Cold Water Tank Overflowing — How to Replace a Ballcock Washer
Leaking Valves, Overflowing Water Tanks and Toilet Cisterns
You hear water running outside your home. You look up and see a pipe sticking out from the edge of the roof or soffit which you've never even noticed before. Water is trickling out from the pipe and down onto the ground.
That mysterious pipe is the overflow from the cold water header tank or cistern in your attic. If the tank overfills, excess water flows safely via the overflow to the outdoors. It's not likely to be a catastrophe, and the flow may only be a trickle, but if you have a water meter and pay for your water, obviously the cost of this wastage can mount up.
This guide explains the basics of the pipes and valves in home plumbing systems and how to remedy an overflowing cold water tank in the loft. You can use the same repair principles for remedying a leaking toilet cistern. There is some variation in the type of valves fitted to tanks. Newer tanks are fitted with diaphragm valves, whereas older tanks use a sliding valve system with a replaceable washer as shown in the photos below.
Note: This article covers replacing a washer in an old style ballcock valve (part 1 valve). This valve is actually against regulations in new installations.There are several different types of valves different to the one below, but all of them use some form of fiber/rubber washer/O-ring/diaphragm system to shut off flow.
What is the Cold Water Tank in the Attic For?
The cold tank in the loft serves three purposes, firstly it acts as a storage reservoir and can supply water in the event of an interruption in supply from your water company. This cold water supplies WCs, showers, baths and hand basin taps (faucets), and feeds into the bottom of the hot water tank. The water isn't drinkable and shouldn't supply the cold taps in the kitchen because it has been lying indefinitely in an open tank into which anything could have dropped (insects, spiders, and possibly birds, bats and their droppings!). You can make a cover from plastic or plywood to stop this happening.
The second function of the tank is to provide a pressure head and feed for the hot water tank (gravity feed). Water flows out from the bottom of the cold tank (the blue line in the diagram below) to the bottom of the hot tank. Because the cold tank is higher than the hot tank, the resulting pressure forces water through the tank and out the top. Water in the hot tank is heated by an electric (immersion) element and / or heating system boiler (furnace).
Another function of the tank is to collect expanding water as it rises in the expansion tube when the water in the hot tank is heated.
Older buildings only use the tank in the attic for pressurizing the hot water tank and water is fed from the rising main to all fixtures. This is called a "direct system".
Domestic Plumbing Systems - Pipe Layout in House
The diagram below outlines the most basic plumbing arrangement in a modern home. You may have extra plumbing fixtures, but the basic principle is the same, although the hot water tank can be located on the ground floor or on upper floors. Some older houses may not have a tank in the loft.
Inside the house, several gate or ball valves allow water to be shut off to various sections of the plumbing system. A gate valve has a wheel/knob which is turned clockwise to shut off flow. A ball or quadrant valve has a lever handle which is lined up with the pipe when the valve is on. To turn it off, the handle must be turned through 90 degrees so that it is perpendicular to the pipe.
How Valves Are Used to Isolate Sections of the Plumbing
Water enters the building at ground level.
- Valve 1 is located directly outside the premises on a wall or in a box in the ground. This normally has a square section on the end of the shaft and needs to be operated with a key. In colder climates it may be in the basement. This enables the water supply entering the building to be cut off. Unlike a gate valve, this valve has a rubber seal which tightens against a seat so that water can be totally shut off. There may be another stopcock outside the boundary of the premises under an inspection cover but sometimes this is shared and cuts off water to several homes
- Valve 2 located indoors is the main stop cock, and shuts off water where the service main enters the building. Drinking water must not be supplied from the tank in the loft, and comes directly from the service main.
- Valve 3 shuts off the feed to the cold water tank in the loft to allow maintenance or drainage of the tank.
- Valve 4 shuts off the cold feed to the bottom of the hot tank, removing the pressure, and this prevents hot water water leaving the top of the tank.
- Valve 5 shuts off feed to WCs, baths, showers, wash basins etc. There may only be one feed pipe from the cold tank to both the hot water tank and these fixtures, in which case there will only be one valve to shut off this supply, i.e one valve shuts off both cold water and hot water (because pressure is removed).
You may have additional valves feeding each appliance. These valves are usually small isolating types which are operated by turning a screw or short lever.
