Reuben's Home Inspection Blog

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Shut-off valve basics, and why ball valves are better

As a home inspector, I tend to take shut-off valves for granted and assume everyone knows what they are, how they work, and what can go wrong with them.  I recently had a client share a story with me regarding some problems he ran in to with the shut-off valves at his house - we'll call him Sir Walter Raleigh.  Walter thought that some of the problems he ran in to while replacing his water heater were things that most homeowners don't think about or know about, and would make for good blog fodder.  I agreed.

Gate Valves

Walter's woes began when he tried to shut off the water to his water heater.  All water heaters are supposed to have a shut-off valve on the cold water supply.  If the water heater is going to be replaced, this is where the water gets shut off.

Some homes also have a valve on the hot water side of the water heater - these aren't required, but they're also not a problem.  They just make it a little easier to service the water heater.  I've heard some home inspectors call shut-off valves on the hot side of a water heater a safety hazard, but they're not.  They're fine.

As you may have guessed, Walter couldn't shut the water off completely.  He had an old gate valve at the water heater, and the gate valve was fouled - it shut off most of the water, but most isn't good enough.  A gate valve has a round handle on it, and shuts off the flow of water by essentially closing a gate.  The three photos below show a gate valve in the open position, halfway open position, and fully closed position.

Gate valve fully openGate valve halfway openGate valve fully closed

As you can see, the handle never goes up and down as the gate opens and lowers; for this reason, it's impossible to know if a gate valve is in the open or closed position just by looking at it.  The exploded view below shows what the guts of a gate valve look like.

Gate valve exploded

When the gate valve at the water heater wouldn't completely shut off the flow of water, Walter decided he better replace the valve.  He tried to shut the water off  at the main shut-off valve for his house, located downstream from the water meter.   That valve was fouled too.  Next, he went to the other main valve for his house - the one upstream from the water meter.  Can you guess where this is going?  That valve was also fouled.  Three fouled gate valves, no way to completely shut off the water to his house.  It's a good thing this was only a 'project' and not an emergency.

Do you know where the main shut-off valve to the water supply in your home is?  If not, take a quick peek at your home inspection report - home inspectors are supposed to report on the location of the main water and main fuel shut-off valves.  For most buildings in Minnesota, the main shut-off valve is located in the basement near the front of the building.  If there is no basement, the valve will probably be located in the furnace room.

Main shutoff valves

Curb Stop

To continue with his project, Walter had to replace his main shut-off valves.  To do this, he needed to call the city water department and have them turn off the water to his house at the street.  The first shut-off valve to a home's water supply is located below the ground near the street - this is call the curb stop, or the curb cock.  Sometimes the valve is buried in the dirt, and sometimes they've completely covered in concrete.  The photo below shows an example of an access cover located in the front yard.

Curb cock access in yard

Here's a closer view.

Curb cock access in yard close-up

In Walter's case, it took the people from the municipal water supply about 40 minutes to even find the one in his front yard, because it was buried.   At least it wasn't buried below a sidewalk.  Here's what the access cover may look like if it's located at a driveway or sidewalk.  It's tough to mistake this for anything else.

Curb cock access in driveway

When the city turns the water on or off from the curb, they use a special tool like the one pictured below.

Wrench

Ball valves

Once the city had turned off the water supply to his house, Walter started replacing his valves.  He hired a plumber to replace the first valve before the meter, and then did the rest of the valves himself.  Instead of using gate valves, he used ball valves.  Ball valves are much easier to operate -  they have a lever handle that only needs to be moved 90 degrees to be turned off completely.  By comparison, the gate valve that I showed above took me 15 turns of the wrist to completely shut off.

When the handle of a ball valve is parallel to the valve or pipe, it's open.  When it's perpendicular, it's closed.  This makes it easy know if a ball valve is open or closed, just by looking at it.  The ball valve below is in the open position.

Ball valve

The photos below show a ball valve in the open position, halfway open position, and fully closed position.

Ball valve fully openBall valve halfway openBall valve fully closed

Ball valve are also much less likely to leak; I can't recall ever finding a leaking ball valve, but I find other types of valves leaking all the time.

Stop Valves

Walter didn't have any stop valves to deal with, but as long as I'm talking about different types of valves, I should mention stop valves as well.  Stop valves are commonly found at plumbing fixtures - for instance, at the water supply line to your toilet.  A stop valve looks very similar to a gate valve, but it's a little bit more compact.  A stop valve works by moving a stopper up and down.  The photos below show a stop valve in the open position, halfway open position, and fully closed position.

