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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Ask the Builder: Don’t sweat copper – press it

You can rent, or perhaps even borrow for free, a tool that allows you to install copper tubing pipe with no soldering required. (Tim Carter)
You can rent, or perhaps even borrow for free, a tool that allows you to install copper tubing pipe with no soldering required. (Tim Carter)
By Tim Carter Tribune Content Agency

Q. 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 method of making leak-proof copper connections. How does it work, how fast is it, and would you depend on a copper connection that doesn’t rely on solder? – Brandy S., Spokane

A. I received several similar questions from readers who were intrigued by my quick mention of this newer method to create leak-proof connections between copper water supply tubing and copper fittings. For decades, the gold standard of making leak-proof joints when installing copper tubing was solder.

As a young plumber in the 1970s, it’s what everyone did. The issue is it takes effort to prepare the copper, heat it up, melt the solder and allow it to cool down. Soldering also is risky. Ask any firefighter, and he’ll share at least one story of a house fire created by a plumber or DIYer who 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 a conference hosted by a major power tool manufacturer. As a master plumber since age 29, I was all over this tool.

It’s called a press tool. The most popular examples of this tool have a set of jaws ranging from 1/2-inch all the way up to 2 inches. You might be able to find larger jaws for bigger copper tubing, but I doubt you’d ever need that huge size.

Here’s the key to how the system works: Fittings such as 90-degree bends, tees, couplings and valves have 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 must, 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 using. When you open the jaws, they spring back; you lightly clamp around the raised ridge of the fitting and then squeeze the tool’s trigger. In 3 to 5 seconds, the jaws compress and produce a slight crimping around the fitting of 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 2 minutes or 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 has 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 up the valve 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. Plumbers of old would have given their eye teeth to have this capability to work on dripping pipes.

You might wonder what these press tools cost. They’re expensive, as are the jaws. But here’s what you can do. There’s a good chance your local tool 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!

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