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Fixing a $4/day leak at the frost proof sillcock: Or, how I met Mr. Sharkbite push-to-connect endcap

 
garden master
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Our brick house, built approximately fifty years ago, has original-equipment frost proof sillcocks.  That's the fancy name for the exterior garden hose faucet that cannot freeze, because the actual valve and all the water is inside the wall in heated space.  They work like this:



Starting about a year ago, ours began to dribble water.  Out the spigot or attached garden hose, by preference; but if you closed that exit with a closed valve or a cap, it would spurt out around the stem of the valve knob/handle.  So this suggested a dual failure: first of the seal where the bibb washer meats the faucet seat, allowing water to pass when the valve is closed, and second, of the stem packing under the packing nut.

The leak slowly grew worse.  We could see it in our water bill, since our water is metered.  It kept growing.  

Now, normally, the fix would be to unship the packing nut, pull out the whole outer stem assembly and stem, replace the bibb washer, replace the packing material under the packing nut, and put the whole thing back together.  They sell kits for this.  

One small problem.  It's not clear that our frost proof sillcock has a removable packing nut.  There's a hex surface cast into the brass in about the right spot, but if that represents a nut, the nut doesn't turn.  My brother in law and I got big pipe wrenches, and applied as much force as we dared.  No disassembly eventuated.  

Another small problem: the sillcock connects to interior plumbing inside a studded wall, behind drywall.  No easy access.

So we responded to this problem by, essentially, ignoring it.  We've had bad luck with professional plumbers; in our area, they just won't come out for small jobs.  And if you do get one, they'll turn the smallest job into a thousand-dollar nightmare.

And then my wife had some surgeries and things got hectic and this just wasn't a priority.  The water bill kept creeping up, but we couldn't spare the mental bandwidth to figure out how to attack a problem that didn't seem to have an attack surface.

Well, matters came to a head today.  The latest water bill was about $120 more than it should be (normal is about $40).  My wife is better now.  A month ago we had an urgent conversation when we got the last bill, but she was in pain and the weather was terrible, and, and, and, nothing got done.  Now she's feeling good and it's sunny out and this four dollar a day water leak has got to stop!  

No argument from me.  The very definition of unsustainable.  

So we determined that, since tearing apart the sillcock to repair it had already defeated us, the next step was replacement.  For that, we needed to know how it connected to the house plumbing.  Nothing to be done but cut a hole in the drywall and look!  So we did.

Even today, most of these sillcocks (if they aren't designed to connect directly to modern plastic plumbing) come with a sweat fitting (for soldering them directly to the old-style copper pipes) and an extra sweat-to-threaded-iron fitting for connecting them to iron pipe plumbing systems (not usually found in houses, I don't think, but pretty common in outbuildings and industrial settings back in the day.)


What we were not expecting to find is that the back end of our sillcock was sweated (soldered) into its sweat fitting-to-iron conversion fitting, which somebody had then brazed or welded to a brass elbow that also had iron-pipe threads on it.  The threads were not involved; the two pieces were just jammed together and brazed.  The brass elbow terminated at its other end in another sweat fitting, soldered directly to the house copper.

Conclusion: there is no way to replace the sillcock without also replacing a chunk of the house plumbing, consisting of that brazed abortion of elbow fittings.  

Complication: I'm not skilled with a blowtorch, and waving one around inside a sheetrocked wall trying to unsweat old copper sweat fittings cleanly is not my idea of fun.  More to the point, my wife won't have it.

Further complication: because of the elbow, there's no way to remove the old sillcock and replace it, short of cutting through the body of the sillcock itself.  That's going to take a saw that can cut metal, and some care about sparks.  A problem for another day.

Somewhere in here we made the executive decision that if we could simply cut free the 1/2" house copper and cap it off, we were willing to give up the use of that sillcock (not vital to our yard projects) in trade for losing the $4-a-day leak right now goddammit!

Hello, Google: Is there some way to cap copper plumbing without soldering it?

It turns out there is -- an expensive push-to-connect system called Sharkbite.  I needed me a 1/2 Sharkbite cap, and I could still get to Lowes before it closed if I hustled!  So, I hustled.



You might well wonder if the fancy stainless steel teeth and the "chloramine resistant EPDM rubber o-ring" inside the SharkBite product are genuinely trustworthy, the sort of thing you want to trust under house pressure for the next however-many-decades until it blows apart.  We certainly do wonder.  But it seems a less-bad alternative than setting the house on fire with a torch.  Here's a YouTube video, of a skeptical plumber wondering the same thing, and basically concluding that we dunno, since the product has only been on the market about fifteen years:



But we watched the video, and the lady of the house, who actually owns the place, made the call that she liked her chances with the SharkBite better than going with the aforementioned "amateur blowtorch self-education hour" approach.  

By the time I got back from Lowes with the SharkBite, it was full dark outside.  Guess whose household water valve is in a housing that's half full of water due to recent rains?  I really enjoy reaching into a cave in the ground half full of muddy water and groping around in the light of a flashlight for the watervalve.  If there was ever a place to find a surly snake...