The hot tank is vented to the atmosphere via an expansion pipe which runs up into the loft to the cold tank. This allows expansion to take place without restriction as water is heated. Also if the heating system malfunctions and water in the tank boils, steam can escape and water can flow safely back into the cold tank.
In-direct Plumbing System
Home Heating System Expansion Tank
If you have an open or vented heating system, there will also be a small reservoir tank in your attic. This is a top up reservoir for water in radiators and boiler, and also collects water as it expands in the heating system. An expansion pipe runs from the boiler up to the tank and then bends downwards over the tank so that water can drain. If your central heating system overheats, this pipe can also vent steam. Overheating could be caused by faulty thermostats forcing an oil or gas boiler to remain on all the time, but but more likely due to a circulating pump failure (or loss of power to the pump) on a solid fuel system with a back boiler and the radiators upstairs turned off. Alternatively a failed immersion thermostat could cause water to boil in the tank. The tank is normally fed by the same cold water pipe as the larger tank. This small tank also has a ball cock which can suffer from the same problems as the main cold water tank.
How a Ballcock Valve Works
The tank in the loft is fitted with a ballcock valve (also known as a balltap or float valve) to prevent it over filling. This is the same as the system used in a toilet cistern. Water enters via the valve, and as the level in the tank rises, it pushes upwards on the underside of a plastic or brass float attached to a lever arm. The leverage of the arm creates sufficient force to close the valve once the tank has sufficiently filled.
What Causes the Cold Tank to Overflow?
- The float has developed a leak so that it fills with water, sinking, or providing insufficient force to close the valve
- The rubber washer in the valve has deteriorated so that it doesn't seal properly
- The brass nipple in the valve has worn to such an extent from decades of abrasion by particles in the water that it won't seal any more. (a ridge can develop in the wall of the nipple's tip. In this case, the valve will have to be replaced
Any of these scenarios will cause water level to rise in the tank, eventually causing an overflow.
What Tools are Required to Replace a Washer in the Ballcock Valve?
- or alternatively a pipe wrench (Stilson wrench) or vise grips Water pump pliers
- Flat blade screwdriver
- Small pliers -
- Long nose (snipe nose) pliers, not essential, but useful for pulling out the split pin
- Torch - ideally a head torch
These are just some of the 20 Essential Tools You Need For Home Maintenance
Step 1 - Turn Off the Valve on the Pipe Feeding the Tank
As described in the explanation of plumbing systems above, this is valve 3. This may be located downstairs, near the cold tank or near the hot tank. You will have to trace the piping and by a process of elimination, identify which valve controls what. If you push the float of the ball cock downwards and no water flows into the tank, you have found the right valve. Usually valve 3 (shown in the diagram above) feeding the tank is on a 1/2 inch / 15 mm pipe.
Step 2 - Remove the End Cap From the Valve in the Tank
The valve on this tank is a slide valve type. Inside the body of the valve is a nylon or brass slider with a rubber washer embedded in the end. Water flows out through a nipple inside the valve. The slider is pushed against this nipple by the float arm and this cuts off flow.
Using the water pump pliers, pipe wrench or vise grips, unscrew the end cap. If it's obstinate and refuses to turn, try pouring some hot water from a kettle over the cap, this should expand it slightly and make it easier to turn.
Step 3 - Remove the Split Pin
A split (cotter) pin holds the float arm in place. Squeeze the two ends together with the pliers. Now use the long nose pliers to grip the looped end of the pin and pull it out. If you rotate the pin backwards and forwards while pulling, it makes it easier. If its really tight, tap it with a hammer (don't hit it hard, just use lots of light taps).
Step 4 - Remove the Float Arm
There is a knack to doing this. Move the float arm into a horizontal position and then pull it downwards. You will likely need to wiggle it a bit to get it out.
Step 5 - Check the Float
Over time, floats can become cracked or develop leaks where they screw onto the arm. Shake the float to see whether there's any water in it. You can buy replacement floats in a hardware store.
Step 6 - Remove the Slider
Push a narrow blade screwdriver up into the slot in the underside of the valve. Push the slider so that it sticks out of the valve body. You wont get it all the way out with the screwdriver, so grip the end and pull it out with your fingers or nails.
