Replacing a Washer

person holds a rubber washer, a quarter size circle

Are the drips and chatter in your home driving you crazy? We’re speaking here about sink, shower, tub, and sill faucets that drip or chatter when turned on—not annoying neighbors or in-laws! Eventually, faucets with rubber or plastic washers that stop water flow when the tap is closed will start to drip and, in some cases, “chatter” when turned on. Not only is this annoying, but it also wastes precious water, increases utility bills, and can leave unsightly rust stains.

Just as anyone with vision, individuals who are blind or low vision can fix dripping faucets with a few simple tools, patience, using your fingers and hands to gain information, and by following these steps.

Tools You May Need

  • Straight and Philips screwdrivers
  • A crescent wrench or slip joint pliers
  • Find other handy tools to have on hand in Your Tool Box.

Parts You May Need

  • Flat and cone-shaped faucet washers in various sizes
  • Brass screws in assorted packs of various sizes
  • These are available from hardware stores and building supply outlets.

Faucet Components

These instructions apply only to a stem and washer-style faucet, not a style that uses a replaceable plastic cartridge. The faucet components include:

  • A chrome handle or knob to turn it on
  • A stem that is threaded into the body of the faucet housing
  • A nut that locks the stem in place
  • A rubber or plastic washer at the bottom end of the stem, which is held in by a brass screw

Step 1: Turning Off the Water Supply

First, you must locate the shutoff valve that controls that particular faucet:

  • Many sinks and lavatories have shutoff valves, which can be found underneath the sink on a water line that comes from the wall or up from the floor.
  • There should be one valve for the hot and one for the cold water line. Usually, the hot water supply line is on the left.
  • You can easily distinguish the hot from the cold by turning on the hot water faucet and touching the pipe near the shutoff valve. It will be warm or hot to the touch.

Sometimes the washers in the shutoff valves have deteriorated and do not completely shut off the water. In these cases, you will need to turn off the water supply at a different location:

  • Tub, shower, and sill faucets usually do not have a shutoff valve near the faucet. In these instances, you may shut off the hot water by turning off the valve on the outgoing hot water line at the top of the water heater.
  • If the water heater is not readily accessible or if you need to replace a washer on the cold water faucet, you will need to locate the shutoff where the line comes in from the outside. This is usually located just outside the building where the water line from the street comes in, although it may also be just under the building.
  • If you live in an apartment, you may need to consult the manager or building engineer to shut off the water.

Tip: When the water is shut off, turn on the faucet you need to fix and another faucet to help drain some water from the water lines. This will help stop drips as you work on the selected faucet.

Step 2: Removing the Faucet Handle

For most faucets, you will need to remove the handle or knob from the faucet stem so that you can access the locking nut that holds the stem in place:

  • You can remove the screw that holds the handle in place, often located at the top of the handle.
  • The opening for the screw may be covered by a plastic insert, which can be removed by lifting one edge with a fingernail or knife point.
  • Some handles are anchored by a “set screw” that locks the handle from the side.
  • An Allen wrench may be needed to loosen the set screw.
  • Sometimes a gentle tugging or tapping of the faucet handle is needed once the screw is removed, as it may be stuck to the stem.
  • If the handle or knob cannot be removed easily, you may have to get a faucet handle puller to avoid damaging the handle or breaking off the stem.

Step 3: Removing the Faucet Stem

To remove the faucet stem, loosen the hexagonal locking nut that holds the stem and packing in place. The stem and packing prevent water from leaking out around the top of the stem:

  • Open the faucet and loosen the lockdown nut by turning it counterclockwise with a wrench or channel lock pliers.
  • Try not to let the wrench or pliers slip, which can round the corners of the locking nut and make it difficult to loosen or tighten it.
  • Once you have loosened the locking nut slightly, you may be able to turn it by hand.
  • You will want to be sure the faucet remains slightly open by turning the stem so it doesn’t interfere with removing the locking nut.
  • Once the nut is loosened, remove the stem by turning it in the same direction you would turn on the faucet which can usually be done without a wrench.
  • For many faucets, the locking nut is readily accessible. Still, in tubs and showers, there may be a decorative chrome covering, sometimes called a flange, that keeps water from getting into the wall where the faucet is connected to the water lines.
  • This flange can be removed by loosening a knurled holding device on the exposed end through which the stem protrudes.
  • Usually, you can loosen the locking mechanism with pliers or sometimes even by hand.
  • If you need pliers, wrap a rag or masking tape around the flange where the pliers will grip so you don’t mar the chrome finish.
  • The faucet’s body may be recessed into the wall, making it difficult or impossible to get a wrench or pliers on the nut that locks the stem in place.
  • In this case, you may need a shower wrench socket set from your hardware store. It looks like a long six-sided tube that will slide over the locking nut but extend far enough to be turned with a wrench or a handle that comes with the socket set.

Step 4: Replacing the Worn Washer

Once you have removed the stem, you can examine the washer, which will be at the bottom end of the stem. The washer will be held in place with a brass screw. If a brass screw is not used, the head of the screw may be corroded, which means that you must clear rust from the slot of the screw to loosen it.

You will want to replace the worn washer with one as near to the same size and shape as the one you removed, so inspect the old one carefully:

  • If it is badly worn from use, you may have difficulty telling if the washer is flat or slightly cone-shaped.
  • Find one that fits into the recess at the bottom of the stem and replace the screw holding it in place.
  • Tighten the screw so it doesn’t come loose, but not so tight as to break the screw off.

Tip: Inspect the seat at the bottom of the faucet housing to determine if it has grooves or scratches that may occur if the faucet has been used for a long time. You can sometimes inspect the surface of the seat with a fingernail, but if not, you may need to ask someone to look down into the faucet housing to inspect the seat.

If there are scratches or grooves, the newly installed washer will wear down and need to be replaced sooner than if the seat is smooth. You can obtain a tool that will grind the scratches out, but if they are too deep, you may need to replace the seat or the entire faucet.

Step 5: Reassembling the Faucet

To reassemble the faucet, reverse the steps you followed in removing the stem and washer.

  • Lubricate the threads of the stem with waterproof grease to make it open and close more easily and to help prevent a leak at the top of the stem.
  • Screw the stem back into the faucet’s body, but do not close the faucet completely.
  • Before replacing the locking nut at the top of the stem, inspect the O-ring or graphite packing where it goes over the stem and replace them if they seem frayed or cracked.
  • Replace the flange if there is one.
  • Put the handle or knob back in place and turn on the water.
  • When you turn the water supply back on, open the supply valve only part way. If there is a leak, which rarely happens, the water won’t spray and create extra cleanup problems.
  • Once the water starts flowing, you may hear a thumping sound and the flow of water may be irregular for a short time. This is because air has gotten into the water line and it is being expelled.

Tip: If the faucet had a flange, you may want to use a bit of caulking to be sure that no moisture can get into the wall, because this can cause damage to the wall over time.

If all goes well, your faucet should no longer drip or chatter.

By Gil Johnson