Stop valve fully openStop valve halway openStop valve fully closed

Check out the stem in these photos - you'll notice that when the valve is fully closed, the stem isn't visible at all.  Most stop valves are much smaller than the one pictured above, but I decided to use a larger one for my example because it gives the best view.  The photo below shows an exploded view of the guts of a stop valve.

Stop valve exploded

Like gate valves, stop valves take more time to operate and they're more prone to leaking.  If you have a leaking stop valve, you can often stop the leak by using a wrench to tighten the nut right below the handle.  Lefty loosy, righty tighty.

Summary

If you want to be proactive about preventing a plumbing headache, check out the main shut-off valves at your home.  Are they accessible?  When the valve is fully closed, does this completely shut off the water to your house?  Is the curb stop in your front yard visible?  It's nice to know about this stuff before you have a problem.

Gate valves, stop valves, and ball valves are the most common types of valves to find in your home.  If you have any projects that require replacing valves, I recommend using ball valves, also known as quarter-turn valves.  They're easier to use and less prone to leaking.

Reuben Saltzman, Structure Tech Home Inspections

        

Comment balloon 28 commentsReuben Saltzman • November 14 2012 03:15AM

Comments

Oh Reuben.  Walter is a man of adventure for sure.

For me, CALL A PLUMBER!!!

 

Posted by Lenn Harley, Real Estate Broker - Virginia & Maryland (Lenn Harley, Homefinders.com, MD & VA Homes and Real Estate) almost 6 years ago

Thanks for the information. I will bookmark this and share with others.

Posted by Gita Bantwal, REALTOR,ABR,CRS,SRES,GRI - Bucks County & Philadel (RE/MAX Centre Realtors) almost 6 years ago

Shutoff valves always seem to leak. Ball valves are where it's at.

Posted by Aaron Smith, Northern Kentucky Agent & Investor (Keller Williams Advisors ) almost 6 years ago

Lenn - that's good advice :)

Gita - thank you!

Aaron - I completely agree.

Posted by Reuben Saltzman, Delivering the Unbiased Truth. (Structure Tech Home Inspections) almost 6 years ago

Good morning Wlater,

Whew!!! Information excellent but I'll be like Lenn and call my plumber..don't want my husband fooling around with a project like this and I for sure won't give it a try! I've always heard the ball valves are the best because they don't leak!

Posted by Dorie Dillard, Serving Buyers & Sellers in NW Austin Real Estate (Coldwell Banker United Realtors® ~ 512.346.1799) almost 6 years ago

Great discussion Reubs.  When I see older "handle" valves, I suggest replacement with a "lever" valve on my reports.  I say it that way so all understand.

You may be too young to understand this:  Do you have Sir Walter Raleigh in a can?

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) almost 6 years ago

Reubs, as always you have great depth of details in your blogs. I have bookmarked.

Posted by Ritu Desai, Virginia Realtor-Fairfax/Loudoun/PW-703-625-4949 (Samson Properties) almost 6 years ago

Reuben, we had all of the plumbing (Polybutlylene) replaced a couple of years ago. All of the cut off valves were replaced with ball valves. Much easier to turn on and off.

Posted by Michael Setunsky, Your Commercial Real Estate Link to Northern VA almost 6 years ago

Hi Rueben,

Nice breakdown of the way the faucets work and why and why not to use the different one sin different situations. i feel like I was back in training. 

Doe's this count for the Continueing education? LOL

Have a great day and a really good post.

Have a good day in Minnisota my friend.

Best, Clint McKie

 

Posted by Clint Mckie, Desert Sun Home, Comm. Inspection 1-575-706-5586 (Desert Sun Home, commercial Inspections) almost 6 years ago

Great lesson. .

I know about ball valves are only to operate on or off..

and gate valves can handle being half way open to regulate flow. .

At least that was a lesson I learned long time ago. .

Posted by Fernando Herboso - Broker for Maxus Realty Group, 301-246-0001 Serving Maryland, DC and Northern VA (Maxus Realty Group - Broker 301-246-0001) almost 6 years ago

A plumber is worth it to do things right..This post proves that and it is a good post too...thank you R

Posted by Richie Alan Naggar, agent & author (people first...then business Ran Right Realty ) almost 6 years ago

Thanks for the education about ball valves. :)  I see that as the common item of choice in Kentucky nowadays.  Though most older homes still have gate valves.

Posted by Jon Karlen, Louisville & Shelbyville Kentucky real estate (Finish Line Realty - Shelbyville & Louisville Ky Real Estate) almost 6 years ago

Very good information and those t-bars are a handy-dandy tool.  Should be a part of my house warming gifts, it may come in handy!  Keeping those curb stops free and clear is important and no one thnks of that until it's too late and they need to access but can't.

