On the side or top of your water heater tank is a valve connected to a metal or plastic discharge tube pointing downward. The valve is called a T & P valve, or TPR valve, for temperature and pressure relief. If all goes well, a TPR valve never gets used except during testing. But in the event of an emergency or malfunction, this valve is of critical importance. It can potentially prevent your water heater from exploding. Understanding how a T & P valve works will help you keep your water heater in tip-top shape and prevent possible damage to your home.
How a T & P Valve Works
Mandated by all plumbing codes, the T & P valve relieves excess temperature and pressure in a water heater if either reaches a critical point. A water heater is a closed system, and thermal expansion is an inescapable fact of both normal and abnormal water heater functioning.
In a standard water heater, the water is heated by a gas burner or electric elements. As the water reaches temperatures between 120 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, both the water and the water heater's metal tank expand. Some expansion is normal, but too much expansion is unsafe. When the temperature reaches 210 degrees or the pressure reaches 150 psi (pounds per square inch), a properly functioning T & P valve opens and expels hot water and steam through the discharge tube.
How a T & P Valve Is Installed
When you purchase a water heater, the T & P valve generally comes pre-installed. A threaded inlet is welded onto the side of the tank, and the T & P valve is screwed clockwise onto that inlet. However, the discharge tube running downward along the side of the tank is not pre-installed.
To install the discharge tube, run a strip of Teflon tape clockwise around the threaded end of the PVC discharge tube. Screw the discharge tube onto the T & P valve, first by hand, then tightening it fully with a wrench. Be careful not to strip or break off the T & P valve or discharge tube by tightening it too much.
The discharge tube should point straight downward, terminating a few inches above the floor. It is recommended that you place a water heater pan below the water heater to collect slow drips or to catch emergency outflows of water.
Because the T & P valve is rarely used, mineral build-up can cause it to stiffen over time. This is a significant safety hazard, because in the event of a temperature or pressure spike, the T & P valve may not open as it should and the water heater might explode.
Test the Valve to Prevent Problems
Water heater manufacturers recommend regular checking of the T & P valve:
- Make sure that the discharge tube is firmly attached. Wear closed-toe shoes to avoid scalding.
- Place a bucket below the discharge tube.
- Briefly pull back on the T & P valve's metal lever to cause a small amount of water (about a quarter cup) to discharge into the bucket.
- Release the level and let it snap back to its original position. If the lever does not snap back into place, the valve is faulty and must be replaced.
Common Problems with T & P Valves
There are really only two problems you might have to address with the T & P valve: a valve that sticks and doesn't open and close properly or a valve that leaks by constantly dripping.
Dealing With a Leaky T & P Valve
When a T & P valve is leaking, it may be due to the valve not being properly seated in the threaded opening of the tank. This is especially likely if the leaking occurs immediately after an old valve is replaced. This can be remedied by shutting off the water heater and letting it cool down completely, then removing and rethreading the valve into the tank's opening.
A water heater that periodically discharges hot water and steam from the T & P valve may be set to a water temperature that is too high. Make sure that the water temperature setting is in the normal recommended range—about 120 degrees F—or no more than about 150 degrees F.
Fixing a Sticky T & P Valve
T & P valves can also become stuck either in a downward (closed) or fully extended (open) position. Either condition is a potentially serious problem. When stuck downward, the valve cannot provide relief if the system reaches maximum pressure; as a result, the water heater tank might rupture. When stuck in a fully extended position, the T & P valve will continually leak water down through the discharge tube, potentially flooding the home.
The stickiness of the valve can sometimes be remedied by simply opening and closing the lever several times. Jiggle the T & P valve by gently pulling the lever towards you. Much like jiggling a toilet handle, this action may be enough to unstick the valve. If this does not fix the problem, replace the valve.
In most cases, the T & P valve will last as long as the water heater itself, and fixes are easy if you perform annual testing to catch problems early. However, some caution is necessary whenever working with a water heater, because the T & P valve can become damaged if the water heater has exceeded maximum pressure or temperature levels. If you suspect a pressure-related problem with your water heater tank, hire a licensed plumber to have the water heater inspected.