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Using Saddle Valves to Install
Appliance Water Supplies

Certain appliances around the home, such as refrigerators or furnace humidifiers, need a source of water...

Not a flood, just a reliable low volume supply. The invention of the saddle valve (also known as a saddle tee) made installation of these appliances a snap. No longer did a person need ace plumbing skills to hook up the water supply to the refrigerator's ice maker. All they needed was a few tools, some common sense, and the courage to try.

What is a saddle valve, and how is it installed?

What is a saddle tee, and how does it differ from a saddle valve?

I have a saddle valve for my furnace's humidifier, but it drips when I turn it on? How do I repair or... gulp... replace it?

Any tips on hooking up a water supply for a refrigerator icemaker?


What is a saddle valve, and how is it installed?

Saddle valve

The saddle valve is one of the easiest plumbing fixtures to install... next to the venerable garden hose. A marvel of simplicity and ingenuity, it can provide a low volume water supply for a variety of appliances using 1/4" inlet tubes, without the necessity of soldering, cutting pipe, or drilling. Locate the valve, clamp it on the pipe, tap your shoes together three times, and... voila... water supply!! OK, there's a little more to it, but not much.

IMPORTANT NOTE... Saddle valves are designed to self-pierce the pipe, and are designed primarily for copper pipe. The allowable pipe types and sizes should be in the documentation with the specific valve you purchase. If you have plastic or iron pipes, you will need to predrill the hole for the self-piercing valve. I will cover this at the appropriate section below.

1) Locate a cold water pipe that is as near the appliance as possible...

Be sure the pipe you choose is a cold water pipe, and be doubly sure it is not a pipe from your hot water heating system! Do a little detective work and trace the pipe back to a known cold water source, such as the main coming into your home or a nearby plumbing fixture, like a sink or toilet.  (Though connection to a hot water pipe can be done, the hot water will cause the rubber gaskets on the valve to deteriorate more quickly.)

If you can't determine the origin of the most temptingly situated pipe, turn on the heat and run the hot water throughout the house to heat up all the pipes. If the one you want to use stays cold, you've struck paydirt... oil... uh... water!

Don't connect the saddle valve to a pipe run for an outdoor faucet or sprinkler system that you turn off seasonally.  Unless you don't want ice this winter!

The actual location of the valve on the cold water pipe should be as near to the appliance to which it will be mated as possible. Choose a location that is easily accessible for both installing the saddle valve now, and possible maintenance in the future. These valves are good, but not immortal. You may have to replace it at some point due to corrosion or other failure. OK... your plumbing may not give you the greatest location choices, but do your best! It's a bit of a space game, where you have to balance optimum placement against future accessibility.

You can install a saddle valve on a pipe under the kitchen sink! I would not recommend attaching the valve to the 3/8" faucet inlet tubes, because they are thin walled and may bend excessively or even crush when you clamp on the valve! Instead, attach the saddle valve to the cold water supply line before the shutoff. If there is not enough room to do this, put the valve in the basement or in an alternate location.

2) Clean the pipe...

Remove any corrosion, dirt, or other yucky stuff from the section of pipe where the valve is going to be installed. You can use steelwool or fine sandpaper, followed by a wipe with a soapy sponge and rinse. Cleaning will improve the seal of the gasket, and will lessen the amount of debris you will introduce into the valve and pipe.

3) Prepare the saddle valve...

The valve assembly consists of the shutoff valve itself and the mounting base which clamps to the pipe (these factory-assembled, but may need just a little attention... read on). The following checks are to be sure that you will have no surprises... such as the famous Niagara Falls effect... when you pierce the pipe!

  • Be sure that the valve body is tightly attached to its base. Turn the body of the valve (not the packing nut) clockwise until it is firmly attached. Don't force it! If the factory did its job, you will not need to do this. But, we know better than to take that for granted, don't we?
  • Check the tightness of the packing nut. It should be a half turn beyond hand tight... to start. If you cannot turn the nut by hand in either direction as the valve comes "out of the box", leave it alone for now. If there is a slight amount of leakage around the valve stem when you turn the water on, tighten the packing nut 1/2 turn (clockwise), which should stop the seepage. Tighten more only if really necessary.
  • Look at the bottom of the valve. You will see the piercing point on the end of the valve stem. Place the rubber gasket over the piercing point, and align it so its natural curve matches the curve of the mounting base. The piercing point should not extend beyond the surface of the gasket. If it does, turn the valve stem out (counterclockwise) until the point is at least a sixteenth of an inch or so below the surface of the gasket.

4) Clamp the valve onto the pipe...

