Four-handled leak wrangling in a luke warm shower
January 23, 2007 11:09 PM   Subscribe

I have a four-handled shower/bath (hot/cold for shower head, hot/cold for bath faucet) that decides to start leaking about every 6 months. It's driving me batty, and is possibly contributing to my now luke-warm winter showers. No fun in chilly NYC. (pic inside)

I did some searching first, but given I know next to nothing about plumbing, I'm not sure if the advice already on offer differs for the type of shower I have or not.

That in mind, I'm just going to fumble through this with as much relevant info I can think of. Here's a pic, if it helps with my poor terminology.

A little backstory:

The few years I've been here, this seems to crop up about every 6 months or so and every time I call the landlady and she sends some old man (not sure of his actual plumbing credentials, I get the impression he's a family friend who does odd jobs) and when I get home it's no longer leaking. Based on that, I figure he can't be doing anything too terribly difficult, particularly given that it seems to keep cropping up again and again. I'd bother just calling her once again, but it usually takes a few days and turns into this big production over nothing. Besides that, I don't mind being handy if it's something I can fix fairly quickly and easily myself. I tore out the old plaster and put up sheetrock in my last apartment so the walls would take paint. = ]

Now, the actual leak just seems to be coming from one of the shower handles and then the shower head. Specifically the left/hot handle right behind where the handle rotates into it's "stem", and then a pretty constant but light stream from the shower head. I know very little about plumbing, but it seems that maybe there's a bad washer or the handle needs to be tightened somehow possibly? The piece coming out of the wall seems as though maybe it could be turned, but again the leak is not there, but where the tip of the "sconce" (I forget the correct word) piece is pulled forward to.

I unscrewed the "cap" piece to the handle and then removing the little bit that just seems to be a cover for a screw that is a little deeper in the handle. I then removed that screw as well, but wasn't clear on what happens next. I figured maybe the knob then comes off, but I pulled on it pretty hard to no avail. Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't visualize the old guy doing a lot of pulling and tugging, so again, seems like it would be something simple.

As an aside, I tried figuring out where to turn off the water for the shower, just in case, but that's not exactly clear either. The sinks both have the usual knobs underneath that will shut the water off, but they don't seem to effect the shower at all, and I don't see any obvious places in the apartment where the shower would be turned off at the source.

Also maybe relevant, it's a row house (think brownstone) that's been converted to apartments. Top floor, middle floor, and then the back of the garage is a half apartment (garage still in use). I know the water heater and such is down in the basement (in the non-apartment part), but don't have easy access to it as someone lives down there. If I asked nicely he would probably let me in, but I'm not sure I even need to.

I sleep pretty deeply and just close the bathroom door anyway, so the noise isn't the bother as much as the showers I take end up being luke warm/cold. No fun in winter. I'd say that maybe that was a water heater issue, but if the shower's not on the kitchen sink and bathroom sink both have near-scalding hot water in no time at all.

Thanks in advance . . .
posted by teemo to Home & Garden (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Pic link worked in preview, doesn't seem to now.

Here it is just in case (yes, MeFi noob).
posted by teemo at 11:13 PM on January 23, 2007

I would report the problem to the land lady and see if the handy man could show up when you are around. You could watch him fix the thing and then know what to do when it happens again. I remember a "This Old House" episode where they were having the same sort of problem. If memory serves me I think they removed the handles and replaced some sort of rubber gasket that was behind the knobs. Let us know if you figure it out, I am sort of curious.
posted by bkeene12 at 5:27 AM on January 24, 2007

You're on the right track. You have leaky faucets. The fact that the handyman comes ever six months or so and replaces the washers (the rubber gasket inside) points to a larger (actually, it's very small) problem: worn/leaking seats.

Here's what you do:
1. turn off the water to the shower
2. pull the knob off.
3. remove the stem. It unscrews in the usual direction.
4. remove the washer. Set it aside for replacement.
5. remove the seat. Set it aside for repair/replacement.
6. replace/repair seat.
7. put it all back together.

The tricky part is the seat. Once you get the stem out, shine a bright flashlight into the faucet and you'll see the part that the washer presses against. It's the seat. It can be unscrewed with a special tool (seat wrench, about $5 at a plumbing supply/home repair store). If your's are old (like mine, at least pre-WWII), the seat tool won't be "big enough". I ended up using a 1/2" socket wrench extension, which fit perfectly.

Once you get the little seats out you have two options: replace or repair. If they're old, repair is probably easiest. I took mine to a local plumbing supply store and the owner (an older gentleman) said I'd have a hard time finding replacements. So he called over one of the young whippersnappers and showed him what to do with my seats: polish them on sandpaper.

So get yourself some medium (120 or finer) sandpaper. Put the seat face down and polish it on a hard surface (like a desk). Rotate regularly (you don't want to build up regular score marks). As soon as you start you'll probably see the source of your leak: a very small line worn in the seat itself. Polish until that's gone and the entire surface of the seat is shiny and smooth.

If you have newer seats, take them to the store and find appropriate replacements.

Putting it all back together, make sure you use some packing when you screw the stem back in.

The instructions on this page are pretty good too. Scroll down to the bottom for 'stem-type faucet repair'.
posted by jdfan at 7:44 AM on January 24, 2007

Teemo, just looked your picture and the instructions should work just fine for you. BTW, the packing at the end is to prevent the leaking from the faucet. The leaking from the head is from worn/grooved seats.
posted by jdfan at 7:47 AM on January 24, 2007

Just to confirm the worn seat theory - I lived in an apartment with a leaky faucet and I took it apart and replaced the washer. It was great for a few months, then started to leak again. I took it apart and looked and the washer and sure enough, it was worn down. That happens when the surface that the washer is pressing against is rough.

Replacing the valve seat and the washer again fixed the issue. Oh, and while you're doing one, do the others too. The extra work right now will be negligible compared to extra trips to the store.
posted by plinth at 8:04 AM on January 24, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks, I'll have to take a look when I have some tinker time. And sorry for the dumb question, but what's a "seat"?
posted by teemo at 8:15 AM on January 24, 2007

think of it this way:

If you have a screw (or bolt) going into a nut, eventually the screw will tighten down onto the nut and make a seal between the screwhead and nut. Not a really good one, but a seal nonetheless. If you want a better seal, you put in a rubber gasket which will mush down and fill up the space.

Your faucet works like that. You unscrew a screw (the valve) which lets water out. You tighten it down and it presses on the gasket and nut (the seat) to keep water from coming out.

The clever part is that the seat itself is screwed into the plumbing you it can be replaced/repaired when it gets worn out.
posted by plinth at 8:45 AM on January 24, 2007

The seat is the part the washer presses against to shut off the flow of water. Take a look the illustrations on the page above. And here's an article on This Old House about seat replacement/repair.

Here are some pictures of faucet seats, seat wrenches, seat dressing tools, etc. Just so you know what you're looking for.
posted by jdfan at 8:45 AM on January 24, 2007

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