If the washer looks ok and isn't excessively worn, the nipple in the valve might be worn so that it doesn't seal properly against the washer. If this is the case, consider replacing the complete valve. A new valve will have a push type fitting suitable for connecting to copper or plastic tubing, or alternatively a compression fitting. You can read more about these type of fittings in my article
"A Complete Guide to Using Plumbing Fittings for Joining PVC, PEX, and Copper Pipe"
Step 7 - Remove the Washer
Push it out with a screwdriver.
Step 8 - Replace the Washer
You can buy a washer in a store or make one from a suitably thick scrap of sheet rubber. If you are making one, use the perimeter of the slider as a guide and then pare to fit. Push the washer back into the slot of the slider, using the screwdriver to stop the rubber catching in the edges of the slot. Once you get it in halfway, lay the valve on its side and push it in fully with your thumbs.
Step 9 - Replace the Slider, Float Arm and End Cap
Push the slider back into the valve body ensuring that the slot in the slider is aligned with the slot in the underside of the valve body. You can use the screwdriver to feel whether it is lined up. Replacing the float arm can be tricky if the two slots don't line up. Hold the arm horizontally and push upwards, wiggling it a bit helps to get it into place. Push the split pin back into place and splay the two ends slightly apart with a screwdriver. They don't need to be spread far apart. Replace the end cap and screw tight, hand tight is good enough. A smear of Vaseline on the threads helps to prevent seizing should it be necessary to remove the cap in the future. You can do this on threads of taps also when re-assembling.
Step 10 - Turn the Water Back On
Turn the water back on. Hold the underside of the lever arm, and pull it upwards to validate that the valve cuts off water properly. Initially water will gush into the tank and the level will rise quickly. However as the tank fills, the valve will start to close and flow will dwindle, so it can take ages for water to stop dripping because of the slow rise of water level. Don't worry if this is the case.
You might need some of these tools!
Adjusting Ballcock to Change Water Level
In a toilet cistern you can conserve water by placing a plastic bottle filled with water into the tank. This reduces the amount of water used every time you flush. Alternatively you can use a piece of brick or other heavy object. Another option is to adjust the ballcock arm so that it shuts off the water valve when the water level is lower. If there is no screw which facilitates making an adjustment and the arm is the older style brass type, hold the arm securely in the middle so as not to damage the valve. With your other hand, grasp the arm just before the ball float. Bend the arm downwards so that it ends up being curved downwards. Water will now force the float to act on the arm and close the valve at a lower level. Newer style ballcock valves have a screw for adjusting level. Turn the screw clockwise to reduce the level to which the tank fills.
Prevent Your Cold Tank From Freezing
Modern lofts have their floor insulated so not a lot of heat permeates up into the loft space, especially if upstairs radiators are turned off. The result is that the cold water tank can start to freeze. If you're regularly running taps and using the shower, the main cold tank continually fills with new water, so this is less likely to happen, but pipes in the attic can freeze and burst if a home is vacant for a couple of days during extended snowy and cold periods. This is especially the case if plumbing is copper, and pipes can freeze in very cold weather even if they're lagged. PEX plumbing because it's flexible, is better at tolerating sub-zero temperatures because the plastic has more "give" and can stretch. The smaller water tank used for topping up the central heating system and collecting water as it heats up and expands (or the system overheats and water boils) is much more likely to freeze because water isn't continually replaced. So in cold weather, it's a good idea to leave the trapdoor to your attic open and allow some heat up into the space to prevent this happening.
Be Prepared! - Plumbing Tip
The Boy Scout motto is "Be Prepared!" so take a leaf out of their book by locating and identifying all the valves in your home! Work out what they do and write the function on the wall behind with a thick marker. Alternatively, tie a label around the stem of the valve. Gate valves can seize up after years of disuse so every so often (once a year), give them some exercise by turning on and back off again. If a pipe springs a leak in your home, you don't want to be running around figuring out how to turn off the water.
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Questions & Answers
We had this done three weeks ago (at great expense). There is now a quite loud and droning noise when we turn the shower on or run water for a while. The plumber has come around but of course it did not happen while he was here. Do you know why this might be happening? The plumber said it might happen for a day or two but three weeks seems a bit much. It is annoying but is it a signal of something more sinister?
© 2014 Eugene Brennan