Now the fun starts. Place the valve in position on the pipe. Be sure the rubber gasket is in the proper position. Sandwich the base around the pipe and tighten the bolts down evenly until the gasket is slightly compressed, and stop. DON'T OVERTIGHTEN!! Trust me... you can crush the pipe. The valve assembly should be firmly seated, and immoveable. If a slight leak occurs at the gasket later, you can always tighten the bolts down a little more later.

SPECIAL NOTE FOR PLASTIC OR IRON PIPE INSTALLATIONS

  • Turn off the water supply and relieve pressure in the line by momentarily turning on a nearby faucet.
  • You may want to drain the pipe, though this is a judgment call on your part. Since the hole is very small, the leakage from it will be minimal as long as no one opens up any faucets or flushes any toilets on the line while you are working on it. Have a small bucket or some towels at the ready, just in case!!
  • Determine the final location of the valve, and drill a small hole into the pipe at the approximate location of the piercing point on the valve stem. The hole should be slightly larger than the diameter of the piercing point.
  • If you drill upwards, you may have some water leaking into your drill (even if you drain the pipe), so if at all possible locate the valve so that you can drill downwards or horizontally. Use a battery powered drill or, if you must use an electric drill, plug into a GFCI protected outlet for shock protection. Click HERE to find out about GFCI outlets if you are not familiar with them.

Turn the valve stem inward until the piercing point extends at least 1/8" past the surface of the rubber gasket. Place the saddle valve in position with the piercing point seated into the newly drilled hole, and clamp the valve into place as described above. Turn the valve fully off (clockwise), skip the next step (Pierce the pipe... you just did it!!) and proceed to Turn the water supply back on below.

5) Pierce the pipe...

Most of the instruction leaflets that come with saddle valves tell you that turning off the water supply is unnecessary. Turn the water off anyway, just in case. Murphy's Law and all. Now... nail biting time... turn the valve stem clockwise until it is bottomed out. There will be some resistance as it pierces the pipe. The shutoff is now in the FULL OFF position.

6) Turn the water supply back on...

I know some you probably didn't turn the water off, so if you had a little... shall-we-say... "dampness problem", you know now why I told you do to it!! Anyway, for the rest of you, turn the water on and check for leaks around the base gasket and the valve stem. So far so good!

7) Test the valve...

Get a small pail or cat bowl, hold it under the valve, and open the valve slightly to flush out any debris. Be patient... you will be rotating the handle roughly a billion turns before the valve opens! If, after the 999.9 millionth turn, no water comes out, you may not have turned the piercing valve stem far enough in to fully penetrate the pipe. Attempt that step again. Oh... did you turn the main water supply back on?

8) Attach the inlet tubing from the appliance...

The 1/4" tubing commonly used today is available in both flexible plastic and copper. I have no preference. For the novice, the plastic tubing has the advantage of being the easiest to cut... sharp knife or scissors will do it! There is a metal sleeve that must be installed inside of the plastic tubing before attaching it to the appliance. See the documentation with the plastic tubing kit for more details.

Some hardware stores sell refrigerator inlet supply kits, with the saddle valve, tubing, and other accessories included... making this an even easier job. These kits will work with other 1/4" tubing appliances, also, such as built-in humidifiers, provided the tubing length is adequate.

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What is a saddle tee, and how does it differ from a saddle valve?

A saddle tee is a saddle valve without the valve. It clamps onto a pipe like a saddle valve, but instead of having a self-piercing valve attached, it has a threaded opening to which you can screw in a utility faucet or other connector or fixture. It is clamped onto the pipe like a saddle valve, but you have to drill a hole in the pipe before screwing on the fixture.

The two uses for the saddle tee are:

1) To add a water source to an area, such as a basement, without having to cut pipe, solder, etc.

2) To add a drain for the plumbing or heating system. Though this is not an everyday necessity, there may come a day when you might want to drain down your plumbing. For example, for the hot water system if you have an electric or gas tank-style heater, the only drain may be from the bottom of the hot water tank. The downside to this is that you must drain all that heated water... very wasteful. However, if you install a saddle tee with a faucet above the heater, you can drain down the pipes without draining the heater. The other advantage is that the saddle tee is high off the floor, so by attaching a hose to the faucet, you can easily fill buckets or even run the hose outside.

Similarly, for a well-fed fresh water system, the only cold water drain might be at the base of the pressure tank. By adding a saddle tee with faucet above it, you can drain the system without having to drain the tank, also getting the advantages of a high drain. Of course, you will lose pressure in the tank and have to recharge it, unless you have a modern tank with an internal bladder.

These are examples, of course, and you should examine your own plumbing system thoroughly before making any permanent modifications.

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I have a saddle valve for my furnace's humidifier, but the valve drips when I turn it on? How do I repair or... gulp... replace it?

If the valve has slight leakage around the valve stem, simply tightening the compression nut may solve it.

