Fixing a sink that quit working

My mother in law bought a foreclosed condo, and I helped her get the water turned back on, but one sink just wouldn’t work no matter what I did. I finally found an answer, and since there wasn’t much information online, I thought I’d share what I learned about fixing a sink that quit working suddenly, to save someone else some hassle.

The problem occurred in one of the bathrooms. The shutoff valves under the sink were extremely sticky and didn’t want to turn on. Eventually I got them to turn on, and then I ran the sink, and it worked. Then I turned the valves off and back on a couple of times to loosen them, in case she ever had to turn off the water. They loosened up to the point where they were usable again, but then the sink, which had been working fine a minute before, didn’t work anymore. If I turned the sink all the way up, the best I got was a slow drip. If someone else hadn’t been there with me and seen it, I would have thought I’d gone crazy.

Of course I suspected the valves were bad, and of course the valves were soldered on, so changing them wasn’t going to be easy. The thing was, it seemed odd that both valves would go bad at the same time, especially since all the other shutoff valves in the house worked. What was special about that sink?

I was right to be suspicious, because I would have wasted a lot of time and money trying to repair or replace those shutoff valves and I still would have had a problem. The problem wasn’t the valves–it was the sink.

More specifically, the problem was the faucet’s aerator–a suggestion I found after hours of searching online for answers. The aerator is the part of the faucet where the water comes out. It’s inevitable that they’ll eventually get clogged, but it’s usually gradual so we don’t really notice. The water pressure just drops and then we fix it when it gets too irritatingly low. Somehow, I witnessed the very moment this aerator got clogged to the point of being unusable. Probably after I loosened the valves, the burst of water knocked off the debris that had been fouling the valves and shot it right into the aerator, where it could foul up the water flow.

To remove the aerator, reach under the bottom of the faucet and turn to the left, just like changing a light bulb. A very tight light bulb. Sometimes you get lucky and they’ll unscrew by hand, and sometimes you need to use a pair of pliers. Wrap the jaws with a bit of vinyl electrical tape to avoid marring the faucet. One turn with the pliers will usually be enough to let you finish the job by hand easily.

When I removed the aerator, a handful of grimy green sand-like sediment came out. Some aerators can be disassembled. This one was a Delta, which is a single-piece unit. That made it easy–I just rinsed it off at a different sink, then screwed it back on and the faucet started working again. Other brands use multiple pieces, so pay attention to how the works go together if you don’t want to end up buying a new one.

Sometimes replacing the aerator is unavoidable, but they’re a $10 part so it’s not a tragedy if that ends up being necessary.

Since I saw the problem in one sink, I went around to the others and checked them. None of them were quite as bad, but all of them had quite a bit of debris in them. So I rinsed them off and put them back together to avoid future problems.

I can’t imagine this problem is common, but cleaning or changing an aerator is easier than changing a valve, even under the best of circumstances. So if you think your valves are bad, and especially if both valves at the same sink seemed to have quit working, check the aerator first–you might save yourself a few trips to the hardware store and a lot of other trouble.

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