Posted by Carla Muss-Jacobs, RETIRED (RETIRED / State License is Inactive) almost 6 years ago

Way too much information for me to process right now. Keep a good plumber as a referral source.

Posted by Robert L. Brown, Grand Rapids Real Estate Bellabay Realty, West Mic (www.mrbrownsellsgr.com) over 5 years ago

Reuben:

You always blog about information we all need to know.  I need to have a plumber come to my home and check all my valves.  They are probably old and not very efficient.

Posted by Evelyn Kennedy, Alameda, Real Estate, Alameda, CA (Alain Pinel Realtors) over 5 years ago

My plumber changed out my old water main valve with a ball valve and told me I'd like it.  He was right.  A quarter turn is all it takes.

Posted by Lloyd Binen, Silicon Valley Realtor since 1976; 408-373-4411 (Certified Realty Services) over 5 years ago

Number one rule of living. Never do plumbing projects on a Sunday or Holiday. That was a brave man, especially if it was on a weekend. 

 

Posted by Scott Seaton Jr. Bourbonnais Kankakee IL Home Inspector, The Home Inspector With a Heart! (SLS Home Inspections-Bradley Bourbonnais Kankakee Manteno) over 5 years ago

Hello,  I completely agree that ball valves are better. Whenever I have to replace a shut off valve, I only use ball valves.  Quarter turn ball valves are also available for inside the house to replace toilet and faucet shut off valves. My experience has been they have less chance of leaking and are so quick and easy to use.  

Posted by Matthew Sturkie, CRS, GRI 909-969-3805, CRS, GRI 909-969-3805 (Action Realty) over 5 years ago

A very good article on the subject Reuben. Your photography illustrations make everything very clear. Here ball valves are also sometimes called line valves because when open the handle is in line with the plumbing.

Posted by Robert Butler, Montreal Home Inspector | Aspect Inspection (Aspect Inspection) over 5 years ago

Dorie - that definitely works :)

Jay - everyone knows lever :).  As for Sir Walter Raleigh in a can, I'm too young to have ever heard that, but it sounds like a version of 'is your refrigerator running?'.   "Better let him out!"  <insert hysterical laughter>

Ritu - thanks!

Michael - and much more satisfying to turn.

Clint - ha!  Thank you sir.

Posted by Reuben Saltzman, Delivering the Unbiased Truth. (Structure Tech Home Inspections) over 5 years ago

Fernando - funny, I was taught the same thing at some point, but I regularly see ball valves on boiler systems being used to throttle flow.  Go figure.

Richie - thank you.

Jon - same here in Minneapolis and Saint Paul.

Carla - ha!  I had the city out to shut off the water to my house once, and they left the T-bar behind.  I had my plumber notify them a couple times, and I left the tool sitting in my front yard for about a month, but they never came back for it.

Robert - sounds good :)

Posted by Reuben Saltzman, Delivering the Unbiased Truth. (Structure Tech Home Inspections) over 5 years ago

Evelyn - give 'em a try.

Lloyd - much easier, huh?

Scott - I completely agree.  My first 'real job' was at a hardware store, and our rule of thumb when a homeowner came in on a Saturday morning for plumbing parts was that they would be back at least two more times that day.

Matthew - you're completely right.

Robert - line valve makes sense.  I like it.

Posted by Reuben Saltzman, Delivering the Unbiased Truth. (Structure Tech Home Inspections) over 5 years ago

That sort of thing happened when kids (gee willikers, none that I know ... really) went through phone books and called people randomly with stupid sayings like that.  Oh, and everyone had tobacco in the house, in cans.

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) over 5 years ago

I remember making similar stupid phone calls as a kid... until caller ID starting becoming popular :)

Posted by Reuben Saltzman, Delivering the Unbiased Truth. (Structure Tech Home Inspections) over 5 years ago

Organized content is the best way to display or post an article, thank you for making it easy to digest your post.

Posted by Master plumber over 5 years ago

 

   Great article and backup.  I've found, for myself, that in areas with hard water and high levels of sulfates that the gate valves tend to clog up more than ball valves or washer-type.  It seems to happen most to the valves that get used the least.  Perhaps they were never turned off tightly enough to prevent seepage and the subsequent mineral build up.  But I try to operate these valves that are rarely used at least a couple of times a year.  Seems to keep them more in working order that way.

   I've also found that, if absolutely necessary, I can take the gate valves apart and scrape out the buildup in the bottom of the valve body enough to get a lot more life out of the valve.  But I usually only do that if I don't have a replacement.

 

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