Even drips can fix bad faucet if they have the right tool

April 10, 2004|By ROB KASPER

OF LIFE'S PERSISTENT problems - death, taxes and dripping faucets - the last is one you can do something about.

All three got my attention this week. I heard a lot of discussion about death, or more precisely deliverance from it, as the religious observances of Passover and Easter unfolded.

I was also reminded that income taxes are due Thursday. And I read reports out of Annapolis saying that our elected representatives, who are paid with our tax dollars to do a job, seem to be doing nothing, not even munching free meatballs.

Faced with vagaries on the spiritual and political fronts, the prospect of grappling with a dripping faucet - a definable problem with a definite solution - was appealing.

Faucets are a lot like private clubs; getting in is half the battle. The people who design faucets have a different agenda than the people who fix them. Designers go for a look, a style statement, an example of discreet charm. Guys toting wrenches go for the setscrews.

Setscrews are the little buggers that hold the good-looking, style-setting decorative pieces of the faucet over its inner workings. To faucet designers, plumbing innards are not pleasing to the eye. To those of us who like to walk around on the weekends with a pair of needlenose pliers in our pockets, the sight of the interlocking parts of a faucet is awe-inspiring.

Unfortunately America is pretty prudish when it comes to displaying plumbing parts. The designers get their way and most faucet innards get covered up.

Each faucet, it seems, has a slightly different way of letting you in. Again the parallel with getting in a private club comes to mind. Some require secret handshakes. This particular faucet had a setscrew hidden in the base of a decorative chrome cover. Since I own a complete set of Allen wrenches, I felt as cocky as a scion of inherited wealth about getting inside this setup.

An Allen wrench, also called an Allen key or hex-head, is a tool that turns screws or bolts with a six-sided socket. (The tool, I recently learned, is not named after Tim Allen, star of TV's Home Improvement. Instead it was originally a trademark of the Allen Manufacturing Co. in Hartford, Conn., in 1943.)

Possessing an Allen wrench is a sign that you are serious about working with your hands. My first Allen wrench, an L-shaped beauty, was bestowed upon me at the age of 12. I was a crossing guard and used the Allen wrench to activate temporary stop signs set up at a busy intersection near our school. With a few turns of the Allen wrench and a flip of the "stop" part of the sign, I could stop traffic. It was an awesome responsibility, a memorable start on my Allen wrench career.

When it came time in my life to "settle down" - that is, to get married, buy a house, raise kids and go into debt - I went to Sears and invested in a set of Allen wrenches. The collection ran from skinny ones to porkers and they all fit in a big plastic pouch with a snap lid. A stash of Allen wrenches, like a dark blue suit, was something a man in my circumstances had to own.

The other day, when faced with the dripping faucet, I unsnapped the lid on the plastic pouch and dumped my many wrenches on the vanity countertop. I tried them, one by one, on the setscrew that held on the faucet cover. I kept getting rejected. Some were too small, some too large. Like a kid from the wrong side of the tracks, it was a bad fit.

Finally, reluctantly, I grabbed the two wrenches that almost fit - one too fat, one too skinny - and carried them with me to the neighborhood hardware store. There I was told, in a hardware-store sort of way, that my Allen wrenches were NOCD - not our class, dear. My wrenches were metric, the setscrew in the faucet was non-metric. Never the twain would meet.

Once I switched to the appropriate, non-metric wrench, I was in like lightning. The chrome cover lifted off to reveal a gorgeous, form-fitting cartridge-style stem. When I eased the stem out of its housing, I spotted the likely source of the drip: a worn-out rubber seal and metal spring. They were tucked in the base of the assembly, the ingenious plumbing equivalent of Saddam's spider hole.

I picked up the new Allen wrench and gingerly used the tip of the wrench to remove the old spring and seal from the hole. I also used the wrench tip to position the new spring and seal in place. I could have used the tip of a pencil to do this job, but I was bonding with my new tool. However, in case I dropped the tiny spring or rubber valve, I closed the stopper of the sink's drain. Once a plumbing part rolls down the drain, it is gone for eternity.

Putting the faucet back together was pretty easy - and quite satisfying. There is something about snapping a snug-fitting faucet stem into place that does a body good. A test run showed that the drip had stopped. I put my many metric wrenches back in their plastic pouch and carried them back to my workbench.

I taped the new wrench, the non-metric one, to the side of a drawer in a bathroom cabinet. Someday the faucet will leak again. When that day comes, I will have the appropriate wrench, one that fits in, at the ready.

Having plugged up a dripping faucet, I now had time to think deep thoughts about other things, like death and taxes.

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