Sam’s Summer Soldering Struggles

I think I have to fully accept that in some ways, my life and my projects are a sitcom and there’s a hidden camera somewhere watching me. The laugh track must run on near loop when I grab a torch. Sit  back, relax, grab some popcorn, and prepare for my home improvement woes.


The Broken Fitting

There was a leak in the wall behind our bath tub. In the past, we had the shower faucets corrode and fail. It’s part of life that equipment breaks down after a good few years and exposure to our cement-like hard water. We replaced that and all was well for a good few years. Then, it wasn’t.

A small leak developed, we could see water trickling down the cold water pipe. We couldn’t fix it right then and there. The bathroom water supply happened to be the first stop for water from the heater, and also the last place for cold water to go into the heater. If we were to take the bathroom apart, the house heating and water would have to be shut off. It was the dead of winter. We didn’t want to risk any mishaps and accidentally freezing pipes over.

We left a bucket there, occasionally having to empty it, but it was truly a slow leak. If you sat there for five, ten minutes you’d see a drop come down. Over the course of days and weeks, that’s not harmless but it was the lesser evil for a time. We wanted to do the repair ourselves and that wouldn’t be feasible until Spring.

By the time we got to fixing it, mother nature had made the tiny trickle into a flood. The bucket needing weekly or less frequent attention now demanded it daily. Poseidon had run out of patience.


Soldering Vs. Crimping

My go-to repair is to always solder in new fittings. Every time. My past experience with press-on fittings hadn’t gone well. The fitting that leaks in the shower was a press-on fitting. My kitchen nightmare involved a stubborn press-on fitting. When you’re fixing copper, nothing is as fool-proof as soldering. Hot metal flows into the joints and seals it tight, which little risk of leaking or failure over time.

The new-age alternative is a special crimped fitting. You slide plastic or sometimes metal together, put a tool over it, and apply enough force to break the Hulk’s finger in two. Between the extreme force and some O-rings, it should all hold together and keep the water at bay. Bonus points: plastic tubing is a LOT cheaper than copper. Copper is in everything, in high-demand, and therefore very high priced for any useful quantities.

The soldered-repair involved $200 in raw material. I wanted to replace the cold-water supply line entirely to ensure no future failures. It took no time at all to put together a T, some couplers, a bit of soft copper tubing to bend up into the bathroom (a very gentle S is needed), and then modify a new shower faucet with some union nuts so I could replace that in the future without having to break out the torch.


The Laws of Physics Strike Back

Everything started out so well. My fittings came together and we were only a little behind schedule. I figured maybe four hours and done, but raiding the local supply house for fittings had slowed me down. Six hours in, but we’ve just about got it all put together. I needed to just solder a threaded fitting on the top of the hot water supply line.

I held the torch down, lit it, and things went well til’ the flame turned orange, started to get huge, and went out entirely. The torch wouldn’t relight while I held it down. Hold it up into the air, it lights up. Go near the pipe, it goes out.


Not a lot of airflow.

A flame requires oxygen and airflow to remove the byproducts of burning, like CO2. I was soldering behind the bathtub, in a wall space which was sealed on nearly all sides except for directly in front of me and a small crack in the basement for the pipes to slip through. The flame would burn only so long as there was air and so long as it wouldn’t be smothered by the other gasses present.

There wasn’t enough air flow to the tight space and it self-extinguished. There was no way to keep a flame going long enough to heat the pipe until it would melt solder. Copper is already an amazing thermal conductor and every second without heat, it’s going to cool exponentially.

Plan B, use a heat gun. That would get to 1300 degrees, solder should melt at a few hundred degrees. The heat flow wasn’t enough to heat the pipe, not quickly anyway. It would take forever. An amount of patience I didn’t have.

Plan C, use a press fitting. We stick it all together, turn the cold water on… and it leaks by the T in the basement. Just one leak, but it was a geyser. The water in the line boils as we try to solder it, and then cools the pipe. Try to boil off the water, but there’s too much. And there’s no good place to drain it down either. This fitting is the bottom of the loop.


Plan D

It’s 6 PM and we try some desperate last minute fixes, cheap patching products that are supposed to seal such pinhole leaks. And that fails pretty miserably. There is only one solution: compression fittings.

The next day, we tear it all out. Hot side and cold side. We slip in some new fittings that will adapt from our current copper-colored hades to red and blue plastics. Unlike copper, crimping tools do not care what temperature the environment is. The pipe just has to be round still, relatively clean, and dry on the outside.

Pessimistic as I am with these crimp fittings, I took cover behind the  shower panel and watched as we turned on the water.  I heard it roar through the system and… did not get my seventh shower since the nightmare began. It was all dry.


The Lesson

Don’t rule out any technology until you’ve tried it. Something new might actually work. And if you have to solder behind the bathtub, or in a similarly tight space, just remove the entire tub. It’ll save you a lot of pain.

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