10 repairs every cottager can master

Updated: July 20, 2018

person-fixing-a-screen Photo by Ozgur Coskun/Shutterstock

By Wayne Lennox, Paul Lewis & Derek McNaughton

Eventually, everything needs fixing. This is especially true in cottage country and more often than not the experts are few and far between. Here are some basic fixes that every seasoned cottager should know.

Fix a leaky pipe

Once upon a time, a leak in the cottage plumbing meant that you had to crawl under the building—during black fly season, of course—to perform some sort of soldering procedure on the 1⁄2″-dia. copper pipe, most often alarmingly close to combustible surfaces. Nowadays, most new plumbing consists of flexible plastic pipe that’s less prone to failure. However, ruptures and leaks can still occur, and fixing these requires specialized tools. That is, until SharkBite came along. This push-to-connect fitting hit the scene a few years ago, and it provides a convenient means to repair both copper and plastic pipes, or even to complete new installs, and I haven’t seen a better product for this yet. SharkBite fittings join copper to copper, plastic to plastic, and copper to plastic without any soldering or special tools. First, you cut the pipe (use a pipe cutter for copper; a hacksaw will do for plastic if you don’t have special shears) on both sides of the leaky spot. Make sure your cuts are square and clean—no burrs. SharkBite sells a handy deburring tool, but fine sandpaper will work too. Pipe with a 1⁄2″ dia. (the most common residential pipe) will need to slide 1″ into the SharkBite fitting, so mark this depth on both ends of cut pipe. Next, slide each end into the fitting, stopping once you hit the mark. Done. If you need to remove the fitting, a special disconnect clip does the trick. Slide it over the pipe, push against the fitting collar, and, while holding the fitting, pull the pipe out.

Change the oil

Replacing the gearcase or bottom-end oil in your outboard motor is usually a once-per-season job. You’ll need a container for the old oil, a slotted screwdriver, gear oil, and a gear-oil pump. There are two plugs: a lower drain plug and an upper vent plug. With the boat ashore, raise the motor, and unscrew the bottom plug. Then remove the upper plug and lower the motor so the old oil can drain into the container. Examine the spent oil: a milky white or creamy colour suggests that water has penetrated the gear case; a greyish hue may mean bearing or gear problems. If so, call a mechanic. To refill, thread the pump tube into the lower hole, and pump in fresh oil until it dribbles out the upper hole. It’s a good idea to install new washers or O-rings on the plugs. Screw the vent plug in, and remove the pump tube. Quickly reinstall the drain plug so only a little oil escapes. Wipe down the lower end, and transfer the used oil to a larger container. Once that’s full, take it to the hazardous waste depot.

Getting the pump going again

Unstick the pressure switch contacts. If the water pressure drops but the pump doesn’t come on, it could be a faulty pressure switch. Sometimes the contacts on a pressure switch can stick, disabling the pump. This is usually because of corrosion or surface debris. While it’s tempting to try to clean the contact faces with fine emery cloth— don’t. By removing the factory coating, you’re inviting premature failure. Pressure switches are cheap and replacing them is easy. If you’re comfortable replacing a light switch, it’s about the same level of difficulty. Just make sure the pressure rating on the new switch is the same as the rating on the old switch— it’s usually printed on the inside of the plastic cover. Start the repair by turning off the power. Label and disconnect the wires from the old switch, and drain the pressure tank. Remove the old switch, and put the new switch in its place. It’s either a threaded connection, in which case you’ll need to add new thread sealant, or it’s a compression fitting. Re-attach the wires, and put the cover back on. Let it fill and you’re back in business.

Seal a leaky intake line

If you get blasts of air through your faucet before the water arrives, your pump is sucking air on the intake line (between the pump and the water). The line must be airtight—even a pinhole can cause problems, and larger holes can disable the pump. Carefully inspect the joints and fittings between the foot valve and the pump—these are the most likely places for leaks. If anything looks suspect, wrap the area in plastic stretch wrap, and check if the problem persists. If the wrap works, make the repair permanent by replacing that connection with new parts. If all the joints and fittings are sound, then the leak is in the line itself and will be tougher to find. Abrasions or marks on the line may be clues. Slather those areas with shaving cream. Run the pump, and look for telltale bubbles. Fixing the line leak is easy: just cut out the damaged section, and replace it with a barbed fitting and four stainless steel hose clamps.

Unclog a jammed foot valve

Most shallow-water intake lines have a foot valve where the line ends in the water. The spring-operated valve only permits water to flow towards the pump, helping to hold prime. Occasionally, dirt, seaweed, or other debris makes it past the coarse filter screen and jams the valve open. To clear it, remove the screw that holds the filter screen in place, and inspect the valve. Chances are, the obstruction will be easy to flush out once the valve is opened. Worst case: the valve is damaged and won’t close to seal the line. In that case, replace the valve. (It’s worth having a spare on hand.) To prevent future problems, suspend the foot valve well above the lake bottom, either with a store-bought stand or a homemade device. Add a filter sock over the foot valve. The fabric filter will keep out much smaller bits than the metal screen will, without impeding water flow.

