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Published by OREP, E&O Insurance Experts | June 2013

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While nearly all home inspectors agree that water heaters are potentially dangerous appliances, there is a clear disagreement among them about how and whether to inspect TPR valves.

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What You May Not Know About Water Heater Relief Valves
By Isaac Peck, Associate Editor


This typical Manufacturer’s Warning on a water heater’s temperature and pressure relief valve (TPR) highlights, in no uncertain terms, the dangers that a malfunctioning relief valve can pose to both the people and the property nearby.

Indeed, it’s no secret that water heaters are dangerous.  If the relief valve malfunctions and fails to relieve pressure, the water heater can explode and launch like a rocket. If you haven’t seen the damage that an exploding water heater can do, a quick search on YouTube will yield some spectacular and disastrous examples. While nearly all home inspectors agree that water heaters are potentially dangerous appliances, there is a clear disagreement among them about how and whether to inspect TPR valves.

Case Against Testing
Ken Amelin, an inspector in Mass., doesn’t test the TPR valve mainly because a lot can go wrong in the testing. “Home inspectors should not be testing TPR valves. I think it is a very bad idea and a high risk for liability,” says Amelin. 

Amelin explains that a high percentage of TPR valves are faulty and that when faulty valves are tested by opening or “unseating” them, they often do not reseat properly and can end up leaking all over the residence. “Who is responsible for damage or repair if the valve leaks? If it leaks, YOU [the inspector] OWN IT, and any damage that it causes. The leaking can continue until the valve is replaced. We cannot be expected to carry spare TPR valves of various sizes and shapes to fit all types of heaters. We are not plumbers. Only the homeowner or licensed plumber should test the device,” says Amelin.

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Amelin says that it’s better for an inspector to recommend that the valve be tested in the inspection report.  “Inspectors should recommend that the device be tested prior to purchase and on a regular basis per the manufacturer’s recommendations. Testing TPR valves should not be within an inspector’s standard of practice—it is a recipe for disaster,” says Amelin.

State and Association Standards
Testing a water heater’s relief valve is not required by any of the major home inspector associations.  For instance, InterNACHI’s Standards of Practice (SOP) state that the inspector is not required to “test, operate, open or close safety controls, manual stop valves and/or temperature or pressure-relief valves.” 

However, in some states, home inspectors are required to operate the TPR valve and such testing is actually included in the SOP.  For example, in Texas, the SOP for all licensed real estate inspectors requires them to report as deficient any temperature and pressure relief valve that:

        (i) does not operate manually;

      (ii) leaks;

      (iii) is damaged;

      (iv) cannot be tested due to obstructions;

      (v) is corroded; or

      (vi) is improperly located

However, the Texas SOP exempts inspectors from operating the TPR valve “if the operation of the valve may, in the inspector's reasonable judgment, cause damage to persons or property.”

Most states do not require inspectors to test or operate the valve. Either way, there appears to be an “out” for most inspectors who choose not to test the valve to avoid potential risk.

Case for Testing
Jerry Peck, a retired inspector who now works as a construction and litigation consultant, says that he always tested the TPR valve because it is a safety issue. “It’s imperative for inspectors to test the valve. We have an obligation to ensure the safety of our clients.”

According to Peck, much of the risk of testing can be avoided if the inspector knows how to test correctly.  “Operating the relief valve properly is key. If the valve is stuck, or feels stuck, do not force it open. Write the valve up as needing to be replaced. The valve is a safety device, and a safety device should work the first time, every time,” says Peck.

“If you just grab the handle and FORCE it open, then most will probably not reseat (close). But if you get some experience testing the value on newer water heaters, you can get a 'feel' for how they should operate. Then you will be able to 'feel' one that is stuck. If you encounter one, you simply write it up as needing replacement,” Peck says. 

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Scott Patterson, an inspector from Tenn., says that although he no longer tests the TPR valve when he’s on an inspection, when he did test them, he favored tinkering with the valve before opening it to avoid potential leaks. “When I used to test them, I would twirl the little handle to see if it would move. If it did not move, I knew that the valve was frozen and I did not test it. If it twirled, I began to open it and if it felt okay, I would open it up for a second to make sure it sealed before I moved on,” Patterson says.

In the event that he opens a valve today that won’t close, Patterson says he has a few steps to minimize leaking. “If you have a valve that will not seal back completely, if you open it a few more times and let it wash out, the valve will usually seal with no drips,” says Patterson.  If the valve still won’t seal, Patterson makes sure the water drains into a pan. He finishes his inspection and then returns to try to reseal it. “If I can't get it to seal, I turn the water heater off and cut the water off at the water heater. I leave a note for the owner explaining that the valve is leaking and would not reseal, and I try to call the listing agent so they will know as well,” says Patterson.

Walking the Line
The decision to test a water heater’s TPR valve ultimately depends on the inspector’s assessment of the risks involved and his or her own Standards of Practice. For those who do elect to test the valve, the tips in this article will hopefully save you some headaches. Stay safe out there!



About the Author
Isaac Peck is the Associate Editor of Working RE Magazine and Marketing Coordinator at OREP.org, a leading provider of E&O Insurance for appraisers, inspectors, and other real estate professionals in 49 states. He received his Bachelors in Business Management at San Diego State University. He can be contacted at Isaac@orep.org or (888) 347-5273.


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