Repairing a shower valve is one of those home repairs that most homeowners find they need to do every few years, depending on a number of factors including how many people use the shower, your faucet brand and even what type of water you have in your home. Whether you have a single handle “cartridge” type of faucet or a two handle “valve and washer” type of faucet in your shower, the repair for each type is actually pretty similar.
Problems Caused By A Leaky Shower Valve
After removing the shower knob and protective sleeve and flange, you’re left with an ugly hole in the wall.
Let’s first go over some of the symptoms your shower may have if you have a faucet or valve that needs to be repaired. The most obvious symptom and the one that most people complain about is a leaky shower or tub faucet. If you put turn the handle to the completely closed position and you still have a constant drip or flow of water for a minute or more then you most likely have a leaky shower. If you have two shower handles then you may want to take some time to test the hot and cold water separately to see which handle is actually leaking. It could be both, but it’s more than likely just one or the other. Most shower leaks are a result of the rubber washers in the valves simply hardening and wearing out to the point where they no longer make a completely tight seal when closed.
Another problem that can occur with showers (and most plumbing) is banging or shaking noises coming from your pipes when you turn the water on. Your pipes whine, moan, whistle, thump, shake, flutter, bang or even pop when you turn on the water. These noises could be caused by a lot of different things, but I’ve experienced it more than once when my shower washers and valves needed replacing. What seems to happen is as the water is turned on it rushes past a worn or broken washer and creates a sort of rippling vibration through the pipes. It can be loud and if it’s let go it can actually damage your pipes with the constant vibration. Note: this is not something called “water hammer.” Water hammer occurs in pipes when you turn the water off and there’s a loud bang or pop or klanging sound.
If you have one of these problems with your shower or tub then it’s probably time to see what you can do to fix the problem. Just as when you’re replacing a shower diverter, you’re going to go through a series of steps to remove the shower knob and inner workings and then reverse those steps to put everything back together. These are the general steps you’re going to follow to repair a shower valve, regardless of what brand or type of shower faucet you have:
1. Turn off the water.
2. Remove the shower knob.
3. Remove any sleeves and flanges around the valve.
4. Pull out the valve or cartridge.
5. Replace the washers or replace the whole valve or shower cartridge.
6. Lubricate the assembly if needed.
7. Put the valve or cartridge back in.
8. Re-attach any shower sleeves and caulk.
9. Put the shower knob back on securely.
10. Turn on the water and test.
The old shower valve. Note the broken ring of caulk around it.
I’ll walk you through the steps that I took recently to replace my own shower valves. I was having a lot of hammering and thumping in my pipes whenever I turned on the shower. For the longest time I thought it had something to do with the previous owner’s plumbing skills (he replaced some sections of pipe in my house) but on a whim I decided to check the shower valves and once they were repaired all my pipe banging instantly disappeared.
Removing The Shower Knob and Hardware
First, turn off the water going to your shower. Your shower will have two pipes supplying water to it: one hot and one cold. These valves are sometimes located in a basement or crawl space under your shower but they could also be behind the wall of your shower, so go looking around for an access panel. My shower access panel is hidden in the back of a closet, but I also have valves in my basement. If you can’t find the shut-off valves (or for some reason don’t have them… but you should!) then you can just turn off all the water in your home.
Now comes the fun part: you’ll need to figure out how to get your shower handles off. There are hundreds of different shower handle types, but most have a similar design. First, you’ll probably want to pop or pry out the little middle temperature emblem. These will usually have an ‘H’ or ‘C’ on them for dual handles and will have a temperature circle on them for the single shower handle models. I just use a small regular screwdriver to pop out these little plastic covers. Don’t fret too much if you accidentally break one: you can get replacement shower knob inserts at most mega hardware stores.
After removing the shower knob cover you should see a screw. That screw helps hold the knob onto the valve or cartridge in your shower. Sometimes these screws get corroded or covered with soap scum and mineral build up your water. Do your best to remove the screw without stripping it. If you strip the screw head then your shower knob removal just got a lot more difficult. I’ve found that the screws often come out pretty easily, but the knobs themselves still stick on pretty well in some cases.
Once you have the screw out you’re next step is to remove the shower knob or handle. This is often what causes people the most grief, especially if the handle hasn’t been removed in years. There are quite a few tricks and tools you can use to remove a shower knob.
A set of shower wrenches can really help with removing a stuck shower valve.
