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Plumbing 101 —How to Solder Copper Pipe between Soccer Games

SoccerChampThis weekend between our seven year olds’, end of season tournament soccer games, I was able to show a friend how to install shut-off valves to the copper pipes in his second floor master bathroom. He was installing a new bathtub and wanted the ability to turn the water off directly under the faucet. This would allow him to install the tub on his own schedule and to add in a faucet later using nothing more than a simple wrench. This friend knew of my blog and the recent plumbing I had done in our Powder Room. As we compared notes on our two home improvement projects, he asked how difficult it was to work with copper pipe. I assured him it wasn’t hard, and in fact was one of the more exciting jobs of a bathroom renovation. It didn’t take much to convince him to give it a try.

This is shut off for my dishwasher at home. A shut off valve allows more flexibility in changes to plumbing fixtures and appliances.
This is shut off for my dishwasher at home. A shut off valve allows more flexibility in future changes to plumbing fixtures and appliances.

First off, In the world according to Marilyn, one of the advantages to learning to do plumbing for yourself is you get to work with a torch and get to work with a torch and add molten metal create a bond between the two copper components. How cool is that? Second, the tools for cutting and soldering copper pipe are simple, inexpensive, and relatively easy to use. And finally, it’s not a terribly messy job—Hooray!

Propane torch with starter button
Propane torch with starter button

I could see his confidence growing as I explained my reasoning. However, he was still hesitant. Getting plumbing wrong seems like the worst possible disaster one could invite while renovating a bathroom. He voiced his concerns about leaks and flooding his main floor rooms. But here’s the thing about copper pipes—you will know IMMEDIATELY if you have done quality work or not. In other words, there is no fear of completing all your renovations and then one day, a month or two later, coming home to find your house filled with water. It’s not going to happen.

An assortment of pipe cutters. Personally I like the smallest. Its great for working in cramped quaters
An assortment of pipe cutters. I like the small red one. It is ideal for working in cramped quarters.

Once the soldering is complete and the water pressure is turned back on the pipes fill with water. The pressure in the pipes is substantial. The pipes will either hold the water or spray through a leaky joint right then and there. If, sadly, it’s the latter scenario you simply—and quickly—turn off the valve to the main water and start over again.

Getting ready to heat the pipe for solder.
Getting ready to heat the pipe for solder.

Let me walk you through the steps:

Shut off water inside your house. Open some taps close to your project area to release the water pressure and empty the pipes.

This is usually found in the basement. Ours is clearly labeled
This is usually found in the basement. Ours is clearly labeled.

Using a pipe cutter, make any cuts or length adjustments as needed. At this point remove any remaining water from the pipes. Water will interfere with the soldering process and must be eliminated for a successful joint to occur.

CutPipeCropped2
Tighten the Pipe Cutter every couple of rotations and the blade will easily cut through.
CutPipeCroped
The result is a clean break.

Using a small strip of sandpaper clean the outside surface of the pipe and the inside surface of the fitting where you will make the solder connections.

Generously coat each of the sanded surfaces with flux, (the outside end of the pipe and the inside end of the fitting).

Place the fitting on the pipe. Make certain the valves or angle of the fitting is in its final location.

FittingSS
Decide what angle best suits your plumbing needs and future access once fixtures are in place.

Heat the copper pipe and fitting with a propane torch in preparation for the solder. Test the heat by placing the tip end of the solder wire at the pipe and fitting connection.

Soldering2SS
Testing for readiness.

If the pipe is well heated the solder will be drawn in to the joint. You will see a bead of solder wrap itself around the pipe. You may rotate the solder wire around the pipe but the heat from the torch and the flux will be doing most of the work.

SolderCoplete

Once the bead of solder has wrapped itself remove the heat source (turn off the propane torch)

The pipe will cool quickly. When all joints are soldered allow water to fill the pipes by turning  the main water valve inside the house on again. Close any nearby taps you had previously opened.

**Note: It is wise to have an assistant when turning the water pressure back on. In the case of a leak a timely shout to have your assistant shut off the water valve will keep your messes to a minimum.

My friend was thrilled to have a new skill added to his home improvement repertoire. I didn’t think much of it until later when his wife told me he had put Shut-Off Valves on everything in the bathroom after I left. For me it was a pleasure to pass on that that knowledge.  After years of studying with my father, it felt pretty good to know I had enough experience under my belt to move from pupil to teacher.

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