If you’ve connected your refrigerator’s ice maker to one of your house’s water pipes, you probably know what a saddle valve is. A valve that pierces a pipe with a needle held in place with a clamp tightened onto the pipe. Saddle valves are cheap and easy, but they are not reliable. They are prone to fail, either due to leaking or getting clogged with sediment.
I had one in my house, which I installed years ago when I was young and foolish. It worked for several years, but eventually the refrigerator stopped making ice and dispensing water. Evidently, the saddle valve was partially blocked and the refrigerator’s valves, which open electrically to fill the ice maker and dispense cold water, couldn’t function with the lower pressure.
It was tempting to just replace the old saddle valve with a new one, but I wanted something better. A copper tee soldered in place is the best way to hook up an ice maker to a water line. But … I’ve never soldered anything and I felt that the needed equipment would be too expensive for one job.
Researching the problem led me to learn about compression connections. Compression connections have a threaded ends with nuts that compress ferrules (wide copper rings) as the nuts are screwed tight. They may not be as good as soldered connections, but they are far better than saddle valves.
Compression fittings aren’t easy to find. The big box home improvement stores stock a lot of push-to-connect fittings (e.g., Sharkbite), which I was about to use, until I read the fine print on the label: “WARNING: This product contains a chemical known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm.” Given that this line is for water that’s going to my ice maker, and then into me, I figured that I didn’t want to take the risk. Internet research showed me that what I needed was a compression tee made by Sioux Chief. As the big box stores didn’t have them, I ordered one from a big website retailer.
Installing the tee was fairly easy, just a bit awkward due to the location up in the basement’s ceiling joists. (Which is another reason I didn’t want to solder; the pipe is just inches away from wood beams and electrical wiring.) After turning off the water, opening the faucet in the basement sink to drain the pipes, removing the old saddle valve, and cleaning the pipe with some steel wool, … I cut out a properly-sized section of pipe right where the saddle value used to be. Because the saddle valve left a hole in the pipe, there wasn’t much of a choice as to the location of the new tee: either put the tee where the saddle valve had been or if I wanted to put the tee somewhere else, I would have to repair the hole. Using a plumber’s tube cutter would have made the job easier and would have yielded a straighter cut, but I couldn’t find the tube cutter that I think I have. I’ve never used it before. (I got it along with a lot of tools I bought at the Goodwill.) So I used a hacksaw, being especially careful to make a nice straight cut, i.e., a straight cut perpendicular to the pipe. The first cut was easiest. The second cut was a bit more difficult because the remaining pipe was apt to wiggle after one side had been cut free. I wanted to have both my hands on the hacksaw, so I used the old saddle valve clamp (after removing the valve and needle parts) to help hold the pipe steady and guide the saw. I added the old clamp, bolts, and nuts to my ever-growing store of parts.
Once the cut was made, I sanded the pipe ends with some extra-fine sandpaper to get everything clean and smooth, then I cleaned everything with a paper towel. I slid the nuts and ferrules over the pipe ends and then slipped the tee in place. Many sources warn against over-tightening compression fittings. But none of them say exactly what that means. “Tight, but not too tight”, they say (whatever that means). I got the nuts on the compression tee good and tight and attached the line to the ice maker. Then I turned on the water. Everything worked fine at first. But over the next hour a small droplet of water appeared on the bottom of the pipe. It was never enough to actually drip to the floor. I tightened the nuts a bit more and after that the pipes stayed completely dry. That’s a funny thing about compression fittings: you look on the internet for advice and everyone says compression fittings have to be tight, so they don’t leak … but not too tight, because that will ruin them. Of course, there’s no way to measure “tight” that’s right as opposed to “too tight”. It seems that tightening it as much as you can without overly straining, getting a small leak, and then tightening just a bit more and making sure the leak has stopped is as good a method as any.
The best thing is that the refrigerator’s ice maker and water dispenser started working again. In fact, they work better than before. There’s more water pressure, so the dispenser fills a glass more quickly than it ever did before.
I’m quite glad to have a better connection for the refrigerator line, with a real valve that will actually turn the water off if need be. (Like, for example, hooking up a new refrigerator.)
Naturally, the money spent for the compression tee was a fraction of what a plumber would have charged. It’s true that a compression tee isn’t as good as a soldered tee, but time will tell if it’s a good value. [Update: 60 days later: still working fine, no sign of any leak.]