An ounce of prevention is...well worth it
The shut-off valves on my bathroom sinks and toilet are frozen in the open position, and I'm afraid I'll break something if I ever have to force them closed to shut off my water. How can I solve this problem and prevent it from happening again?
— A.S., Albuquerque, N.M.
Richard Trethewey replies: Shut-off valves, also called stop valves or angle stops, are typically tucked into some unobtrusive spot, making them easy to ignore. Over time, however, minerals in the water accumulate around the stem and harden; the unused valve stiffens and eventually sticks. Of course, most people discover this only when a broken pipe sprays water all over the place.
Preventing valves from getting stuck is easy. Just get in the habit of turning every shut-off valve in the house off, then back on, once or twice each year. (To make that task easier, The Gordon Tool Co. makes an inexpensive plastic fitting that slips onto the oval handle of a typical shut-off to give you extra leverage to turn a stiff valve; see below.)
But once it sticks, you don't want to force the valve open. Most valves are made of chromed brass and might indeed break or be chewed up by pliers' jaws. Instead, try loosening the bonnet nut slightly with an adjustable wrench. (The bonnet nut is the one at the base of the stem, the shaft that the handle is attached to.) Once the handle and stem loosen up, you may have to retighten the bonnet nut slightly if it starts to leak a little.