Q: I just inherited my parents’ house, which was built in the 1950s. The drains in the bathtub and the bathroom sink are discolored. One is brass, the other steel. I’ve been cleaning the grout and the sink area with a paste of bleach and baking soda. What can I do to stop the deterioration?
A: There’s a good chance the drain covers are pitted, not just discolored, because of prolonged contact with bleach or whatever caustic cleaners might have been used over the past seven decades. Try running a finger over the surface. If it feels smooth, the metal might just be tarnished. Rubbing with baking soda and vinegar should restore the shine of both brass and stainless steel.
If the metal is pitted, you might want to try a couple of home remedies, such as scrubbing repeatedly with vinegar or a moist, wadded-up ball of aluminum foil. Those solutions may be worth the effort if there are a few small pits on an expensive faucet, but you’ll probably get quicker, better results on a corroded tub or sink drain by installing a new ring and stopper.
For a tub drain, first identify the type of stopper you have and remove it. This is a no-brainer if your tub has an old-fashioned plug. Other types of stoppers may screw out or pop up, and you might need to remove set screws or take other non-obvious steps to get them out. Home Depot has a good overview of the types of stoppers and how to remove them.
To get a like-new look, the easiest option is to cover the existing drain ring with a new one, such as the Watco Universal NuFit push-pull bathtub stopper with grid strainer ($19.40 at Home Depot). Depending on the design of your existing drain assembly, you might be able to just screw it in, or you might need to glue it over the old drain ring using the silicone adhesive included in the package.
Or you can replace the entire drain assembly, which is usually quite simple. But, as with all plumbing repairs, tackle the project when a hardware store is open, in case you discover midway through that you’re missing a part or a tool.
To replace the drain assembly, first remove the stopper. Then turn the part that includes the ring counterclockwise by gripping the crossbars that are inside the drain. Although it’s possible to use a wrench for this, it’s much easier if you have a tool such as the Husky double-ended tub drain wrench ($11.97 at Home Depot), plus either a screwdriver or an adjustable wrench to grip and turn it. The drain wrench has a big end and a smaller end, with prongs on both sides, so you can slip it into different types of drains. Thread a screwdriver through holes on the sides of the drain wrench or grip the top with an adjustable wrench to add torque as you turn it.
If the old drain doesn’t have crossbars inside (or if they’re so corroded that they break off), one solution is to get a gadget such as the Husky tub drain removal tool ($24.78 at Home Depot). It’s basically a plug with grooves or gnarling on the exterior, designed to grip the inside of the drain when you tap the plug in with a mallet. Use an adjustable wrench to turn the plug counterclockwise while pressing down, and the plug should come out with the drain cover attached.
Once the old part is out, clean the opening in the tub with a rag. Wrap a pencil-thick rope of plumber’s putty around the back of the new drain cover, then screw the new piece into place clockwise until it’s tight. Clean up the excess putty, add the stopper and you’re done. (Oatey plumber’s putty is $2.49 for 14 ounces at Home Depot.) Read the label on the putty before you buy it; standard plumber’s putty is solvent-based and should not be used if you have a plastic tub.
Replacing a sink drain is more complicated and messier, but it’s still doable with a few tools. There doesn’t appear to be a glue-on solution, and with a sink drain, you don’t just replace the ring and cover that you see from the top of the sink; you also need to replace a short piece of pipe that screws on from underneath. If you have a pop-up drain with a lever, you need a similarly designed replacement part. Most residential sink drains are 1¼ inches in diameter, but some are 1½ or even 1.65 inches, so measure before you buy the replacement parts.
Cover the floor or cabinet base under the sink with an old towel, and have a bucket or pan that fits under the P-trap to collect water when you disconnect it. For tools, you’ll need an adjustable wrench with jaws that open wide enough to grip the nuts on the pipes, such as the 12-inch tongue-and-groove pliers from Channellock ($21.97 at Home Depot). For how-to instructions, videos are best. Two good ones that include instructions for dealing with pop-up stoppers are at bit.ly/replace-drain and bit.ly/replace-assembly.
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