apart, replace the copper fittings, and try to sweat the joints again. My father suspected I didn’t have clean joints. He could be right. I should have sanded and cleaned the copper fittings after I removed the foam and drywall.

I also thought I didn’t leave the flame on the copper long enough; I was positive. He suggested I pile wet rags everywhere to prevent a fire.

No matter. I was done for the day after nine hours of fighting and driving. My only accomplishment for the day was getting the shut-off valve beneath the sink un-stuck. At least the house had water until I returned to fight on Saturday.

On Friday I went to Lowes. I bought more copper joints and a flame retardant blanket. I couldn’t pass up the copper epoxy this time, and I saw some special solder that melts at a lower temp. Oh yeah, we were clearing out the aisle.

Home again. I assembled tools and supplies; I drained the water; I setup my little blanket to protect the area I’m torching. And did I ever torch. Removing solder, even poorly sweated on solder was tough. Why? I had water still hanging around the pipes. I understand it would have taken a day for a system to completely be flushed.

I put flame to pipe. Steam and bread leaked from the seams. Smoke? Yes, smoke started rising from behind the blanket. I had torched a hole through the blanket. Very nice.

Okay. I turned the blanket around so it the hole side was not directly behind the copper. I decided to try the special solder and patch the holes.

This stuff may work great if your pipes were horizontal, but not if they were vertical. It poured down the front of the tube like snot from a three-year-old’s nose. I put it on my finger and wiped it around the pipe. Still it ran. I used just about the whole tube on two connections.

More torch work. I could see that the lower-temp solder did slink around the pipe at a lower temp. What the heck? Let’s see if it worked.

It didn’t. More leaks. I held the torch on the pipe, making yet another hole in the blanket, until the fittings gave and I set free the copper.

One last bullet. I prepped all the fittings and drained the water again. The copper epoxy didn’t require flux or heat. I dabbed the epoxy on all the new fittings and secured them in place.

The epoxy must cure for about 20 minutes or so. In the meantime, I decided to prep the pasture for the fencing people: clear trees and mow a path where the fence will be installed.

I came back into the house several hours later and found the epoxy had hardened. The copper fittings were solidly in place, no bubbles evident around the fittings.

Water flowed through the pipes and met my white bread dam. It took a minute or two, and then eventually it came out of the spigot. No leaks.

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