Part IV

Fixing a leaky shower faucet

If the handles that control your shower’s hot and cold water are loose – if there’s a lot of play in them – you probably need to do a little plumbing work.

That’s one of two ways to know if you have a small problem with your shower fixture, according to Mike Frentz. The second way is when the bathtub spout or the showerhead drips. That means there’s a worn bib washer at the base of the stem.

In his previous articles for this plumbing series, Mike has diagramed how to fix common problems in kitchen and bathroom faucets, and in toilets.

This time it’s showers. The fixture assembly is a little more intricate, so you have to be a little more careful disassembling and reassembling.

The payoff for you: Unlike exposed pipes, say those underneath a sink, most of your shower fixture is behind a wall. You can’t see the damage from a leak until it soaks through. That’s why checking for small telltale signs now can save you a lot of grief later.

In the other articles, Mike pinned down replacing a washer here or a fill valve there to a certain number of minutes. In this case, just give yourself a couple uninterrupted hours. They key will be patience, following the instructions and keeping all the parts in one place.

An old, light-colored towel. You’ll put the parts on the towel and keep them together, because some of them are fairly small. You also might want the room to lay the parts out in the order of disassembly, so that when you’ve replaced the washer, you can just reverse the order and reassemble the fixture. A wrench.
A small pocket screwdriver or a pocketknife.
A regular-sized screwdriver.
A plumber’s socket set. We’ll explain it in a minute, but one of the good things about Frentz and Sons is that they’ll loan you the socket set – that way you can figure out which socket you need and purchase just that one, rather than an entire set you may not need.

Chances are pretty good the washers you’re going to replace are old and made of paper fiber and graphite. You’re going to replace them with washers/packing made of rubber and cotton, which Mike says is much more durable. There are two washers to replace – the second one will be replaced with its modern-day counterpart, which is made of neoprene, an extremely durable substance.

Let’s roll
Start by prying off the caps on the showerhead handles – the ones with the “C” and “H” on them. Pop them off with the small screwdriver or the tip of your pocketknife blade (be careful not to slip).

Underneath each cap – properly called an index cap – you’ll find a screw. Unscrew it; set the screw and cap on the towel.

Now you’re going to want to get the handle off of there to expose the escutcheon.

If it's stuck, don’t pry it off. It’ll snap and break the spine off the stem, and you’ll be looking at purchasing the better part of a new fixture at that point. Mike says to try tapping on it, gently, with a piece of wood (so it won’t dent or mar the chrome). If that doesn’t work, Mike has a special tool to help loosen it called a handle puller.

Next is the escutcheon. Mike says the escutcheon sometimes gets stuck in place from moisture or corrosion. You want it loose enough so it can be turned counterclockwise, by hand, and removed. Set it on the towel.

You’re only going to be concerned with a couple pieces of the assembly. Look at the diagram, then look at the fixture sticking out of the hole in your shower wall. You’re going to see two hex nuts. The first one holds the packing nut in place.

Ignore it.

Mike says you want the second hex nut – the one closer to the wall. Loosening that one will allow you to remove the hole stem assembly from the main body of the faucet.

Now, if you can’t get your wrench around that second hex nut, then you have a wall flush with the assembly, making it inaccessible to regular tools. That’s why the plumbers’ socket set was invented.

Each of these sockets fits over the entire assembly and goes into the wall. You find the right socket, slide it over the assembly, and then put a regular screwdriver through the holes in the end to turn it.

What to change
The stem packing. It’s the one made of paper and graphite, which means it isn’t going to come off in a neat circle. You’ll have to use a small screwdriver to pry it out of there, and it’s going to come off in pieces. That’s OK. Bring the complete stem assembly in to Frentz – there literally are dozens of different types of packing. The replacement packing will be a lighter color and made of rubber and cotton, which makes for a far more durable packing. Also, another advantage to Frentz and Sons –- if you bring in the entire handle assembly, they’ll repack it for you. Free. You’ll only be charged for the parts. “It’s a service we feel we should offer customers,” Mike says. “If you’re going to bring it in, that’s good because we can make sure you get the right parts." The seat washer and the seat itself (see diagram). Most people only replace the seat washer. Mike highly recommends replacing the seat, too. The reason: Water corrodes metal over time. The seat is metal and it comes into direct contact with the seat washer. As water corrodes the metal, the once-smooth metal edge of the seat corrodes and pits the edge, making it jagged. When you turn the handle, that jagged edge rips apart the washer. Mike says to look at the seat and then feel it with the tip of your finger. If it’s smooth, leave it alone. A pitted seat will look and feel rough. Bring the seat washer and seat into Frentz for a match replacement fit. Reverse the disassembly procedure once the stem packing, seat washer and seat are back in place. That’s why you set the assembly out on the towel, in order. The accompanying diagram also shows, piece by piece, how to reassemble it. Bonus round: If you have a three-valve diverter (handles for hot water, cold water and a third for converting the water flow from bath to shower), and if you turn it to the shower function but water still comes out of the bath spout, then you need to changer the washer here. The procedure is much the same as changing the other two washers just discussed. With a additional replacement of a diverter washer. Again, replacing these washers isn’t difficult, but it does require a little patience. If you get stuck, call Frentz and Sons. Mike, John, Chip or one of the other staff members can talk you through the process.