In our careers as licensed plumbers and service specialists we have been in a constant struggle between our professional obligations and the home improvement center/hardware store plumbing departments that make a regular habit of selling plumbing products to the consumer which may be potentially dangerous. The fact of the matter is that a store can sell anything it wants without repercussions. The local plumbing inspector does not come into Lowes, Home Depot, Menards or Ace and inspect their shelves, pulling out the products that are outlawed. It is the licensed plumber’s training which helps them recognize these items and their responsibility to point them out.
Below you will find a list of products all available at the local home centers that are dangerous to you or your property.
Please keep in mind; I am not nit picking some obscure section of the local plumbing code to say this is dangerous. My perspective is that of a long time service plumber and my opinions are based on actual experience. These products do pose a real danger and might be in your home right now.
1) Two and three handle tub shower valves……….
These types of faucets are common in older homes. They were the builders standard up to the 80’s. Code now says that all tub/shower valves should be pressure balanced. Pressure balanced valves require that an equal amount of cold water be mixed with the hot water in order for it to come out of the shower. The old two and three handle valves are “grandfathered” in on existing homes, but a licensed plumber cannot install a new one in place of the old. These faucets are commonly available at home centers and online.
What does this mean: A pressure balanced shower valve is designed to protect the shower occupant from being scalded by hot water. In order for hot water to flow through the valve, an equal amount of cold-water pressure must be present. When the pressure of the cold water drops out, normally from someone flushing a toilet somewhere else in the house, the pressure-balanced valve drops the hot water pressure an equal amount. On a two or three handled valve when the cold water drops out, hot water comes out of the shower untempered and can cause burns in a few seconds. Children and the elderly are particularly susceptible to this, as it is more difficult for them to jump out of a scalding shower. If you have these kinds of valve in your home consider changing it and if someone has installed a valve like this for you, they have no regard for your family’s safety.
I have even seen these devices featured on This Old House. The concept is genius. It uses city water pressure to remove storm water from your basement through a venturi action. It is basically failsafe, since even when there is a power outage you would not lose city water pressure. Unfortunately, this is a cross connection allowing storm water to mix with your drinking water and is illegal. Also, this can cost you a lot of money. If you are the type of homeowner who does not regularly check on the sump pump, and it fails, you use two gallons of city water to remove one gallon of storm water. This would create a hefty water bill at the end of the month.
What does this mean: A cross connection to your potable water (water that is fit for drinking) and another water source like a sump pump basin, is very dangerous. A drop in your city water pressure could result in siphonage of the sump water into your drinking water system. Although most of these sump pumps have an anti siphon vacuum breaker to prevent this, these vacuum breakers are not an acceptable device to protect your family’s drinking water. Cross connection is a very serious issue in the plumbing industry and I can guarantee that every plumbing inspector cringes when he sees one of these gems.
3) The saddle valve…………….$$$$
This valve is often installed by HVAC contractors to supply water to a humidifier and by appliance installers under the kitchen sink to supply water to an icemaker.
These valves clamp onto a pipe and then use a needle to pierce the pipe wall and allow the water to flow. Look near your water heater or under the kitchen sink and you will probably find one of these. By code they are not an approved connection/adapter for your piping system. Besides that, they tend to fail and when they fail, the results are disastrous. Valves like this are put in every day. They require only a screw driver and a crescent wrench to make a water connection.
What does this mean: These valves are a ticking time bomb. They are most likely to fail when they are moved from opened to closed. So you close the valve in the spring when you are turning the humidifier off and the next day it starts leaking. You don’t notice it until there is water damage all over your basement.
If you have one of these valves in your house, contact a licensed plumber to have it removed and a proper connection installed.
Here is how the Illinois Plumbing Code reads :
Illinois State Plumbing Code
890.1130 – Protection of Potable Water
Subsection e, section 5
“No pipe or fitting of water supply system shall be drilled or tapped, nor shall any band or saddle be used except at the water main.”
These are the most deadly item that I see on a regular basis. They appear to be somewhat benign in nature, a plastic tube extending down to the floor from the side or top of your water heater which is designed to channel any discharge from this relief valve down to the floor. These are much cheaper than using copper or galvanized steel pipe and the home centers sell this right along side of the water heaters as an accessory. This is a clear code violation and can be deadly.
