Plumbing wall

Plumbing wall

After the demo party my mind was set on clearing out the rest of the lath. The dumpster was completely full, but we ordered a new one that was being delivered on Thursday. Wednesday evening I went down to start pulling up the subfloor in the kitchen and the floor in the foyer and I noticed a drip coming from the plumbing wall. It wasn’t too serious, so I propped a bucket under the pipe, supported by a board, and went about my work.

Wednesday night as we were falling asleep, we heard a crash from the first floor. The bucket had filled enough that it slipped and fell to the floor. Thursday the new dumpster arrived, but rather than getting to work filling it I  had to deal with the leak. It had gotten significantly worse and was splattering water all over. The leak was coming from somewhere up in the wall, in the second floor. I climbed up a ladder and shined a flashlight on the culprit: a pinhole leak.

Leaky pipe

Leaky pipe

The rusty spot was spraying water with aploumb, serious enough that it needed to be dealt with immediately. I turned off the water and determined that the pipe goes to no where. In the picture above you can see the yellowish pipe goes up and elbows into a tee. That is the supply pipe, coming from the basement. The top of the tee leads to all of the second floor fixtures. The bottom pipe, the one with the leak, goes down about eight feet and is capped. I believe it was the original supply pipe but it’s hard to say. The plumbing is old galvanized steel and has clearly seen some modifications over the years. For example, in the first floor wall there was a capped line going to about head height in the bathroom (and not to a shower head): it used to service a toilet with an elevated tank.

Because the pipe wasn’t connected to anything I decided it would be easiest to simply remove it and cap it, rather than try to patch the leak. In hindsight, I absolutely should have patched the leak. The same corrosion that had weakened the pipe to the point that water could simply push through the metal had made the threaded joint so impossibly strong that it would not come loose despite hours of prying on it with a pipe wrench. Part of the problem is that the tee that it connected to is up in the wall and I couldn’t get a second wrench on it.

I worked on it all evening, and once Derek was in bed Sarah came down and the two of us worked on it until about midnight when we finally gave up. With the water still shut off and the pipe partially disassembled, I took off work on Friday. Friday morning I was back at it. Since the water was already shut off I removed all of the first floor supply plumbing, something I’d been meaning to do for a while anyway. I took the bus over to Home Depot, since Sarah had the car, and picked up some supplies.

After liberally applying PB Blaster, heating the fitting with a propane torch, and using an 18″ pipe wrench with a four foot pipe as a breaker bar, the pipe still would not give. Finally, cursing pipe wrenches that slip and galvanized pipe that sucks beyond reason as a water pipe, I gave one more frustrated push and it gave way, or at least so I thought. I unscrewed the pipe and pulled it down from the ceiling only to discover that the pipe had not, in fact, come out of the tee, the tee itself had sheered off the elbow and come out with the pipe.

The accursed pipe, pinhole leak and still-attached sheered off elbow visible

The accursed pipe, pinhole leak and still-attached sheered off elbow visible

Now instead of simply capping the pipe I was going to have to put two ends of threaded pipe together. That meant I needed a union, which meant I needed to go back to the hardware store. Just then it started raining outside. Looking at the dangling supply pipe I realized that it wasn’t the cold water pipe I was dealing with but the hot, which meant I could turn off the valve at the hot water heater and turn the water back on, allowing the use of the toilet and sinks. In fact, I could have done that Thursday night and not been without water for twelve hours.

I trudged over to the hardware store, bought the union along with a 3/4″ to 1/2″ reducer and came back. In one more oddity of the plumbing of the house, the pipe from the hot water heater is 1/2″, but the tee it connected to was 3/4″. That meant my reducer was actually going to be an expander, something you really shouldn’t do with plumbing.

Replacement pipe

Assembled replacement pipe

I removed the upper segment of the hot water pipe and took off the broken elbow. Then I put together a new section using the expander and a section of salvaged pipe, along with a coupling. I put this on the end of the hot water pipe segment and reconnected it to the fitting up in the wall with a lot of teflon tape. Finally I put the union onto either end of the pipe and connected it together. It was finished, or so I thought.

I turned the hot water back on and immediately a drip started. After shutting it off I inspected and found that the drip was not from any of the fittings I had put together; it was from the tee I had connected to up in the wall. There was a leak on the side where a pipe connected it, probably torqued by the earlier wrenching much as the tee that had sheered off had been. Removing this section was not an option. There was no way to get to it without completely opening up the wall behind the kitchen sink on the second floor. Because the leak was small I found some plumbers epoxy and wrapped the whole fitting in it and waited twenty minutes for it to cure. When I turned on the water again there were no leaks.

Repaired and patched pipe

Repaired and patched pipe

You can see the fitting globbed with putty. I actually added some more after taking this picture. I want to point out that taking these photographs up in the wall using the flash and getting the focus right while I was on top of a ladder is incredibly challenging. I hope you appreciate the effort. In hindsight I should have patched the pinhole leak with the putty and been done with it, but I had forgotten that I had it (I bought it for the condo) and after discovering that the leaky pipe didn’t go anywhere I really thought it would be simplest to just remove it (obviously not).

After all of this, the inevitable crud that was broken loose inside the pipes spit brown chunks from the fixtures for a couple of minutes. Even after cleaning out the aerator on the kitchen sink faucet its pressure was abysmal, while the other fixtures worked fine. Because it was slow on cold and hot water I knew it was the mixing valve. Saturday I took the faucet apart and cleaned out the cartridge and got it back up to its normal mediocre performance. I look forward to replacing all of this garbage with copper. Unfortunately for the time being we’re stuck with it.

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