DEAR MIKE: I want to install a soft-water conditioner in my house. My garage is pre-plumbed with a copper loop and I'm pretty good with home repairs, but the thought of soldering my copper pipes has me scared. Can you convince me to attempt this? -- Dwayne P.
DEAR DWAYNE: I'm not going to try to convince you to solder, but I will give you some clues and it really isn't that hard.
You'll need some basics for the job: a propane torch, solder, flux (an acidic paste that etches the copper), and emery cloth. You can purchase a kit, which includes these items for about $20. You will also need a tube cutter (about $10) and possibly a flame protector cloth (about $15).
The first thing to do is cut the copper pipe with the tube cutter. This looks like a C-clamp with a round blade in it. Fit the cutter around the pipe and slightly tighten the blade. Rotate it around the pipe a few times and tighten it gradually. Don't tighten it too fast or you may dent the pipe and have to start over.
Once you cut the pipe free, the cut will look very clean, but you will have to remove the small burrs inside the pipe. You can do this with the reaming attachment on the tubing cutter. Next, you will need to clean the mating surfaces of the tubing and the fittings. Clean, well-prepared surfaces are the key to a solid leak-free joint.
Clean the copper pipe and fittings with 120-grit emery cloth. This will give the copper a shiny appearance. Be careful not to touch the copper with your fingers once it has been cleaned because oils can disrupt the flow of the solder.
Brush an even layer of flux over the ends of the pipe and the insides of the fittings. Then, push the joint together until the pipe seats completely into the fitting. Wipe off any excess flux, and grab the torch.
I prefer to clean, flux and assemble the entire run of copper, and then solder all of the joints at one time.
Fire up the torch and adjust the flame until the blue cone is about 1 1/2 inches long. With the torch in one hand and the solder in the other, place the tip of the flame near the end of the fitting. Hold the solder against the joint, on the other side of the fitting (directly opposite of the flame), where the pipe meets the fitting. This will ensure that the entire joint is hot enough to melt the solder. When the temperature of the copper reaches the melting point of the solder, the solder will melt and flow into the joint. Fill the joint until solder drips out and then move to the next joint. The solder hardens as it cools. Remember to keep a fire extinguisher and a bucket of water nearby just in case.
This job will make you feel manly. Just imagine, fire in one hand and melting solder in the other. You'll have the respect of every kid in the neighborhood.