What does this mean: Let’s start with explaining what this relief valve does. If the temperature or pressure inside your water heater becomes too high this valve automatically opens and relieves the pressure. Without it, the heater could explode. To get more scientific, when the pressure inside a vessel goes up, the temperature at which water will boil also goes up. This means when the relief valve blows the steam, which is released, is actually hotter than 212 degrees Fahrenheit, the normal boiling point of water. This steam could be in excess of 400-degrees. The tube from the T and P valve is designed to contain this steam, allow it to condense and drip out onto the floor as hot water. Now imagine a plastic tube with 400-degree steam in it. It will not melt the plastic but turn it soft. So to take it a step further, now you have a wet noodle flopping around, shooting scalding steam out of it. You walk into your mechanical room and now you are supposed to approach this thing shooting out steam and shut the gas off to the heater. That is a trip to the emergency room in the making. If you have a non-metallic pipe connected to your water heater, or no pipe at all, this is a life safety issue. Call a plumber. If a licensed plumber put this tube on your heater in the attempt to save a few bucks, he should lose his license. No exceptions.
5) Rubber supply lines……………$$$$
This is a property damage waiting to happen. Again, it is a case of a cheaper material being provided with no regard for the safety of your property. These are often white tubes connecting your toilet or your faucets. Even worse are the black rubber tubes connecting your washing machine to the home water supply. Sometimes these hoses come with the washer itself. Seeing these in a home remind me of when I was an apprentice, and a student in the code class asked the instructor “why are the supply lines required to be metallic?” He answered, “Why don’t we just supply water to the whole house with a garden hose? It is cheaper.” This one doesn’t need much explanation; just ask your insurance agent what causes the most damage in terms of dollar value to his customer’s homes. The answer will be rubber washing machine hoses. Look at all your fixtures and appliances. The connection between the house piping and the faucet/fixture should either be hard metal or braided stainless steel. Just wait for one of these to burst and watch the mayhem begin.
6) Water heater hook up kits……….
These handy water heater installation kits are a real money saver. Just like the saddle valve shown above, you don’t need any special tools or skills and you can put in your own water heater. Use these flexible water supply lines and gas line and who needs that expensive plumber. The truth is that these kits will work and the heater will work when installed with the kit. The danger is when something goes wrong. Hopefully this will never happen to your or anyone you know, but as a licensed plumber it is our job to recognize the worst case scenario and install the plumbing system to safely make it through the worst case scenario.
What does this mean: All water heaters should be hard piped in place, especially the gas supply. Here’s the worst-case scenario: you have a service man in your house working on the furnace. He is trying to pull out the blower motor and having a tough time. He leans up against the water heater to gain some leverage and tips it over. The flexible gas line pulls out and creates a massive gas leak. Your house blows up. I don’t think I am going too far into the land of the impossible here. What about an earthquake? That never happens in the Midwest right. Search the web to find out where the largest earthquake in the U.S. was. It was in Illinois and Missouri. It is the job of the licensed plumber to know the possibilities and his responsibility to protect you and your family. Please be aware when you purchase the budget installation of a water heater from your home center, this in the manner in which they are intending to install the appliance.
7) Valves which allow siphonage………………..
This category relates to the water powered sump pump section above but is far more common than the sump pump item. It includes a wide range of devices but the two I will concentrate on here are fill valves for toilets and sillcocks, also sometime called outside faucets or hose bibs As licensed plumbers we are taught that any faucet that has a garden hose thread on the end of it needs to be protected by a vacuum breaker or anti-siphonage valve. Toilet fill valves, also called ball cocks, need to have this device built into the mechanism. Pay close attention when shopping for these items. The cheapest valves available do not contain the proper anti-siphonage features and can create a potential cross connection to your potable water supply.
What does this mean: Again, it is the licensed plumber’s responsibility to eliminate the possibility of a cross connection between the drinking water and hazardous material. Here is the worst case scenario: A homeowner is working on his car, flushing out the radiator. He has his garden hose stuck right down in th radiator cap. That hose is connected to a sillcock that does not have ab anti-siphon vacuum breaker on it. If there is a watermain break the potential loss in system pressure will cause a siphon which will pull the radiator fluid back through the hose and proceeds to inject ethylene glycol which in poisonous into the drinking water of the home. My hometown has water main breaks all the time and there are plenty of shade tree mechanics in every neighborhood. The budget toilet fill valve is an even simpler scenario. So you install this valve in your toilet and your wife loves the blue cleaning tabs into the toilet tank (the stuff that turns the toilet water a pretty shade of blue.) If the valve siphons inside the tank you now has a caustic cleaning agent in your drinking water. Saving $3.00 on the toilet valve really doesn’t seem worth it now does it? Remember this, only a licensed plumber should lay hands on your water supply system.
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