DEAR TIM: I need to fix a leaking shower head. Is it difficult to replace shower heads? At first I was just going to fix the leak, but my wife wants a new shower head. Are there some secret tips you can share that will make it appear as if a master plumber did the job? Alan L., Jackson, TN
DEAR ALAN: I'll never forget my first shower head. I thought to myself that the job appeared simple, and was I ever wrong. I ended up with two leaks, a ruined shower head because I used the wrong tool and my parents banned me from doing experimental plumbing in their home.
Shower heads are like so many other home-improvement projects. It's not that the job is hard, it is that there are just some simple steps you need to take to ensure the job turns out as if a pro did it. In the case of a shower head, your biggest concern should be creating a leak behind the wall where the gooseneck pipe connects to the vertical water-supply pipe that is in the wall.
When you unscrew the existing shower head from the gooseneck pipe, there is a chance you can break the seal where that pipe connects to the water-supply line. The resulting leak can be large or a very sinister slow leak that only produces one or two drops of water with each shower. Either one can cause thousands of dollars of damage over time.
Perhaps the best advice is to take out the gooseneck pipe as part of the job, and reinstall it with the new shower head. Use a small wire brush to clean the pipe threads. If the treads look corroded, then buy a new gooseneck pipe.
Many years ago the mistake I made when I installed my new shower head and gooseneck pipe is not using a pipe sealant on the gooseneck pipe threads. I was a very young man and had no idea what pipe dope or thread sealant was. If you do not use it, water will stream from the connection like an April shower!
There are at least two popular pipe-thread sealants. One is Teflon tape and another is a thick compound you brush on the male threads of the gooseneck. You need to put this sealant on both ends of the gooseneck pipe. If you fail to do this where you attach the shower head, water will leak from the connection and spray you and the walls inside the shower.
It really pays to use the right tools when replacing a shower head. The mistake I made was using a pipe wrench on the shower head. I didn't realize the fixture was made of chrome-plated brass. The teeth of the wrench ruined the finish on the shower head. If you look at most shower heads, you will discover at least two flat areas that are parallel with one another. These are made for an adjustable wrench that, when tightened correctly, will not mar the finish on the new shower head.
After you install the gooseneck pipe but before you install the new shower head, you should turn on the water in the shower. This will flush out any small debris and excess pipe sealant that may have gotten into the pipe. Failure to do this important step can clog the small flow-restrictor holes that are inside virtually every shower head. It can be a huge task to clean these out if they get clogged.
Don't over tighten the new shower head on the gooseneck pipe. Once it is hand tight, it should only take one complete turn to complete a leak-free connection. If you can't turn it that far, stop and test the connection. You can damage the shower head if you tighten it too much.
Talk to different professional plumbers about pipe-tread sealants and you will get polarized views as if you had entered into a political debate. Some plumbers prefer Teflon tape, while others love the brush-on pipe sealants. I happen to use the brush-on sealant that contains Teflon. That way I can be neutral in one of those discussions.
If you decide to use the Teflon tape, there is a special way to install it on the male threads of the pipe. If you install it wrong, the tape will unwind off the pipe as you turn the pipe into the fitting behind the wall. You may think you have a sealed joint when in fact you have a potential Niagara Falls.
One way to install Teflon tape that has worked for me for years is to use a piece of tape that will wind around the pipe threads three or four times. Hold the end of the pipe that you are wrapping so it is pointing at your face. Wrap the Teflon in a clockwise fashion so the threads are covered. It is that simple.