faucetleakI have been struggling with a leaky faucet problem for maybe the last two or three months. This is an outdoor hose bib faucet, the kind with a long internal stem. These help prevent problems with freezing weather and broken pipes; as the stem closes off the water supply deep inside the house’s walls where it’s warmer, and the rest of the water drains out of the faucet when you shut it off.

The faucet was leaking where the arrow is pointing in the picture: right out of the tip of the stem, by the handle. This is a key piece of information, but I didn’t realize it at the time. I was annoyed with this whole situation, because the plumbing in this house is nearly brand new, only two years old! I didn’t expect to have plumbing repairs so soon!

I first tried tightening the two connections: the packing nut, and where the stem piece threads into the faucet unit. This didn’t  help. Next, I went to the store looking for replacement packing for the packing nut. But, I didn’t realize how many different designs there were, so I ended up coming home with the wrong size. I took the nut back to the store, and got a different packing. When I tried that at home, I realized that the packing nut’s threads were stripped. Back to the store, but they didn’t have that sized packing nut!

So, I tried a different local  hardware store. The “plumbing expert” there listened to my description of the problem, took a look at my stem, and at the packing nut, and concluded that my situation was hopeless. I bought a packing nut anyway, since they had one that fit. At home, I cleaned the threads out carefully, and got it to go back together nice and snug. But, the leak was still there.

Next I took it to Home Depot. I actually found a real expert there (this is rare for me), a by-trade plumber. I described my problem to him, too. He shook his head. He did mention a tidbit that would come in handy later, he said, “that there is an Arrowhead brand stem.” But, he also told me that they change the designs on these so frequently, that it’s usually impossible to get replacement parts. He asserted that I’d need to buy an entire new faucet assembly. And cautioned to replace it on a weekday, as people often break their copper pipe when trying to replace these, and then I’d want to call a plumber for backup.

Grumble. By this time, I had probably shut off the water to the house, and taken this thing apart, about a dozen times. I took it back home, put it together again, and sat there and watched the water drip… Then, I started to wonder: why is it coming out of the tip of the stem? And only when the water is turned on. How can that be? Though the stem is hollow (the handle screw threads into the hollow tip), it’s supposed to be sealed. The plug end of the stem is obviously working fine, because when the valve is shut off, no water is getting by.

faucetI took it apart again. I’m visualizing pressurized water flowing all around this stem on the way out of the faucet. And sure enough, tipping it on one end made water drain out of the inside of the stem. And, then, I see it. A tiny flaw in the solder joint on the stem. Very tiny. But, enough for pressurized water to want to get in there and leak out the other end. It must have taken two years for the water to slowly erode that flaw big enough to create a leak. I tried to solder it closed, but I’m no good at soldering, and I think fixing a tiny hole like that can be difficult, as there is not enough surface for the flux to bind to. It didn’t work. But now at least I knew what the real problem was: something that all three hardware store plumbing experts missed, despite my clearly explaining to all of them that the water was coming out of the tip!

I almost believed the Home Depot guy’s advice that I wouldn’t be able to find a replacement stem. But, I decided to give the Web a chance. And lucky for me that  Home Depot guy knew the brand name: thank you Home Depot guy! Lo and behold, McClendons Hardware had the fix, for $12: they carry a whole line of these Arrowhead stems! Wow! I was a little confused about the sizing, when I measured my stem, I concluded that it was a 6″ one. But, when the 6″ replacement arrived by mail, it was too long, so I had to return it. What I actually have, apparently, is a 4″ stem (I’m not sure how they measure these to get those numbers, but ok, whatever). So, last week, I finally got the right sized stem, and replaced it yesterday. And choirs of angels sang: no leak. Thank goodness!