If your bath or shower faucet drips, you can fix it
with a few inexpensive replacement parts. (If
the spout and handles are worn, you can
change them out, too.) But if it’s a new style
you’re after or features like preset temperatures or anti-scald
protection, it’s time for replacement. Installing a
new shower faucet is a straightforward process of connecting
the new valve to the old pipes. Sometimes all you
need are the manufacturer’s instructions and some basic
plumbing know-how. But it isn’t that easy very often.
This article will focus on three complications that installation
manuals and plumbing books ignore.
- There’s no access to the inside of the wall.
- The old pipes are galvanized steel.
- You want to replace a two-handle faucet with a single-handle model.
To replace the faucet, you have to work inside the wall. Some homes have a removable panel in the next room behind the faucet. If you don’t have an access panel, you might be able to replace the faucet by cutting a hole in the shower surround (Problem 3 below), but the best solution is to install a paintable plastic panel behind the faucet. You’ll find them in various sizes at plumbing suppliers, some home centers or online (search for “access panel”). Buy a panel that’s at least 14 x 14 in. If you don’t want to install a panel because it would be an eyesore, an oversized cover plate inside the shower surround is another option (Problem 3 below). If you already have an access panel but it’s too low to provide easy access to the faucet, you can install a second panel above the existing one.
Don’t try to position the access hole
by taking measurements. Instead, remove
the tub spout or faucet handles and
punch a marker hole through the wall
(Photo 1). If the wall is plaster rather
than drywall, use a drill and a long bit
instead of a screwdriver. Before you cut a
hole sized for the access panel, cut a
smaller hole (Photo 2). That way, you
can see exactly where the pipes and
valves are located and position the full-size
hole for best access to them. Use the
access panel frame as a template to mark
the full-size hole. To avoid damaging the
frame of the panel, install it after you’ve
replaced the faucet
If your tub or shower faucet is dripping, see How to Repair a Dripping Tub Faucet.
For tips on working with different types of pipe, see How to Join Dissimilar Pipes.
Unlike copper or plastic, steel pipes are joined with threaded, screw-together connections. So you can’t simply cut the hot and cold supply pipes. That would remove the threaded ends and you’d have no reliable way to connect new pipe.
To preserve those threaded ends, unscrew the union fittings that connect the supply lines to the faucet (Photo 1). You can leave the spout nipple connected to the faucet and remove it along with the valve. If the faucet is connected to a showerhead, cut the “shower riser” pipe (Photo 2). This pipe isn’t under constant pressure, so you can reconnect it with a special coupler later.
Connect the new faucet as shown in Photo 3. To connect the cutoff shower riser, use a special compression coupler designed for galvanized steel pipe (called a “Dresser” coupling). For a better seal and easier installation, apply Teflon pipe sealant to the coupler’s threads and rubber seals. Run the shower and check the coupler for leaks. If you find one, tighten the coupler’s nuts.
If you have a two-handle faucet, it’s easiest to replace it with another two-handle model. If you want the convenience of a single handle, you’ll have to hide the two holes left by the handles. An oversized cover plate does just that. Plus, it covers an access hole, possibly allowing you to skip adding an access panel. Keep in mind that replacing a faucet using this smaller hole can be difficult if not impossible—a large access panel makes the job much easier. You’ll find oversized cover plates (about $23) at plumbing supply stores or online (search for “renovation cover plate”).
To install a single-handle faucet, you’ll have to cut a hole into your shower surround. If your surround is fiberglass or acrylic, cut the hole using a jigsaw and a fine-tooth blade (a coarse blade causes more vibration, which can crack the surround). Apply strips of masking tape to the surround to avoid scratching or chipping the surface. Run the saw at full speed, but push it slowly and gently along the cut mark. If you feel the blade hitting a pipe inside the wall, stop immediately and continue past the pipe using a hacksaw blade.
To cut tile, use a rotary tool equipped with a tile-cutting bit (Photo 1). Set the cutting depth of the bit at 1/4 in. and make the first pass. Make more passes, setting the bit 1/4 in. deeper each time until you’ve cut completely through the surround. If you don’t own a rotary tool, you have a few other options: You can try a jigsaw and ceramic tile blade (about $5). These blades cut softer tile well. If you find that your tile is too hard, drill a series of 1/4-in. holes through the tile and wall using a carbide ceramic tile bit (about $5). Drill the holes close together so there’s little or no space between them. Then cut any material between the holes with the ceramic tile jigsaw bit.