Home & Garden Columns

About the House: A Small Do-It-Yourself Job You Can Tackle

By Matt Cantor
Friday September 28, 2007

I know you’re out there: you who fear tools. Confirmed abdicators of all things mechanical. Live prey to all members of the Phylum Contractazoa. You who hide in corners until the power is brought back on again by mysterious means. I am here to help but there IS a price. Immersion therapy is not easy but it is simple and you can only change if you really want to change. 


The best way to start down the road is to pick one small job and I have just the one. It’s not that complex. You can’t burn down the house and you can’t get shocked. It’s also something that has a good cost savings and a high show-off factor. If all goes moderately well, well have you up and done in less than a Sunday (maybe four hours if you’re a promising student) and ready to call in debts from the husband, wife, significant other or mother-in-law. 

Ready? We’re going to replace a faucet. Here goes: 

First, the best one to pick is one you can do without if things get unfortunate. If you’re lucky enough to have two bathrooms or a bath with two sinks, then pick the faucet you use the least often. If not, you can always fall back to washing your hands at the kitchen sink until help arrives, but let us be positive and advance upon the goal with gusto, fervor and a confirmed sense of false security. 

Next agenda item: Go shopping. This is the fun part and can, if you wish, include partners, children or admiring onlookers. Keep in mind that like quitting smoking, you will be now be forced to follow through or skulk about sheepishly if you abandon your post amidst the spraying of cold water. 

Faucets can be found at the local hardware store (such as our own Berkeley Hardware), the big-box home improvement places (who shall ever remain nameless, except when I get ready to rant) and also at real plumbing suppliers like the fabulous Moran Supply on 40th in Oakland. 

Most faucets fall into two classifications, 4-inch spread and 8-inch spread. The standard for bathrooms is 4 inches and this is the distance between the nipples that project downward from the faucet through the sink-top and then tie onto the water supply tubes that come up from the supply valves. If this all sounds a bit jargony, it is and I’ll try to take something for that. I’ll explain more about this later. 

Some baths also have what are called wide-spread faucets and these are usually on very old pedestal faucets. If the space between the valves (where the handles stick up) is neither 4 inches nor 8 inches, you might want to get some help. These can be done by determined amateurs but it’s a lot more complex putting all the parts together that allow these several parted things to fit together and bridge the longer distances required on very old sinks (up through the 1940s). 

If you’re doing a kitchen sink, it will probably be an 8-inch spread. If you look below the sink, you’ll be able to see the nipples projecting down through the rim of the sink and you can then measure the distance. If you can afford to have the faucet disconnected for a time, the best pre-shopping prep. you can do is to remove the faucet and take it with you. Since you’ll need to do this at some point anyway, let’s look at how that’s done: 

First, turn off the water (don’t laugh. You would not be the first person to start doing this and get sprayed in the face having forgotten this, seemingly obvious, step). There are two “shutoff valves” below the sink in most cases and you may have to work hard to get them to turn all the way off. You can test to see how thoroughly they kill the water supply by turning the faucet on and seeing if the water has stopped dripping.  

If the shutoffs don’t work well and let a lot of water run through, you may end needing to turn the water off at the front of the house or the street. If you don’t know where your main water shutoff is, it’s time to find out. It’s usually on the front face of the house behind the bushes and sometimes in the crawlspace at the front. Every house is different and you’ll need to figure this out. Some folks end up buying a “water key” that turns the stopcock (don’t start) in the sidewalk 90 degrees to an off position (same as your main gas valve). If you have a main shutoff that allows a very small amount of water to leak past, you can do the faucet replacement with a bucket or bowl catching the slow leak. 

The best trip to the store includes taking the shutoff valves, the flexible tubing from them to the faucet and the faucet itself. The best job includes replacement of all of these, since shutoff valves wear out and fill with crud over the years. If you have fairly new shutoffs (ones that shut fully without the strength of our governor), leave them be. The flexible supply lines should be replaced every time and the ones to look for are the “no-burst” type that have a metal weave around the outside. That is, unless you’re looking for that “just flooded” look for your living room (it’s very big this year in certain southern states, I understand).  

Make sure to get some help at the store in matching the spread on the faucet nipples, the length of the supply lines and the pipe size of the shutoff valves. If your shutoff valve is newer, it may have a compression fitting at the rear end (an additional nut where it meets the smooth copper pipe). If this is your first time out, leave those alone. If it’s an old valve meeting a threaded-iron fitting, you’re good to go. It’s both easier and also more important. 

Here’s an important technical detail. Buy an expensive faucet. First, why would you work this hard to put in a piece of junk that doesn’t look that good, might break during installation and will last fewer years. Just spend another 20-30 bucks and get something nicer. Here’s a secret: The better faucets are easier to install. Price Pfister makes the best low price faucets I’ve seen and I’ve put in dozens of them with virtually no problem. They’re not the only good choice but they are one very good choice. 

Oh, yes, back to removing the faucet. This is the hardest nut to crack (sorry). Faucets are mostly held in place with a pair of “basin nuts.” These are under the sink and often in a very hard place to sit and turn a wrench. The nuts are found on the two nipples that descend through the sink holes and are therefore up in this cranny that’s pretty nasty to negotiate. Once you’ve had a look and determined the lay of the land, you may want to start by going to the hardware store and obtaining a “basin wrench.” This odd device has a jaw like a pair of pliers that sits up on the end of a long rod with a handle at the other end. By careful placement, one can put the jawed end on the basin nut and (remember: Lefty Loosey) turn the nut off with one’s hands down well below the sink where turning is viable. This might take holding the tool to figure out but, believe me, it’s a total life-saver. I’ve removed basin nuts with a very small adjustable wrench (often referred to as a Crescent wrench) and tried to make believe I was much smaller than I really am. No fun. 

So, you’ve turned off the water, removed the supply lines with a wrench, taken the basin nuts off with a basin wrench and now have all this stuff in your bag (take everything). The reinstallation is basically the same in reverse, only easier. Be sure to use some plumber’s putty below the faucet unless it comes with a rubber seal that fits the surface of your sink very snugly. It’s a common place to leak. Plumbers putty is like Playdough just not as tasty and stays soft way longer. 

When you buy your flexible connectors check the ends to make sure the seals are in there. Some types have no rubber seal but if you look at three or four in the bin, you’ll figure it out. Sometimes the seals fall and sometimes people liberate them and put the hose back in the bin. This, in my opinion, should be a capital offense but I may be a bit over-reacting. I do that. 

All the water in the house has to be off to replace shutoffs but once they’re installed, you can turn the water in the house back on for the remainder of the procedure. It’s a good idea to flush the valves and piping out into a bucket before installing the faucet. Let’s get the big chunks out.  

I also like to clean the nipples out a little before putting the new shutoffs on. Attaching the new valves should be done with TFE paste (which I prefer) or Teflon tape although there are other compounds that do the same thing. You do not need to use this where the flexible water supply line meets the valve or the faucet. The seals do the job.  

I question the safety of Teflon when ingested and recommend that you wear some vinyl disposable gloves for this. By the way, for plumbing, those new rubberized cloth gloves (rubber on one side and cloth on the back) are perfect. Protects hands. Increases grip. For the less than mighty, remember that longer wrenches make stronger people. Physics wins out over muscle every time. 

Remember how you felt before you learned to drive (I know you don’t drive, Josh). It seemed insurmountable and utterly frightening and now; well now you do it while talking on the phone (bad you). Plumbing is just like that. Go get ‘em tiger.