New Fashions In Plumbing Might Be Show Stoppers

SATURDAY'S HERO

August 10, 1991|By Rob Kasper

Old ball cocks don't die, they just go out of fashion.

This surprised me because, while I thought that shoes, hemlines and lapels were subject to whims of fashion, I figured plumbing parts were exempt. I thought ball cocks, devices that sit hidden in toilet tanks, were like bathrobes and car jacks -- beyond style.

I found out otherwise when I tried to get replacement parts for my 1974 ball cock. I knew it was a 1974 model because that was the date stamped on the lid of the tank that the ball cock came out of.

I knew the ball cock needed new parts because the toilet had been singing. That is a technical term used among us water-closet-repair folks to describe toilets that won't shut up.

This happens when the ball cock doesn't do its job, namely turn off the water coming into the tank. With a failed ball cock, the water continues to come in dribs and drabs. And each drib and drab causes the toilet to make a noise, or "sing."

This particular toilet had been singing longer and louder than Brun- hilde, also known as the fat lady, in Richard Wagner's four day "Der Ring des Niebelungen", also known as the opera.

My first attempted solution was to give this singer a rest. I shut off the water to the toilet for a few hours and instructed family members to use other facilities. I hoped that after a little respite, the noise would stop.

I was wrong. After its vacation, the toilet sang all the louder. Now the soprano-like sounds of the water coming out of the ball cock had been joined by the tenor-like trickle of water coming out of the tank and down into the toilet bowl. After one raucous chorus, I closed down the show by again turning off the water.

I took the ball cock apart and saw that it had two washers about the size of silver dollars. The washers looked as if they needed replacing. That would take care of the sopranos.

As for the tenors, I saw that the flapper, the plunger-like device that controlled the flow of water from the toilet tank to the bowl, also needed replacement.

So, with parts in hand, I traveled to a professional plumbing supply store.

One reason I carried the parts to the store was to keep me from talking and thereby keep me from embarrassing myself. I wouldn't have to stammer to the clerk that "I need a thingamajig to cover the whatchamacallit." All I would have to do was show the clerk the broken parts. It would be a wordless exchange. If I pulled it off, the clerk might even think I was a real item, not a pretend plumber.

Things started off well. Without even looking at me the clerk slid a replacement flapper across the counter. But when he stared at my ball cock, he shook his head. There are few actions that strike more fear in a weekend repair guy's heart than having a parts clerk shake his head. That shake of the head means that instead of a quick-fix to a small problem, you have entered the world of expensive solutions and major effort.

My ball cock, the clerk said, was out of style. The ball cock companies of the world had gone on to create newer, sleeker models.

I could not get parts for my old ball cock. But I could get buy a new, more stylish one.

Unlike my old metal ball cock, newer ball cocks were made of plastic and didn't have any replaceable parts. Moreover, the new one did away with the need for a traditional part of the toilet tank, the float ball.

The clerk told me that the plastic ball cock was the way to go, that every modern household had one. I bought one, for only about $7, and took it home.

I also took my old ball cock parts home with me. I stood over the toilet and pondered my next move. Putting in the new plastic ball cock would be a break with tradition. Moreover it would mean that I would have to try to break free the rusted nuts holding the old ball cock to the base of the toilet.

I decided to give tradition and the old ball cock one more chance. I filled the tank up with water. The toilet still sang, but it was a more muted melody. After I replaced the old flapper with the new one, the noise was barely audible.

Then I took the rubber washers out of the old ball cock, rubbed them with my fingers, put them back in and adjusted the metal arm that held the float ball.

Sure enough, the singing stopped. After several tests, I put the lid back on the toilet. I announced to the household that all bathrooms were up and running.

A few nights later, as I put the kids to bed, I lifted the lid of the tank and took a peek at my old-fashioned, outmoded ball cock. It was leaking.

But at least it was leaking quietly. And the toilet was still working.

Which told me that someday the singing will begin again. Now I have a modern replacement part waiting in the wings. And the next time the toilet sings, it will be the swan song for the old ball cock.

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