After months of staring at my leaky shower faucet, I mistakenly took matters into my own hands last week and attempted to fix the problem.
More than $350 and a dozen hours later, the problem is mostly solved.
Here's the deal: this shower / bathtub faucet has been leaking, at least a little, since I bought the house two years ago. But recently, it got worse, so I started dismantling the faucet piece by piece. When I got as far as I could go, I snapped a photo of the cartridge and took it to Home Depot. The plumbing guy said I just had to pull and pull on the cartridge stem, and it would eventually come off. The replacement cartridge was only $12 or so.
Well, I pulled and pulled. I pulled so hard the metal stem snapped. My heart sunk. I know I was in over my head.
I Googled "Milwaukee plumbers" and arbitrarily chose Bohmann Plumbing, 2932 W. Forest Home Ave. They said they could be there in a few hours, and the job would start with a $50 service fee.
The plumber showed up early, and though he spent the first 25 minutes trying to get his laptop connected to the Internet to process my check, he said he could fix this quickly. Bohmann Plumbing, he said, charged a flat fee for this job, whether it took five minutes or five hours: $182.50.
I knew I didn't have much of a choice, so I let the plumber get to work. Unfortunately, he spent the next 40 minutes doing exactly what I did: yanking on the stem. He also used a torch to melt the plastic plug, in hopes that he could remove it that way. It didn't work.
Finally, he said he couldn't do it, and the only option was to attack the problem from the rear, cutting a hole in the wall and replacing the entire water mixing hardware.
But here's the thing: he called his boss, who told me that the $182.50 was only for their "attempt" to fix the problem. Not only was I not getting any money back, to replace the faucet would be another $650, plus the cost of the faucet. The plumber agreed with me that he should've told me this up front. But he didn't.
I don't like to argue with people who aren't making the decisions, and this plumber was just following his company's policy. I thanked him for his attempt and sent him on his way. En route to Home Depot (again), I called Bohmann Plumbing and calmly explained my predicament.
The manager was somewhat apologetic but unrelenting. He said the plumber should've explained this "attempt" policy, but he refused to either refund any money or apply it to the bigger job. He said he'd wave the $50 service fee if they came back. I said thanks but no thanks. Defeated, at least I know I'll never work with this unsavory company again, and at the very least, let the readers of OnMilwaukee.com know about their shady operation, too.
But I kept a positive attitude and I dropped $80 on a new faucet. When I got it home, I opened the package and was absolutely stunned to see its contents: instead of a faucet, the box just contained chunks of drywall. Someone had filled the box with junk and returned it to Home Depot. Flabbergasted, I returned to Home Depot again and got another faucet (opening it at the store this time, just in case).
By now, I called my dad in Racine for some moral and plumbing support. While he knows only a bit more than I do about plumbing (which is nothing), he's handy and level-headed and graciously offered to help. He got to my house around 5 p.m.
The two of us spent the evening cutting copper, joining pipes, twisting pieces and bouncing back and forth from the hardware store two more times. But we just couldn't get all the pieces to line up, and at about 9 p.m. -- eight hours after this project began -- my dad threw in the towel, pledging to return fresh a few days later.
We jumped back in on Friday afternoon and spent another three hours monkeying around inside this now demolished wall. Finally, we got the faucet pieces into place and turned on the water. Of course, it leaked all over the place.
We shut off the water and started tightening connections, but as one connection tightened, another opened up. By 7:30 p.m., my dad gave up, announcing, understandably, that this project had exhausted all of his plumbing knowledge. He suggested I bite the bullet and call another plumber.
But I was so close! I took one last look at the guts of the faucet and decided to dive back in. I went back to the hardware store for a fifth (I think -- I lost count) and last time. I called my friend, Chris, who's fairly handy. He dropped what he was doing and calmly helped me measure and cut and sand. Finally, he had shirked his babysitting duties for long enough and had to leave. I assembled the remaining pieces, alone, and crossed my fingers.
I won't lie to you: the pipes leaked just a little bit when I turned on the water. But really, they were just moist, not even dripping. I've heard that sometimes the minerals in tap water can seal little leaks on their own, and sure enough, by the next day, the "pipe sweat" was pretty much dry. It's getting better each day.
I learned a few things from this project. First, I have very few plumbing skills. Second, while I screwed up the project, I can't beat myself up: even a real plumber couldn't get that cartridge out. Third, get references, then details from plumbers before writing checks. And finally, given enough time and patience (and money), these projects are doable. I just hope I'll never have to replace a leaky faucet again.
Andy is the founder and co-owner of OnMilwaukee.com. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.