Q: The cold-water faucet in my shower has developed a continuous drip. I’ve never tried to change a washer in a faucet before. Should I try to do it myself or call a plumber? Is it only a matter of turning off the main water supply, then taking the faucet apart to find the washer to replace, or is it more complicated?
I don’t know the make and model, but the faucets have been here since before I moved in more than 20 years ago.
A: Nearly all modern showers have a single mixing valve that combines hot and cold water. You have the old-fashioned type, meaning you have to adjust the hot and cold separately.
This is something you can and should do yourself. You can take an hour of your time and 75 cents in parts or call a plumber and receive a bill for around $100.
Here’s the step-by-step process to change a washer:
Step 1: Turn off the water to the house. In temperate areas, exterior pipes do not freeze. The shutoff valve is usually where the water line enters the house. In 20-plus-year-old systems, the valve is usually a gate valve with a round "wagon wheel" handle. There’s usually a hose bib immediately above it. Close the shutoff valve, then turn the hose bib on to release water pressure from the system.
Step 2: Turn the hot and cold tub faucets on to drain water from the valve.
Step 3: Close both valves, then reopen them about halfway.
Step 4: Spread a towel or washcloth over the drain so as not to lose any small parts. With a Phillips-head screwdriver, remove the screws from the hot and cold handles and take the handles off. Put the screws in a safe place.
Step 5: Remove the chrome escutcheons by turning them counterclockwise. They should be screwed on only hand-tight, but they may be stuck. If so, use a pair of channel-lock pliers, placing a towel or washcloth between the teeth of the pliers and the escutcheon so as not to mar the chrome.
Step 6: With the handles and escutcheons removed, the spindle is exposed. The spindle is the part of the valve that regulates water flow. At the far end of the spindle is a rubber washer that, when tightened against a metal seat, stops the water flow.
Remove the bonnet nut so that the spindle can be removed and the washer replaced.
The bonnet nut is probably below the surface of the tile, making it impossible to get purchase with a normal wrench. There is a special socket wrench solely for this purpose that is inexpensive and available at any local hardware store.
It may be necessary to remove some grout or cement to get at the bonnet nut, even with this specialty tool. Tap lightly on the grout with a screwdriver and hammer to free the area around the nut. Again, after 20 years, the nut may be stuck. Spray on a little Liquid Wrench or WD-40 to loosen it. Then remove the bonnet nut.
Step 7: To remove the spindle, replace the handle and turn clockwise until the spindle is free of the valve.
Step 8: At the end of the spindle will be a screw holding the washer in a seat. The washer will probably appear flat, but the new one will most likely be cone-shaped. Take the spindle to your local hardware store and the folks there should be able to set you up with the correct washer. Alternatively, buy a pack of assorted rubber washers and find the one that fits in the seat. Remove the screw holding the old washer and replace the old with the new.
Reverse these steps to get the tub back in operation.
Oh, and while you’re at it, change both the cold and hot washers. Sure as shootin’, as soon as the cold leak is fixed, the hot one will go.