If the packing nut will not tighten, if the valve handle does not turn easily, or if the valve has corrosion around the stem due to prior seepage, the best course to take is to replace it.  You can actually remove the old valve and install the new one in its place.  Just follow this procedure:

Turn off the water supply. Disconnect any tubing from the valve. Open the valve or another fixture on the line for a second to relieve pressure in the line. You may want to drain the pipe, though this is a judgement call on your part. Since the hole in the pipe is very small, the leakage from it will be minimal as long as no one opens up any faucets or flushes any toilets on the line while you are working on it. Have a small bucket or some towels at the ready, just in case!!

Prepare the new valve for installation (see the first question above). However, turn the piercing valve in so that the point extends about 1/8" beyond the rubber gasket.

Position the slightly extended piercing valve over the hole made by the previous valve, press it into place and tighten the clamping bolts. Complete assembly of the new valve and test as described in the first question above.

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Any tips on hooking up a water supply for a refrigerator icemaker?

You may not need to perform some of these steps if you already had an icemaker installed previously, and the tubing is in good shape and compatible with your new refrigerator. Read them through anyway... humor me... just to be sure that the prior installation was a good one!

1) Decide on the route for the water supply tubing...

If the saddle valve is now or will be in the basement, go below and look for obstructions under the refrigerator location... stuff like air ducts, drain pipes, etc. You don't want to drill into anything that may... gently now, NH... add hours/days/weeks to this project!!

You can install a saddle valve on a pipe under the kitchen sink, and thread the tubing through the inside of the adjacent cabinets! I would not recommend attaching the valve to the 3/8" faucet inlet tubes, because they are thin walled and may bend excessively or even crush when you clamp on the valve! Only do this if you don't have any other alternative location to hook up!!

Instead, attach the saddle valve to the cold water supply line before the shutoff. If there is not enough room to do this, put the valve in the basement or in another alternate location.

IMPORTANT: Whether you ring the tubing through the floor or from the side (through a wall or adjacent cabinet), be sure the tubing origin point is close to the back wall behind the refrigerator(no more than an inch out) so the fridge doesn't crimp or pinch the tubing when rolled back into place.

2) Drill your hole(s) as needed...

Snake the pipe through the hole(s), leaving at least six to eight feet of excess tubing behind the refrigerator. Feed the tubing from behind the refrigerator through the hole to wherever your saddle valve is. If you are using copper, do not straighten the tubing... leave it coiled and feed through only what you need to. You want to leave the tubing coiled to allow for safe movement of the refrigerator. Read on for more of an explanation.

3) Connecting the tubing to the refrigerator...

Modern refrigerators connect to the 1/4" tubing with a simple compression fitting. Click HERE to read about compression fittings if you aren't familiar with them. We'll wait for you.

Back already... good! It is extremely important that the tubing, be it copper or plastic, be firmly secured to the back of the refrigerator. Most refrigerators come with a small clamp somewhere near the water connection for this purpose. If you neglect to attach this clamp, the compression fitting will loosen when you move the refrigerator and start a leak that may mean the end of civilization as we know it!!

TO SUMMARIZE: The right way to make a long lasting, leak free connection is to follow this order of assembly...

  1. If you are using copper tubing, leave the excess tubing coiled while attaching it to the refrigerator. Extend the coil to position the tubing, bending only what is necessary to make your connection. The coiling acts as a spring, allowing the refrigerator to be moved in and out from the wall without kinking or stressing the tubing.
  2. Insert the tubing into the fitting, with compression nut, compression ring, and tubing reinforcement (plastic tubing only) in place.
  3. Loosely attach the clamp, around the tubing, to the refrigerator.
  4. Check that the tubing is fully into the compression fitting and fully tighten it.
  5. Finish tightening the clamp.
  6. Turn on the water at the saddle valve and check for leaks at the valve and at the refrigerator.

Flush out the tubing and icemaker...

Run a few cups of water through the ice water faucet on the refrigerator door, if you have one. Then, turn on the icemaker and let it make a few loads of ice and throw them away, to clear the tubing of contaminated water. The instructions with the refrigerator should have recommendations concerning this.

Now, it's time to sit on the veranda and contemplate your next project. Or next vacation. Enjoy!

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Jerry Alonzy, the founder of Naturalhandyman.com

Written by Jerry Alonzy

Jerry Alonzy, a.k.a. the Natural Handyman, has been an active handyman for over 30 years with experience in most areas of home repair and renovation.

As a do-it-yourself author and web developer since 1995, he has been featured in USA Today, the Today Show and on radio shows, magazines, newspapers and websites. His material appears widely on the web, but primarily on his website... The Natural Handyman. You can also find him on Google+.