Don’t Sweat Copper, Press It
DEAR TIM: I love reading your column in my local paper. Several months ago you wrote about which plumbing pipe might be better for water lines, copper and PEX. You briefly mentioned a new tool that eliminates the need for soldering copper. I’d like to know much more about this magic method of making leak-proof copper connections. How does this tool work, how fast is it and would you depend on a copper connection that doesn’t rely on solder? Brandy S., Spokane, WA
Brandy’s not the first reader that was intrigued by that quick mention of a newer method to create leak-proof connections between copper water supply tubing and copper fittings. I received several other requests for more information about this newer technology from folks just like you who visited my Ask Tim page at my AsktheBuilder.com website.
For decades, the gold standard of making leak-proof joints when installing copper tubing was solder. As a young plumber back in the 1970s, it’s what just about everyone did. The issue is it takes some effort to prepare the copper, heat it up, melt the solder and allow it to cool down. Soldering also is risky. Ask any seasoned firefighter and he’ll share at least one story of a house fire created by a plumber or DIYer that allowed the torch to set the house ablaze!
As with many things, new ideas and technology debut and disrupt the landscape. Such was the case about seven or so years ago, when I saw the first copper press tool at an editors conference hosted by a major power tool manufacturer. Being a master plumber since age 29, you can bet I zeroed in on this tool like a mosquito lands on my arm each summer evening here in New Hampshire.
The tools are called press tools. The most popular tools have a set of jaws ranging from 1/2-inch all the way up to 2 inches. You may be able to find larger jaws for bigger copper tubing, but I doubt you’d ever need that huge size!
The fittings, like 90-degree bends, tees, couplings, and even valves, have the magic in them that makes the system work. Each fitting has a raised ridge and this formed part of the fitting holds a rubber o-ring.
You cut the copper tubing using a cutting tool that produces a clean cut with no burrs. Never use a hacksaw or if you do, file the edges of the cut to remove all burrs as they might cut the o-ring as you slide the tubing into the fitting.
Once you fully insert the tubing into the fitting, you select the tool jaw that matches the size of the piping you’re working with. You open the jaws, they spring back and lightly clamp around the raised ridge of the fitting and you squeeze the trigger. In three to five seconds, the jaws compress and produce a slight crimping around both the fitting and the tubing.
This compression squeezes the o-ring tightly around the copper tubing creating a leak-proof joint. To do this same operation soldering one end of a fitting to a piece of tubing would take at least two minutes, maybe more.
The cost of the special press fittings is more. While writing this column, I checked the top website I use to buy plumbing supplies and the cost for a 1/2-inch sweat 90-degree fitting was 39 cents. The same size press fitting was $1.83. That’s a difference of $1.44 but think about the time you’ll save!
There’s another huge advantage when it comes to press fittings. You can’t solder a copper pipe that’s got water in it. The steam and water don’t allow the pipe to get hot enough to melt the solder.
You can actually have water flowing out of a pipe at full blast and shut it off using a press tool! All you have to do is purchase a ball valve that has the press fitting built into the valve. You open the valve up so water is squirting out of it, slide the valve onto the pipe, press the end of the valve that’s on the pipe, remove the tool and then close the ball valve to stop the water flow. This is absolute magic when you stop and think about it. Plumbers of old would have given their eye teeth to have this capability to work on dripping pipes!
You may wonder what these press tools cost. They’re expensive as are the jaws. But here’s what you can do. There’s a very good chance your local tool rental store rents them. I know of a plumbing supply house in Maine that will allow you to borrow one for free for one day! They do this as a complimentary service since you buy materials and fittings from them.
These press tools allow you as a DIYer to install copper tubing in your home or to do a repair where otherwise you’d not have the courage to solder. I recently used a press tool to install all the copper tubing that connects my daughter’s new high-efficiency combi boiler to the heating manifolds. This same boiler also is a tankless water heater and I used the press tool to make all the connections of the copper water lines. I saved countless hours and didn’t have one leak.
Press it, don’t sweat it!