Saturday, August 22, 2015


When we moved to Wheaton in 1989, for several months I found myself irritated every time I washed my hands. Eventually I discovered that this was because the faucets were so short that it was hard to get my hands in the flow of water. I think that this discovery came when it was time to replace a faucet. I found that a faucet somewhat better than those in the row house cost about $5 at Hechinger's, and that a faucet that I would have considered adequate cost about $20. Considering volume discounts, the builders must have annoyed many residents for roughly $25 in savings per residence, maybe .0003 of the original price of the row houses.

Eventually the kitchen faucet started to fail. Once I figured it out, I took the failed cartridge to a hardware store. This had a plastic cartridge like the failed one for something under $10 and a metal cartridge for about $20. The clerk remarked that the had been selling many of these cartridges lately. I told him where the customers came from, and why.

Long ago, I learned to replace washers in faucets. It is possible that I was encouraged to do so by a passage in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in which the unhandy couple find themselves on edge from a dripping faucet. With a wrench, a screwdriver, and a properly working water cutoff, one can change a washer in less than 10 minutes.

Faucets with washers stop the flow of water by pressing the rubber washer against the faucet seat. Over the last forty or fifty years, cartridge faucets have become more popular. Those for faucets that control hot and cold water with the same handle have a ceramic ball drilled to admit water in certain alignments. Those where one handle controls one temperature have a couple of ceramic disks, one fixed, and one rotating, each with a couple of wedges cut out. When the wedges align, water flows; when they don't, the water is blocked. You don't have to replace washers, but if the faucet starts to drip, you must replace the cartridge.

In this house we installed a handsome set of faucets. The manufacturer had everything going for it except, eventually, longevity. When one of the faucets started to drip, we discovered that the company was out of business. A plumber looked at it, found a faucet at Union Hardware with matching disks, and replace them, which worked. He saw no flaw in the original disks, and that should have told us something. A co-worker of his, summoned later, saw no alternative to replacing the whole faucet,, which we did not care to do. The cutoff valve for the cold water stayed in the off position, until my wife tired of having hot water only in a couple of bathrooms.

I had a look, and was able to stop one faucet dripping by tightening the cartridge down. That suggested to me that the flaw was not in the disks but in the washer at its bottom. The washer is not used to stop the flow, but it must keep water from getting around the cartridge. It will deteriorate over time. Nobody seems to sell these washers separately, though.

Of course one can find almost anything on the internet. Several sites claimed that they had these cartridges. One provided pictures, with a ruled background to judge by. About $50 and two days later, I had the cartridge installed, and the faucet working properly. To be sure, I had to tighten the compression fitting at the cutoff valve. Whether the leak there had anything to do with the flow being shut off for a year, I don't know.


  1. Better you than me. Your posting reminds me of my recent challenges changing valve cartridges on 12 year old Moen faucets in the bathrooms. My ineptness as a "handyman" reminded me of why my careers never included jobs requiring manual dexterity and a "handyman" IQ. My dismal abilities around the house should make me a regular Angie's List customer.

    1. Let me not exaggerate my successes here. We do bring in the plumber for serious work.I was a charity C student in wood and metal shop in junior high school, and the charity may have been self-serving on the part of teachers who didn't want to deal with me again.

  2. Good job with the faucets. When I saw an older person fixing faucets when I was younger, I decided to learn all I could about replacing them. When possible, it is usually cheaper to fix them. However, that is not always possible. Sometimes that leads to a good opportunity to make the switch to an even more modern type of fixture.

    Lovella Cushman @ Perfection Plumbing