How To Open Tight Pool Fittings
Swimming pool fittings can be very tight and can be extremely frustrating if you are trying to figure out how to open one that is stuck. UV damage, chemical damage and age are all working against you if you are trying to open a stubborn one that has not been opened in a while. The choice of tools that you have available to you will dictate the best course of action for you to get a stuck PVC union open.
Use gorilla hands - A lifetime in the pool industry will develop a few things such as a bad back and a jaded demeanor but most of all gorilla strength hands. Much of the work involved with swimming pools involves an unusual amount of hand and finger dexterity and strength. Troweling concrete, fixing liner pulls, taking return eyeballs out and digging as part of your day to day job will one day result in hear inhuman grip strength useful for all kinds of things - like spinning open sticky or old PVC unions and valves. If you are having trouble with a sticky valve or union you should try...you know...becoming stronger.
Channel lock pliers are something that every pool technician carries in multiple sizes in their toolbox. These can come in handy for all sorts of pool related problems and one of those is dealing with tight unions. While this is a tool you might have around to try and deal with the stuck union, channel locks are certainly not the ideal tool for the job. The problem with channel locks is that they have a flat surface grip area, where the union itself is round. Even channel locks that have a rounded design will still cause the union to distort, or go oval, when under force. A set of channel locks might be able to free up a PVC union that was too tight for bare hands but if it is really stuck then you will need to find a better tool. The metal teeth of the channel locks will strip and round the PVC union if you were to slip while trying to use channel locks to open a seized union. Using a cloth over the union to stop the teeth from digging in so much might help.
A rubber strap wrench is the type of tool that you may have sitting somewhere in your tool shed (or kitchen) which might be able to help you free up a stuck PVC union. In the way that the channel locks are not ideal as they cause the union to warp out of round, this tool was designed for opening round things like jars. In theory the friction from the rubber will allow you to grip the union while the handle provides leverage to try to crack the seal. Most commonly a union will not be tight for the entire threads - usually if you can crack the seal you will be able to unthread it the rest of the way with your hands.
A standard pipe wrench might sound like the right tool for the job - you are working on pipe and you want to wrench open a stuck union fitting. Pipe wrenches are however not ideal for opening PVC fittings. A pipe wrench certainly provides a lot of torque leverage and has a great bite on round things however perhaps too much of both of these. The metal teeth on the pipe wrench will rip up the PVC union and you can easily generate too much torque with a pipe wrench such that it breaks the fitting or something further down the line. If a pipe wrench is all you have access to then it might do the job if you are careful, but if you had the option an offset hex wrench would be a better option for gripping unions.
By far the best tool for opening PVC unions would be PVC pliers or even an oil filter wrench. These tools are designed specifically for this application and you will be shocked to see how easily you can open a PVC union with them. I have seen people almost standing on a 16" set of channel locks and not able to open a union that these pliers will open easily with one hand. Such a major part of opening a stuck PVC fitting is to apply force without causing the plastic to become oval or misshapen. If you have a chronic problem with PVC unions on your system, or if you are a pool and spa technician you should be sure to pick up a set of these very useful pliers.
If you are stuck in a situation where you are trying to open a union and you do have have access to any of these tools then you can try pouring a kettle of boiling water over the union and then wrap with a small towel or dishtowel just as you would use the rubber strap wrench. You should be able to twist the towel enough for it to grab the union and then use your hands to try and spin the union using the towel for grip and leverage. If this still will not work then perhaps try eating a can of spinach and summon your inner Popeye.
To avoid this problem in the future you can apply a silicone based lubricant to the threads of the union which will dramatically decrease the amount of force you need to use to open and close it. Just be sure to clean the threads of any dirt and sand before applying the lubricant. Try not to get any on the outside of the union that will make it more difficult to grab it in the future.
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