Q&A / 

Leaky Washing Machine Valves are Quick to Fix

DEAR TIM: The water inlet valve that supplies cold water to our washing machine drips slowly and water accumulates on the round handle. I see a hex nut at the base of the stem that connects the handle to the valve body. What happens if I turn that nut? Will I be forced to replace the valve? If so, what is the best type of valve to buy and why? How do you solder the new valve? Greg H., Atlanta, GA

DEAR GREG: If you turn the nut counterclockwise the leak gets drastically worse. If you turn it clockwise, perhaps one-eighth of a full revolution, there is a good chance the leak will stop. The nut in question is called a valve-packing nut. It is indeed the component of the valve that serves to keep water from cascading into the room. The actual stem that connects the handle to the valve is surrounded by a packing material that must be compressed around the stem and the inside of the valve to keep pressurized water from leaking out of the valve body past the stem. The nut you see provides this compression when it is tightened.

But the packing around a valve stem can wear out. You may stop the leak as soon as you tighten the nut, but the next time you open and close the valve be sure to inspect it every hour or so. It is possible for the valve to leak again and again. At some point you will reach the limit of tightening the packing nut and water will drip no matter how tight you have turned it.

These ball valves control water flow to my washing machine. They have valve stem nuts that also must be tightened.  Photo credit: Tim Carter

These ball valves control water flow to my washing machine. They have valve stem nuts that also must be tightened. Photo credit: Tim Carter

Based upon your description of the existing valve, it sounds like you have a fairly common shut off valve. These valves are very inexpensive and fraught with maintenance headaches as you now know. Often when you want the valve to stop the flow of water, it will not do so as the rubber or plastic washer hidden within the valve has worn out. The valve seat inside the valve can also become encrusted with sediment.

If you want a shut off valve that is virtually maintenance free, you should seriously consider replacing your existing valve with a ball valve.These shut off valves are constructed differently than the valve you have. The inside of a ball valve is just that - a stainless steel ball that has a hole bored through the middle of the metal sphere. A shaft is welded to this ball that connects to a flat handle. When you rotate the handle just 90 degrees, the valve turns completely on or off. If you rotate the handle anywhere in between, you get partial or controlled water flow.

Ball valves have a wonderful hard plastic seat that surrounds the entire ball. It is not much different than the hip joint in our own bodies. The fit between the ball and the plastic seat is so precise that each time you move the handle, the valve cleans itself of any and all deposits. Another advantage of ball valves is full water flow. The diameter of the hole in the ball is often identical to the size of the water line that feeds the valve. This full-bore opening provides for unrestricted water flow through the valve. The valve you have now does not offer this advantage.

Ball valves also have a small packing nut that sometimes requires adjustment. But once tightened, they rarely leak again. The ball valves also cost just one or two dollars more than a conventional shut off valve, so in my opinion they are worth every penny. In fact, I would gladly pay even more money for the years of leak and trouble-free performance they deliver. My washing machine is served with ball valves that give me enormous peace of mind. Furthermore, I installed burst-proof water supply hoses from the valves to the washing machine. These rubber hoses are sheathed with stainless steel fabric that prevents them from breaking. I urge you to install these hoses when you replace your valves.

Soldering a ball valve onto copper water lines is easy. The water lines must be void of any water so be sure to turn off the main water valve in your home and drain the system. The ball valves and copper tubing must be cleaned with sandpaper or a wire brush to remove all oxidation. Apply a light coat of soldering flux paste to the copper tubing and the inside surface of the ball valve. Insert the copper tubing into the valve and make sure it is fully seated. Rotate the handle and close the ball valve. Doing this helps maintain the shape of the plastic seat within the valve as you heat the valve with the torch. Be sure to insert an additional piece of copper tubing into the other end of the valve and solder both sides of the ball valve at the same time.

Use lead-free solder to create the soldered joint. Apply uniform heat with a torch to the ball valve body and to the tubing. You should heat the valve so that solder will melt and flow freely into the joint when the torch flame is removed from the valve and tubing. Once you have soldered both joints, use a dry rag to gently remove any molten solder drops that are hanging from the joint. Immediately apply a damp rag to the body of the ball valve. Be very careful since hot steam will be created as the stored heat in the valve flash heats the water in the rag. This moist rag cools the ball valve slowly so that you do not overheat the plastic seat within the ball valve body.

Ball valves can and should be used at many locations within a home. A ball valve absolutely should be used as the primary shut off valve for the main water line of your home. It is easy for plumbers to install a ball valve for use as the shut off valve under every plumbing fixture. A simple adapter can be soldered to the copper tubing leaving the valve that allows you to attach a flexible water line between the valve and any fixture.

One of the best things about ball valves is their reliability. As a traditional valve ages, the inner parts can corrode and fail as you turn the valve handle. The inside of most ball valves are made from plastic and stainless steel. Neither of these materials will corrode. I have turned the handle of a ball valve that had not been touched for 15 years and it worked as if I had installed it the day before. Ball valves rock!


Author's Notes:

December 31, 2003

I was very fortunate to receive a letter from Connie Dearolf who lives and works in Trenton, NJ. Connie works for the Trenton Water Works as a meter repair person and read the above column with great interest.

She scolded me for not including the following tips. I did write her back and tried to explain that newspapers hold me to a specific column length and one simply can't include all of the information one might like to. But here are some helpful things Connie thought all should know:

"....three things you didn't mention regarding stopping leaks at a valve packing nut:

  1. If tightening the nut does not stop the leak you can put Teflon tape on the stem threads. Wrap the tape clockwise.
  2. If Teflon tape doesn't stop the leak, you can purchase packing at a local plumbing supply store. Use the string-like packing to repack the nut.
  3. Be careful about tightening the nut too tight! It can crack and you will be forced to replace the packing nut or the entire valve.

Additionally, you didn't mention another common problem with gate valves, especially older ones. If you close a gate valve too tightly, the gate may drop and break off of the stem. It will be permanently in the closed position......" Connie Dearolf, Trenton, NJ

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