After removing the knob there may also be a metal sleeve or tube which prevents water from dripping into the wall behind your shower. My shower sleeves are threaded on one end and actually screw directly onto my shower valves, so I just unscrew them. If you to use force to turn these you may want to use a rubber jar opener to get a good grip on them because they are often chrome and slippery and can be scratched easily.
These shower knob sleeves often have a flange of some type that is held against the wall with a tiny set screw on the bottom. Sometimes the sleeve and flange are all one piece. For single knob showers the flange is large and often sunken into the wall, while two handle showers often have the flanges extending outward. I personally don’t trust these set screws to keep that flange tight, so I also use a thin bead of clear caulk around them to hold them tight against the wall. You may have to take a razor and just slice that caulk or silicone to get everything off.
Working With The Shower Valve
Once all the “outer” hardware like the shower knob and the sleeves are off, you’re usually left with nothing more than an ugly hole in the wall. Feel free to use a towel or rag to clean out any dirt or moisture that may be there. The hole in the wall should be dry and clean, but I’ve rarely found that. After all this you should have a hole that has a shower valve or cartridge sticking out of it. The next step is to remove that.
Here’s where your exact steps may vary a bit from mine. Different shower valves and different shower cartridges are removed and held in by different methods. Most shower valves I’ve seen seem to screw in, though shower cartridges can screw in, click in or have little clips around them which hold them tight. You, of course, know the exact brand and part number for your shower faucet cartridge, don’t you? :-)
Seriously, the trick here is to be a little curious and go poking around it. The release mechanism should be fairly obvious, but it’s difficult to remove a valve or cartridge sometimes because you are faced with the prospect of actually knowing how to remove it, but it could still be stuck with residue or oxidation. For shower valves, you may actually need a shower wrench which can help you unscrew a shower valve that is set deep into the wall.
Once you have your shower valve or cartridge removed, you’re pretty much home free. You can either replace the washers around the assembly or, if things look really bad, you can often just replace the whole mechanism. I suggest taking the old valve or cartridge to the hardware store and having someone in the plumbing department help you find an exact placement. My local hardware store has a small catalog filled with photos of hundreds of shower valves and cartridges to choose from. Replacing the washers is obviously the cheapest option and should only cost you a dollar or two. I chose to entirely replace both shower knob assemblies for a grand total of $28 in parts. I also took a digital picture of the new shower assembly with the part number clearly visible, so if I ever have to replace anything again I will know exactly what I need.
There’s one more thing to watch for when removing a shower valve or cartridge: do your best to remove ALL of it. You may want to use a little flashlight to look around your pipes once you remove the shower valve to make sure the hole is clean and round. When I remove my first shower valve I noticed that I only had 3/4 of the washer on the end of it. I made a bad decision and ended up screwing the new shower valve right into the existing hole. Everything worked for a week or so, but my shower knob kept getting harder and harder to turn. Eventually I took the entire thing apart again and when I pulled the new shower valve out I figured out why: there was still a little tiny piece of hardened rubber from the old shower washers stuck in the valve in my wall that was getting crushed by the new shower valve. I pulled out the little piece of rubber, put the new shower valve back in, re-assembled everything and my knob has worked perfectly ever since.
Putting The Shower Valve Back Together
You can see the difference between the old and new shower valve.
When you’re inserting the new shower valve or cartridge make sure you’re putting them in straight and twisting them in without crossing the threads grinding any crud into the threads. Your new shower valve or cartridge should go in relatively easily. If you find yourself forcing things in, then you may want to pull it back out and check to make sure everything is clean and free of debris.
When the valve or cartridge is in, the rest of the operation is pretty straight-forward. You’ll simply put everything back on in reverse order. First you’ll attach the knob sleeve and flange (though I’d skip the caulk until you’ve tested it) and then you can actually put the knob back on and tighten the screw that holds it in place.
To test your shower repair, just turn the shower handle or knobs into the off position and then go turn the water back on. Now when you return to your shower and crank the handle, water should flow out just as it did before. Now turn the water off and watch for leaks or any other problems. Test it a few times and if you’re satisfied that everything is working correctly then you can caulk around the flange. You could use a caulk gun for this, but for small jobs I actually prefer just using a little tube of sealant instead. Finally, you can finish up by attaching that little “hot” or “cold” emblem to cover up the shower knob screw.
Congratulations! You just repaired a leaky shower faucet!