Frostproof Faucet: Attempted Repair Part 1

Our house has three frostproof hose faucets, with the closest one to the garden being inside the garage. Unlike ordinary garden faucets (a.k.a., hose bibs), these have the valve seat at the end of a foot-long tube that projects inside the foundation wall where it (usually) can’t freeze. The valve has required increasing amounts of force to turn off (meaning the ancient washer inside has solidified) and the packing around the stem has begun leaking copiously with the faucet turned on (despite tightening the cap).

I’ve been putting this repair off ever since we bought the house, because I knew how it would end, but with no rain for nearly a month before planting season the garden needed water. So, we begin…

The first complication is that, while there’s a shutoff valve for the faucet, I’m reluctant to turn its corroded-in-place stem for fear of starting up an indoor leak:

Corroded gate valve
Corroded gate valve

The small stem to the left of the valve body is a drain cap, which means that one can, in theory, turn off the valve and remove the cap to drain water from the line to the left. That line leads downhill to the faucet, which will turn out to be critically important later in this story. FWIW, I think it’s a gate valve, given the length of the casting around the stem, but for obvious reasons I haven’t opened it up to find out. If it’s a washer-based valve, it hasn’t been closed in decades and I expect the washer & seat to be in poor condition.

The house has an unusual plumbing arrangement: a direct line from the water inlet to the outdoor faucets, toilet flush valves, and a separate faucet at the kitchen sink. This originally fed well water directly to those points, meaning that the largest water consumers didn’t go through the water softener and they weren’t watering the lawn with soft water. I took pains to preserve that arrangement while replacing the softener and having the town water supply plumbed into the house.

In any event, I shut off the water upstream of the shutoff valve (hence, no toilet flushing for the duration) and proceeded.

The valve handle came off easily, as did the cap, revealing the crumbling stem packing inside:

Frostproof faucet - stem packing material
Frostproof faucet - stem packing material

Nota bene: the builder firmly cemented the faucet into the foundation wall. The same cement was applied on the inside wall, so removing the faucet requires chiseling out what might be the entire depth of the faucet through the foundation blocks. That’s one of the many reasons I didn’t want to do this project: the possible failure modes looked grim.

With that out of the way, the stem support came loose easily; old-school heavy brass construction works great:

Frostproof faucet - stem support
Frostproof faucet - stem support

Unfortunately, unscrewing the stem eventually reached the point where it spun freely, but refused to pull out. That means the washer a foot inside the valve has swollen beyond the minor diameter of the threads near the seal and that means I must destroy the washer to extract it. The usual advice recommends pulling on the stem with pliers, but … suffice it to say that was not sufficient in this situation, not to mention that I didn’t want to goober up the stem.

Here’s the nose of my homebrew slide hammer, with a 10-24 steel screw in the valve stem and a pair of nuts jamming everything in place:

Frostproof faucet - valve handle with slide hammer nose
Frostproof faucet - valve handle with slide hammer nose

I hoped that the valve handle would prevent the screw from distorting the stem if this operation required force majeure and that part worked out perfectly: a few whacks pulled the stem out and left the washer behind. Some tedious fishing, using various all-thread rods to grab the washer and then fragments of the washer and then fragments of the fragments, eventually produced this tableau:

Frostproof faucet - stem with slide hammer
Frostproof faucet - stem with slide hammer

A closeup of the seal end, with the larger fragments of the old washer and a replacement beveled washer of about the right size:

Frostproof faucet - valve with washer
Frostproof faucet - valve with washer

The brass screw turned out easily, the new washer went on, I reassembled everything in reverse order, put new valve packing material under the cap, and… of course, the valve leaked when I turned it off.

A frostproof valve tends to dribble after being shut off, because there’s a foot of nearly horizontal pipe that must drain completely, but this leak was in the gallon-per-hour territory. Obviously, the situation had gone from bad to worse, exactly as I’d expected.

16 thoughts on “Frostproof Faucet: Attempted Repair Part 1

  1. Maybe jury rigging a long tool to unscrew and replace the seat for washer would stop the leak.

    1. replace the seat

      I didn’t know what was at the end of that foot of plumbing, but it didn’t look like a replaceable seat. Unlike standard faucets, this one has threads for the stem way down in the bottom, where they’re just barely visible, and then the washer seats beyond that.

      The adventure continues tomorrow… [grin]

  2. Hmmm… it’s filed under both “Home Ec” and “Machine Shop”. So, will he machine a custom valve seat reamer on the lathe, or just 3D print a garden that doesn’t require watering? The waiting is killing me. :-) :-) :-)

  3. A plumber friend of mine recommended replacing with ball valves whenever you have the chance. They cost a few dollars more but have much less maintenance down the line. I had a whole basement full of valves with leaky stem packing and bad washers that has been incrementally replaced with a collection of ball valves.

    1. incrementally replaced with … ball valves

      You and me both!

      I really didn’t want to complexicate this project any more than necessary, because the garden needed watering, but I do plan to refurbish that valve this summer. If that doesn’t go well, then it gets cut out and I’ll pop a ball valve off my stack.

    1. a quick on and off of the supply will flush the washers and any debris out :)

      And, with my luck, hose down the side of the van across the garage!

  4. My personal rule of DIY plumbing is: never start a simple repair at 4 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon.
    The cost of an emergency plumber and the general household angst when it all goes pear shaped ain’t worth it!

    1. The astonishing part of this project was that it ultimately required only a single trip to Lowe’s!

      My rule of thumb is that any plumbing project requires three trips: one for the parts you think you need, one for the part that doesn’t fit, and a third to replace the collateral damage.

      Do the trips by bike and you get a lot of exercise, too…

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