New way to mess up soldering copper pipe!

I don't know if this is really new, but here goes: I have had a plumber under my house for a few days now, doing copper repiping. When
he finished the other night, we tested the system by opening the main valve, listening for leaks. There was a big one under a bathroom, so big he thought he must have missed soldering one joint. Crawling back to the problem area (now a large mud puddle), he tried to re-solder the joint, and with all the water in the system, it was just too hard. He went home for the night and we shut off the main. Next day he discovered that virtually every joint he soldered the day before was bad. He could just pull them apart. He threw away his solder and flux and started over with new stuff, all the while thinking about what could have gone wrong. First we suspected the flux had become contaminated with something under the house, but the more he thought about it, he remembered that he had used some cheap acid brushes from Harbor Freight to apply the flux and he likes to continue to brush on flux while soldering, to clean up drips and make the joint neater. The brushes had a melted appearance, unlike the ones he normally uses, which I assume are some kind of natural material, probably horsehair. Our best guess at this point is that the brush he was using was melting as he applied more flux to the hot joint, and the brush material contaminated the solder-to-pipe bond somehow. Sound reasonable? Gary Hastings
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Yep! I've seen poly-fill in acid brushes...the US DOD spec is for grade A horse hair. Imports, gota' watch!
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Tom Gardner wrote:

Ive just completed 2 major plumbing installations using all copper piping, but the joins, ie elbows reducers and t's were all by "yorkshire!. No these have a ring of solder recessed in the fitting under a half round bump in the copper. . you clean the pipe and fitting with steel wool, flux well both, then assemble. This flus is acid based and is supplied by the fitting maker. then you heat up the joint till the solder flows out around the joint. we did everal hundred of these from 15 through 22 to 28mm the old 1/2 in 3/4 in and 1 in sizes with not one leak!! Well worth the extra cost. the only leaks we had were from the blanking plugs on the back boiler in the wood stove. I assumed that they had been properly installed at the makers using what we call boss white, white lead in linseed oil plus hemp filaments. They had just been hand set no white or hemp. quickly rectified. That was on a gravity system or thermosyphon as we call that here in the UK. Can you get these fittings in the US? It really is the way to go. Hope this helps.
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Yes, but look at the money he saved! ;-)
Sometimes, there's just no settling for cheapies. I like to buy American stainless steel hand wire brushes. I don't know if it's just me, or they really do last longer. And on some items, as the OP found out, saving a little now can cost you later.
Steve
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wrote

I use 302 for stock items and sometimes special alloys for a customer's application. The American made brush wire is so vastly superior that I won't even consider imported wire.
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Your plumber is an idiot.
Of course you can't solder joints when they're filled with water, using the lowest point in the system he should have completely drained the pipes first--after this step any remaining amounts of residual water shouldn't have been much of a problem (but if he continued to have difficulties then he always could have resorted to using the "chunk of bread to hold back the water" trick).
Why does this guy continue to apply flux while soldering?? The flux is applied to the INSIDE of the joint where the solder gets drawn in. Smearing flux on the outside is completely useless. If this guy spent more time on thoroughly heating the joint and properly applying the solder rather then wasting effort on the silly practice of spreading flux where it's not needed then he wouldn't have had bad joints. And if he was merely doing this to make the joints look pretty, he should have simply wiped the excess hot solder off with a wet rag instead of using his flux brush which would most surely get contaminated. And after the flux brush had melted after the first few joints, why did he continue to use it in a similar manner on the following joints.
I wouldn't feel very comfortable knowing this guy did the plumbing in my house. Don't be surprised if in several months (most likely in the winter) another joint or two just separates and blows out from his crappy soldering work.
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I second the motion to have him, in writing, extend his warranty. Flux after its hot is not going to help. I was taught not to skimp on the flux or the solder and then to wipe the joint, if possible... Grand Father was an AC man and a Jack of all trades. If he couldn't fix it, it couldn't be fixed... I think he taught me to solder about 12 or 13... said I did a better job then he did, due to his eye sight... LOL
bob in phx

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Your plumber is giving morons a bad name! Anyone in their right mind uses a paste flux made for plumbing work. Wipe it on the pipe and into the fitting, slip the two together and solder. Quick, simple and very reliable. The days of fluxing with acid and brushes went the way of typewriters and slide rules. Get a new plumber.

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sounds to me like he just didn't heat the pipe hot enough - my procedure, which never fails is to tin the end of the pipe and hte fitting using plenty of paste flux, then heat and put together - if you don't tin first it's easy to leave voids. the acid burshes had nothing to do with the problem.

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It's easy to plumb copper, here's an instruction page:
<http://www.nibco.com/assets/metalconnections.pdf
There are two ways the fault could have happened: the plumber had bear grease instead of flux, or he doesn't heat adequately.
Neither bodes well for the plumber's skill. If he'd watched the solder operation, he'd have seen something was wrong. The flux applicator brush would have had to be in his third hand (one for torch, one for solder...) to be involved in the snafu.
You don't say anything about what the failed joints looked like: some inspection of the pipe ends and the fittings would be useful.
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Yep -- I agree completely. This guy simply didn't know what he was doing, and probably isn't a real plumber at all. The OP's description makes me think that they guy had never soldered copper pipe before in his life.
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Regards,
Doug Miller (alphageek at milmac dot com)
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On Sat, 30 Jun 2007 23:05:11 GMT, snipped-for-privacy@milmac.com (Doug Miller) wrote:

I'm no plumber because I just solder my own pipes. I can take a little longer making sure everything is clean and well fluxed. That said, I have never had a pipe solder joint leak or fail and I've done hundreds. If I was a plumber I'm sure I'd have had a few leakers. Thatls not a slight towards plumbers but a realistic assement of my own carelessness when in a hurry. But having ALL the joints come apart really takes some doing. I can't imagine what would cause that. ERS
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wrote:

