Old House Repair

One of the advantages of doing one’s research or home work, as it may be, is that learns to ask contractors questions, that while not exactly informed, lead to the collection of information.  Here in the US, a plumber or electrician or HVAC contractor is allowed to charge up to eight times the cost of materials and let me tell you, many of them will.  So I will tell you right now, get quotes from multiple contractors.  Ask what the materials will cost.  And if you get no answer, tell them goodbye.  any contractor who is charging more that three times the cost of materials is a crook.  Understand, it is not that lowest bid that wins, any contractor who will lowball the competition will likely as not do a less than quality job.  A contractor needs to make a decent profit to stay in business.  One of the things I have going for me is that I worked outside construction for about ten years, so I can judge a man or woman on intangibles.  I’ve been injured on the job by a couple of the people I have had the misfortune to work with.  That gave me something of an insight.  I won’t work with druggies or alcoholics.  You spend a few months off the job due to an on the job injury at the hands of a coworker and you start to develop a sixth sense about people.

A good contractor will take your questions and what you think is important and address it honestly.  He will save you money by pointing out what is necessary and what is unnecessary.  One of the thicks is to watch the videos on YouTube about some work you want done.  this is not a perfect way but it allows you to be prepared for the discussion you want to have with a prospective contractor.  Now, normally I would try to do it all but I am sixty eight and a lot of my strength is gone.  I mean, I could pick 232 pound manhole lids up out of their rings with just my fingers.  For me, a hundred pounds is a bit overwhelming.  that means I need to contract out jobs to others who are more capable than myself.  But there are many jobs I can do and save quite a bit of labor cost.  Plumbing is one of those areas wher it is becoming within the grasp of the average individual, man or woman, to do.

I used to work with lean telephone cable, sweating lead sleeve closures and other operations.  For me, sweating copper joints with lead solder is easy enough.  That takes me back to metal shop days in secondary school.  When it comes to new construction, copper is easy.  But for repairs in houses that are already built, copper is a pain in the ass.  the rule of thumb is that working on plumbing in an existing house means that one never has enough space to perform the work.  True, one can use compression fittings, the ones where you slide them in place and they grip the pipe.  wonderful stuff except that some time down the road these fitting will fail.  It is the nature of the beast.  they are the answer for the quick repair but I would never use them in new construction or remodel.  Okay, so you go to Home Depot or Lowes and you see PEX, that nice colored plastic tubing.  That is good stuff and I have used it.  the one thing that PEX allows you to do if you are willing to plan the installation in great detail is that the number of connections can be held to just two.    In both Home Depot and Lowes, one has a choice of using the copper compression band or the steel pinch ring.  I have used the copper compression ring and I must tell you that the damn things have a tendency to weep.  That leads to black mold and that is something you don’t want.  I have never met a plumber who used the copper compression ring or the pinch ring.  There are three other choices and you should understand their pros and cons.  My favorite is the brass sleeve method I have used in France (another story), very effective and never leaks or weeps.  Unfortunately the tool is extremely expensive as is the sleeve and the brass joint.  In France I have bought the tool of about 80 euros, less than a hundred euros at most.  In the US, the tools costs somewhere in the neighborhood of 600 dollars, go figure.  But the sleeve and the brass fitting have become very expensive, not worth the cost.  The second method is Viega method of using a steel sleeve that is crimped on a brass fitting.  Wonderful system but the damn tools are costly.  If you are a plumber, then fine, its works very well.  But I’ll be damned if I am going to spend five grand on the crimping machine.


New builds are nice since one can do all the planning and the rough plumbing and electric with great ease.  But with an old house, one doesn’t have such luxury.  Any slab foundation means a lot of expensive work when it comes to plumbing.  The perimeter pour and pier means you have a crawl space that may or may not support any work.  The addition the original owners built has a crawl space but the height is almost useless, we literally had to hand dig it out (partially) and that took days.  I deposited the dirt on the front lawn.  Lucky for us the dirt had a high sand content.  If it had been clay it would have been a real problem.  I had to replace about twenty feet of old ductile iron drain pipe as it had literally rusted away.  Now I must prepare for the new water line runs.  Usually when one uses PEX one uses the hub and spoke method.  That is, there is a central manifold from which a separate line is run to each outlet.  I don’t like this configuration for real estate is of a premium and by the time one runs a dozen to two dozen separate lines that real estate gets used up in a hurry.  Instead, the incoming supply line, which I will use the 3/4 inch white colored pipe will meet a manifold where 1/2 inch lines will contine to their respective local outlets.  The 3/4 inch end of the manifold will allow me to continue that line to the next manifold for distribution.  I like using the brass manifolds for one very good reason, they have threaded connections.  That means the your PEX pipe will connect to a female brass fitting at that point.  If I think I need a shutoff valve at the manifold than it is easy place one.  There are two design points one may wish to follow.  The first is that there should be enough shutoff valves to isolate problems.  Having only one valve that shuts the water off to the entire house means one does without water for however long it takes to fix the problem.  Sectioning the water flow means less interruption.  Second is that the fewer the number of connections in any single line means the few single points of failure.


Then there is the issue of quality.  don’t trust Home Depot or Lowes for quality PEX pipe.  You will either have to find a plumbing supply house that sells to the professional (and they may not sell to you the home owner) or order it online from someone like SupplyHouse.com.  This means you will need to plan very carefully and take all your measurements and add at least ten percent.  But the largest roll, go to 300 feet in need be, it will be cheaper in the long run.  Buy good connectors.  Remember, brass to brass.  Uponor AquaPro (Wirsbo)  and Viega manufacture the best pipe, or at least according to the professional plumbers.  I would suggest you use the ProPex Expander fittings and connection system.  That means spending $400 on the Milwaukee M12 ProPex expander tool (battery operated), but the plastic sealing rings are very inexpensive and they don’t weep.  You don’t want black mold in your walls from weeping fittings.  Of course, in that same vein, use cement backer board for showers and tub areas, yon won’t have water problems there either.  The other point to remember is that PEX should be supported and use the curve supports to hold the pipe in place where it must make right angle in direction.  this keeps the pipe from vibrating in your walls and under your floors.


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