Leaky faucet fixes require series of careful steps

  • By Morris And James Carey For The Associated Press
  • Wednesday, October 3, 2007 4:30pm
  • Life

It’s torture. At 3 a.m., you hear a dripping faucet. What do you do? Bury your head under the pillow — or get up and drag out your tools?

Neither! That drip, drip, drip echoing from your bathroom sink doesn’t have to go on. Use some string or twine to solve the problem. In most cases, you’ll need about a foot.

Tie the string around the spout and allow the extra to hang just below the drip. The water will trickle silently down the string and into the drain until a permanent repair can be made.

Once you get the time, you will need to make a permanent repair. A dripping faucet can waste thousands of gallons of water every year, a costly proposition and a major waste of resources.

Here are some guidelines:

Terms to know

Valve stem: The valve stem is connected to the faucet handle. It is threaded, and as you turn the faucet handle, the valve stem moves up and down inside the valve body.

The rubber washer connected to the bottom of the valve stem is moved away from or up against a water port inside the valve body. When the valve stem is up against the water port, the water is off. As the valve stem rotates, varying degrees of water are allowed to travel through the valve body and out through the spout.

The valve stem controls the flow of water — or the lack thereof.

Valve gasket (or washer): The rubber washer that attaches to the bottom of the valve stem. It forms a watertight seal that prevents water from leaking through the spout when the water is turned off. It often is just a little rubber ring.

Valve gasket and valve washer are two terms used to describe the same thing.

Taking apart the sink

Now, here are some basics:

Make sure the water is off before attempting a repair.

In any leak repair, you’ll have to remove the faucet handle.

Normally, the screw that holds the handle in place can be found either at the top of the handle or immediately below a cover that caps the top of the handle.

Caps usually indicate hot or cold, and can be pried loose with a knife blade or a small screwdriver. This should be done carefully, as handle covers are usually made of soft metal or plastic and can be damaged.

After the handle is removed, the valve and valve stem are exposed.

Now you can work on the specific leak.

Handle leaks

If you have a leak at a handle, it is more than likely a problem with the packing wrapped around the top of the valve stem just below the handle. Packing is a Teflon- or graphite-filled string wrapped around the valve stem to prevent leaks. You can buy it at any hardware store; it does not come in different gauges.

After removing the handle and valve cover, remove the packing nut that holds the valve to the body to expose the packing, and then remove the packing itself.

Wrap fresh packing counter-clockwise two or three times around the valve stem and put it all back together in reverse order.

Caution: Do not over-tighten the nut at the top of the valve stem. Doing so can damage the packing and make turning the handle difficult. The nut should be just tight enough to prevent a water leak. At first, a slightly loose adjustment is in order; then tighten as needed. It’s tight enough when it doesn’t leak.

Spout leaks

If you’ve got a dripping spout, you will need a new valve gasket.

Use the steps above to remove the handle and packing nut.

Remove the valve stem by lifting (or screwing) it out of the valve body: The valve stem is connected to the valve body with a threaded nut or cap screw. (Sometimes a larger nut exists that surrounds the valve at sink level. Do not loosen this nut. It holds the valve in place and has nothing to do with stopping a leak).

Hold the valve body with a pipe wrench or vise grip, and with a second wrench turn the nut at the top of the valve counter-clockwise. This will remove the valve stem from the valve and expose the valve stem.

The valve stem gasket (or washer) is at the bottom of the valve stem, usually held in place with a single screw.

Before removing the gaskets from the valve stem, take the whole thing to the store for a matchup, or have a box of assorted gasket sizes on hand. (Make sure there are two of each size in the box if you intend to work on both valves).

Even though you are installing new gaskets, it is wise to lubricate them before reinstalling the valve stem. The lubricant will help to keep them soft and reduce the chance for damage during reinstallation. A special rubber lubricant must be used.

Remove the old gaskets from the valve stem (just remove the screw as noted above): With the bottom gasket off, slide the top gasket down the shaft or cut it away with a knife. If you elect to use a knife, be cautious. With the gaskets removed, clean the valve stem with scouring powder and pad to eliminate mineral salt buildup and corrosion.

Slide the top gasket into place, screw in the bottom gasket, apply the lubricant and reverse the removal process to return the faucet to normal operation.

Be sure to check for leaks at the top of the valve stem before reinstalling the handles.

Note: Whether the leak is from the handle or the spout, we suggest that you replace both gaskets. It is also wise to replace both gaskets in both valves (hot and cold) even if only one is leaking.

For further reading, Sunset’s Home Improvement Library has a great book on plumbing, obtainable at:


For tips from James and Morris Carey, visit their Web site at www.onthehouse.com or call 800-737-2474 between 6 and 10 a.m. Saturdays. The Careys are also on KRKO (1380-AM) from 6 to 10 a.m. every Saturday.

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