When I was replacing the 40+ year old iron in our previous abode, I made up an expanding drive plug (1/4"x3 bolt with washer, 1" long rubber tubing, fender type washer, and nut) turned by a reversible drill. I could cut, ream, and emery clean 1/2" copper pipe in no time, then reverse the drill and remove the pipe; I never even used a wrench - friction was sufficient to tighten/loosen the nut just by holding the pipe and switching on the drill. Gerry :-)} London, Canada
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Oh, I can -- insufficient heat and insufficient solder would do that just fine. Which is why I said I think this clown has never soldered copper pipe before.
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Regards,
Doug Miller (alphageek at milmac dot com)
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Was he using lead solder, or the lead-free type? The tin-silver solders are more difficult to use, but stronger. I wouldn't want lead used on my water supply anyway - especially if the water is low in Ph (acidic) it's going to get in the water, and it's a cumulative poison.
Actually, the way most plumbers put copper pipe together these days is with phos-copper rod. This comes in flattened sticks, and doesn't require flux at all, although it does help if you clean the joints. You need a bit more heat than for lead solder. But it fills gaps well, and is significantly stronger than lead solder. See http://www.sarusilver.com/copper-phosphorus-brazing-alloys.html
Andrew Werby www.unitedartworks.com

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wrote:

I am the original poster. Since then, it's gone from bad to worse. Remember it was only the joints he did on one day that leaked. It happened to be the day he tied-in to the already-installed vertical pipes, so this was the day everything was tested. There were no leaks in any of the long supply runs of 3/4" pipe-only in the connecting sections from the 3/4 to 1/2" size. His soldering technique was adequate to do most of the joints in the house sucessfully. That's why I still accept the theory that the brushes started the problem. However, what has happened since then is why I lean toward the "plumber is in over his head" theory. He now has to deal with a much more difficult job: re-soldering or replacing the offending joints, doing it while laying in puddles of standing water and mud from the leakage, and dealing with the water left in the pipe after draining and forcing with compressed air. There is always some water left in the pipe, and it always screws up the soldering. He has failed to see the problem for what it is and take serious measures immediately. After a few long days of re-heating the bad joints and trying to feed more solder in, I think I have convinced him to cut out all of the suspect joints and start fresh on the tie-ins, drying thoroughly before even attempting to solder. In case you are wondering why I am giving this guy so much slack, I guess it's because I've known him over 40 years and consider him a friend. And until now, a good plumber. He seems embarassed and very apologetic, but that doesn't make him up to the job. I think anyone can screw up, but how you deal with a mistake is the critical thing. I don't see any way I can fire him and hire someone else to finish the job, at great expense since he has drawn most of the money (I know, another mistake by me) and not end the friendship. So he gets one more day to solve the problem. I'm embarassed myself that it's gone on this long and don't enjoy writing about it, but there were so many responses on this thread I felt you deserved an update. Gary Hastings
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You claim that "there is always some water left in the pipe, and it always screws up the soldering." If his soldering is getting screwed up by the remaining water, then either your system hasn't been properly drained or you have a bad valve somewhere that is allowing a small amount of water through. Valves can be easily damaged by overheating or errant solder flow being deposited where it shouldn't be. Judging by your plumber's poor soldering skills, I'd say he damaged a valve somewhere, this would explain why he is having so many problems with water continually flowing and cooling down the joints he is attempting to solder.

I hope this guy wasn't simply reheating the fittings and merely trying to slop more solder on the OUTSIDE of the joints. The proper way to fix a bad joint involves reheating the fitting, separating the joint, thoroughly cleaning, refluxing, slipping it all back together and finally resoldering. But, getting a fitting clean enough to resolder after that fitting has already been filled with solder once before is a real pain in the ass and doesn't necessarily guarantee a good connection anyway. So, a much better way usually involves cutting out the bad sections and reluctantly redoing them (I'm glad to hear that you finally convinced your guy to do so).

You are a loyal friend indeed. Hopefully all goes well and in a few years you two will be able to have a good laugh about all of this.

Thanks for the courtesy of providing us with the update. Please keep us informed of how everything works out in the end.
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Greetings Gary, Once a pipe has been soldered it will need to be heated to a higher temperature because the solder alloys with the copper. I use an air/acetylene torch for this type of work because it is so much hotter than propane. The water is certainly a problem. One cure is to cut the pipe and stuff Wonder Bread in to stop the water. When the water is turned back on the bread will easily blow out. ERS
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It's sad to hear stories like these, where common repairs lead to many other problems.
The only help I might be able to offer would be.. to evacuate water from lines, a wet shop vac will often draw more water out than compressed air. The common vac method is to open faucets above, and suck the water out from a low point in the lines. With modern low-flow fixtures that might only have 1/8" passages, opening a 1/2" line at a high point(s) might be desireable to increase the air inlet size, increasing airflow velocity.
I gotta ask, are you the same Gary 82012 that wrote the Superintelligent Rat story in 2004? (followups: Rat tale and Rat Tale - Finale) Another RCM reader and I were enjoying reading those very well written and hilarious stories this past January.
If this is you.. Do you still have that picture rat1.jpg that you could post a new link to (the old aol link has expired).
WB ......... metalworking projects www.kwagmire.com/metal_proj.html

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Yes, Wild Bill, it was I who lost the battle of wits with the rat. Thanks for the kind words - I enjoyed relating that story. I looked for the rat photo, but I guess I must have deleted it. Who would have guessed anyone would want it? Gary Hastings
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