Remove stripped screws 

If a screw you’re trying to remove has become so damaged that the tip of the screwdriver won’t grip the head properly, here are two remedies. The best way to deal with a stripped screw is to use a screw extractor—a dual-ended bit that mounts in your drill. It’s a two-step process: first, make a small hole in the damaged screw with the boring end of the bit, then flip to the extractor end. Put the drill in reverse, and the hardened-steel threads will bite into the screw and back it out. Or, if the hardware store is a boat ride away, try the following trick. Mix up a small amount of two-part metal epoxy (like J-B Weld), and stick a small nut to the head of the damaged screw. Once the epoxy has cured, grab the nut with a pair of pliers or a small wrench, and slowly back the screw out.

Protect your boat from bumping screen

Older docks, in particular, are often equipped with “inventive” accessories to protect the dock and the boats that tie up to it: folded firehose, old tires, retired pool noodles (shudder). The problem with most of these solutions is that the boat hull is not really shielded from chafing. Even store bought dock fenders will eventually take a toll on your boat’s exterior. The trick is to take advantage of the rub rail—the protective rim on most boats that usually sits too high out of the water to be of any use. That’s where this easy DIY dock protector comes into play. Bolt or lag a pair of vertical 2×6 struts to the side of the dock. To determine the length of these struts, you’ll need to check the position of your watercraft’s rub rails, and consider how much flux you can expect in your lake’s water level. Screw vinyl dock bumpers along the struts—Boat Saver bumpers work well. Now, when your boat is tied up, instead of the hull bumping up against an old tire, your rub rail will push against the dock protectors, keeping the hull from harm (and reducing damage to your dock). As a bonus, the 2×6 can provide a convenient handhold to help with boarding and exiting the boat—much appreciated by older cottagers.

Secure that wobbly deck post

A teetering deck railing post is a little like an over-refreshed party guest—annoying, potentially hazardous, and unwanted on any respectable deck. Posts loosen for myriad reasons, but the problem is often rooted in the original construction, in which the builders either used the wrong material or the wrong fasteners, or simply put the posts in the wrong location. Railing posts attached to a deck with nails are doomed to fail, and hammering 25 more spikes into a post or even driving a few deck screws into that precarious pillar is unlikely to fix the problem—they won’t be able to pull the post tight to the joist. If any part of the post or its anchoring point is rotted, forget fixing it; plan on replacement. But if the wood is good, a few carriage bolts through the post and into a rim joist or other neighbouring beam can turn a staggering support into one as steadfast as an oak stump. Start by determining the length of the bolts: the width of the deck post (usually a 4×4, so 31⁄2″), plus the thickness of the rim joist or other beam, plus 1″. If the joist is a standard 2×10 or 2×8, you’ll need 1⁄2″ carriage bolts, 6″ long (31⁄2 + 11⁄2 + 1). Include a washer and a nut for each bolt. Use a minimum of two bolts per post. Drill two straight 1⁄2″ holes through the joist and the post, offsetting the holes and keeping each about 11⁄2″ from the top or bottom edge of the joist. Fill any gaps between the joist and the post with construction adhesive. Tap the bolts into the holes, attach washers, and tighten down the nuts until the bolt-heads sit flush with the post. Then it’s time to send out the party invites.

Replace a busted prop

Just about every boater will one day encounter a submerged rock that will, like some monster sturgeon, take a bite out of the prop. Dang it! Luckily, the process for replacing one is fairly painless. Start with the boat out of the water, lest you lose a crucial pin in the drink. Inspect the chewed prop to ensure the shaft isn’t bent— a bigger fix. Sometimes you can tell by looking. If not, be alert to vibrations while cruising. Usually, a prop is secured by a washer, a nut, and something to lock the nut. Some motors use cotter pins to keep the nut from loosening, others have a tab washer under the nut that looks like it has claws. Remove the cotter pin with pliers, or, for a tab washer, pry the claws open with a flathead screwdriver. Slide a scrap piece of 2×4 between the prop and the cavitation plate. This stops the prop from turning while you next remove the nut with a socket wrench. Turning counter-clockwise, remove the nut, the washer (or lock ring), and any spacer. The prop should now pull off the shaft. If not, tap the prop with a rubber mallet. Behind the prop is a thrust washer that comes off too. Remember which way it faces: it has to go back on the same way. Remove any dirt, weeds, or fishing line, and liberally apply marine grease to the prop shaft. Reinstall the thrust washer, and slide the new prop onto the shaft. Reattach the other parts in reverse order, tightening the nut to the specified torque, usually 40 ft.-lbs; check your owner’s manual. Then head out on the water with a mental note to avoid those dastardly prop eaters below.

Patch a hole in the screen

Duct tape is good for fixing many things, but a hole in the porch screen is not one of them. A patch bordered with eyesore glue won’t win accolades either. For aluminum or fibreglass screen, you can repair holes from the size of a dime to a softball with fluorocarbon fishing line, a sewing needle, and some scraps of matching screen. Fluorocarbon, famous for tricking line-savvy bass into biting a lure, is less visible than traditional monofilament fishing line. It doesn’t stretch and will weather better than the cotton thread in the cottage sewing box. It comes in screen-like colours too. Cut a square patch of replacement screen at least one inch larger on all sides than the damaged area. Thread ample line onto the needle. Place and level the patch over the hole, and sew the patch along the perimeter into the old screen, hole by hole, with an assistant on the other side to pass the needle back to you. A curved upholstery needle can work if there’s no one around to help. When you’re finished, tie the thread off with a stout knot. If the hole is bigger than a basketball, replace the whole screen (and get the culprit to help)

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