But I did not die.  Got the water turned off.  Got the half inch copper tubing leading to the defunct sillcock cut cleanly.  I even sanded the outside of the tubing with sandpaper -- just to make sure the SharkBite gasket would have a nice clean surface to mate with.  And then I just ... pressed it on.  It settled into place with a pleasing tactile snap, too.

It was so easy, it was anticlimactic.  Back outside, hand back in the snake water cave hole, house water turned back on.  Did not die again.  Made my wife monitor the SharkBite for the least sign of weeping or leakage or seeps, but she reported it was holding, dryer (my phrase not hers) than a popcorn fart.  

So we are down a sillcock, and have stanched an annoying financial bleed that was pointless and unsustainable.  

Now I need to figure out what is the best method of cutting all the brazed-on cruft off the back of the old sillcock so I can extract it out through the hole in the brick.  New replacements come with a wide variety of interior fittings; I'll have to connect to the house plumbing with SharkBite fittings again, but it all should be doable.  But that's a problem for another day, and probably not my highest priority home improvement project, if we're being honest.

Writing this up for Permies for two reasons:

1) because plumbing leaks, even ones that are deeply embedded in the infrastructure and hard to reach, are fundamentally unsustainable.  And because:

2) I haven't messed with real copper plumbing in decades.  (Just modern plastic systems.)  I felt like there had to be some sort of kludgy system available for capping a copper line without soldering a proper cap on, but I was pleasantly surprised at how functional and easy to use the press-on connectors I found were.  

 
pollinator
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I learned about SharkBites quite a few years ago, and now have two houses with them for plumbing connections. I really like them because they can be taken apart and reused, something I do a lot. They are expensive, but worth it. When I plumb now, it takes me more time to drill holes to route the PEX pipe then it does to make the connections.

Tip: When taking apart a SharkBite, buy two C-clips made for the task. By using two, you can rotate them so there is better grip and they will pop right off.
 
steward
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Can you pull the sillcock out of the wall (through the brick) a few inches?  If so, cut it off outside with a sawzall and pull the rest back through the wall inside.

How much was that faucet leaking?  If your normal bill was $40 and this leak quadrupled it, it must have been a hell of a leak.  More like a stream?
 
pioneer
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I'm pretty good at sweating pipe, even in rather tough spots,  and I love shark bite connectors. They are worth it for the time savings alone.   There is also a "plastic" version that is somewhat cheaper and I have had just as good luck with. The brand escapes me right now, but All American Do It Center sells them. They work the same way and are excellent for connecting two dissimilar materials together as well.
 
Dan Boone
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Mike Jay wrote:Can you pull the sillcock out of the wall (through the brick) a few inches?  If so, cut it off outside with a sawzall and pull the rest back through the wall inside.



OMG, now I feel stupid.  Thank you!  This should have been so obvious, I was focused on doing a tricky cut inside the wall, where my Sawzall will not fit easily.  I was thinking about some sort of angle grinder or circular saw with a carbide blade.  But, yeah -- the sillcock is loose in its hole now that it's disconnected from house plumbing; the only thing keeping it from being withdrawn through the brick siding and the hole in a wall plate (stud) that it passes through is the elbow brazed to the end of its fittings.  I will have plenty of room to do the cut outside, durr....


Mike Jay wrote:How much was that faucet leaking?  If your normal bill was $40 and this leak quadrupled it, it must have been a hell of a leak.  More like a stream?



Maybe we could call it a "vigorous trickle" by the time the pain of it really got our attention?  Thing is, it was slowly increasing.  And at some point when we were overwhelmed by surgical recovery stuff, my back yard was turning into a swamp so I ran a garden hose out into the field and turned the water loose one some planting areas out there that are typically drought-bound.  It didn't really show this year because we had a wet spring, but out of sight, out of mind...

I knew it was bad, but I also knew that digging into it was going to be a huge pain in the ass. For quite some time there we didn't have the time, physical energy, or mental bandwidth to deal with it.

For comparison purposes, it takes about a day and a half or a bit more to fill an 8,000 above-ground swimming pool, which typically puts a $35-$40 bump on our bill.  Likewise my rule of thumb when a garden hose explodes or is left on by mistake is that it costs about $20 a day to let a hose run unconstrained.  So this leak was about three swimming pools' worth, or about six or seven days worth of hose running, spread out over a month.  Logic tells me the "trickle" must have been like leaving the hose running about a quarter turned on.  If you asked me for sworn testimony in court, I would have said it was less of a flow than that, but not a whole lot less if that makes sense; and I'd start getting nervous about my oath if you wanted me to testify that it was no more than half that much.  These are all rough estimates and rules of thumb.  Our water department is very rural, very casual, and given to weird billing anomalies at times; so it's very possible that there's something wrong with our most recent bills (like, they did a belated meter check and are hastily averaging/extrapolating to get even again.)  But I didn't really feel like I'd get far complaining at the water department about the anomalous water bills while I had a large water leak that was, you know, somewhere within 50% of what they were billing me.  It's impossible to be credible in that situation.
 
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After being suspicious of SharkBites for years, I used one to hook up the water line for a new. Refrigerator - I was blown away by how easy it was!
I agree- anything that needs to be done in situ totally warrants using one instead of trying to solder over your head between joists or inside drywall.
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