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Get Yourself out of Prickly Plumbing Predicaments

Even pro plumbers run into unforeseen problems on the job. Veteran plumber Les Zell shares the cool tools and tips he uses to get out of those inevitable jams.

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Push fitting

Super-Fast Water Heater Connection

Most folks “can’t live” without hot water, and when a water heater conks out, getting the new one installed is a high priority. There’s no faster or easier way to install water heater supply lines than by using specially designed braided stainless steel water lines with a push-fitting shutoff valve on one end. All you need to do is apply a little pipe dope or plumbing tape to the water heater nipples, fasten the female ends to the water heater, and then just push the push fitting onto the water supply lines. But this convenience doesn’t come without a price. The 3/4-in. x 18-in. fittings shown here are available online or at home centers.

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Sweat-Free Shutoff Fitting for Easier Soldering

You know that it’s nearly impossible to sweat (solder) joints when there’s the least bit of water inside the lines. So don’t sweat it (ahh, plumbing humor). Install a compression fitting or a push fitting instead. Neither requires any heat, solder or flux. Compression fittings just tighten with a wrench; push fittings simply slide on and seal themselves. Neither is affected by a little water. When you’re installing compression fittings, lubricate the ferrule with a bit of pipe dope so it slides in and seats straight into the nut. Mechanical (shutoff) fittings like this need to be accessible, so don’t bury them behind drywall.

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Use a Cartridge Puller for Stuck Cartridges

Some shower cartridges pull right out, but some need a little convincing with a cartridge puller, and there are others that need a puller and some heat to persuade them to break free. Heat expands the valve body, decreasing the pressure on the cartridge. Heat also softens the rubber seals. Hook up the cartridge puller and put the flame on the valve body of the cartridge. Add pressure to the puller as you apply the heat. Set a heat shield on the back of the cartridge so you don’t burn down the house. And have a fire extinguisher at hand just in case.

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Flange Support Bracket for Rotted Floors

If the floor is too spongy to screw down a toilet flange, attach a flange support bracket to the floor and then secure the toilet flange to that. This fix will work only if the majority of the floor under the toilet is solid. Probe the floor by poking it with a screwdriver. If more than an inch or so around the flange is rotten, you’ll need to repair the floor itself.

The bracket shown here is part of the QUIK-FIX Wobbly Toilet Repair Kit. You can find the kit at some home centers, plumbing suppliers or online. It will also work over holes in the floor that have been cut a bit too large.

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Ream Out Broken Hubs

You can reuse an existing hub by reaming out the old pipe that’s glued inside it. This PVC fitting saver will do the trick. It has a guide that rides inside the pipe you’re removing so the hub won’t get wrecked. Since replacing a hub can mean having to open up a finished wall—or worse, busting up concrete—this inexpensive tool can save you a lot of time and money. The Socket Saver by Jones Stephens is available online.

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Cut and Pry Broken Threads

Pipes sometimes break off when you’re trying to separate them, leaving the threads stuck inside the other pipe. When removing threads from steel pipes, carefully make two cuts with a hacksaw and then pry the piece loose with a screwdriver. The top side of the pipe is subjected to much less water and is less likely to leak, so always make cuts on the top side of the pipe in case the steel threads get nicked a little. And make sure to use pipe dope or tape on the new pipe.

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Remove Broken Threads with an Internal Pipe Wrench

You can use an internal pipe wrench to remove small supply–line pipe threads. A knurled cam slides out when the wrench is twisted, grabbing hold of the old threads from the inside. The one shown here is available at home centers. Another trick that sometimes works is to grab hold of the end of the thread with needle nose pliers. Twist pliers clockwise and the thread will wind out like a spring.

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Join Incompatible Pipes with a Shielded Coupling

If you need to tie into a white PVC pipe but the closest plumbing supplier carries only black ABS, you don’t have to run all over town. Install a shielded rubber coupling between the two pipes. Shielded couplings are often referred to as “mission couplings,” and they work great to connect other dissimilar pipes: galvanized steel to plastic, cast iron to plastic, ABS to PVC. Make sure you use a “fully banded” coupling because the couplings with just the two individual hose clamps may not be allowed in some situations.

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Smooth Bolts with a Rotary Tool

Sometimes a toilet can be reset using the existing flange bolts, but often the ends of the soft brass bolts are damaged, making it difficult to get the nut started. Clean up the ends of the bolts with a rotary tool fitted with a grinding wheel. You can use the same tool to cut off new flange bolts to the proper height if they’re too long. Clean up the ends of the bolts to ease future repairs.

(Note: When using a rotary grinder near or around a toilet, cover all finished areas with a wet towel to prevent any accidental burn marks.)

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Drop in a Replacement Closet Flange

If the old toilet flange is broken beyond all hope of repair, drop in a replacement flange. Our expert prefers replacement flanges with a rubber compression gasket that expands. There are several styles, but the gasket on this one expands as you twist it into place. It’s available for both 3-in. and 4-in. waste pipes at home centers and plumbing supply stores.

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Use Double Wax Rings

The new bathroom floor looks great, but now the closet/toilet flange is 3/8 in. lower than the floor. Avoid leaks by installing two wax rings when you reset the toilet. Flange extenders are available, but some models are hard to seal properly. Our expert sets the wax rings on the floor instead of on the toilet. He installs a standard ring first, then sets a wax ring with a plastic gasket on top of that. If the new floor will be more than 1/2 in. higher than the flange, you’ll need to remove the old flange, install the floor, then fasten the new flange on top of the flooring.