Ball valve

ball valve or float valve, or less commonly, a ballcock, is a valve which controls the flow of water into a cistern via a plastic or metal float on the surface of the water. When water is drawn out of the cistern, the float falls with the water level, opening the valve and causing water to enter the cistern. As the water level rises, the float is pushed upwards, closing the valve once the water has reached a predetermined level.

Ball valves are present in cold water storage cisterns and feed and expansion cisterns, where they tend to be made out of brass. Ball valves installed in toilet cisterns are usually made from plastic, and quieter plastic float valves, either bottom entry or side entry, are popular choices for reducing the sound of running water as the cistern fills. Ball valves are usually connected to a cistern via two nuts on the valve stem, and are connected to their supply pipe via a tap connector. Plastic cold water storage cisterns and feed and expansion cisterns are generally supplied with a small plastic or metal backing plate, which protects the cistern wall from the stress of the upward force of the float. Service valves should always be fitted on the supply pipe to a ball valve, and as close as possible.

An air gap between the water level and the point on the ball valve out of which the water flows must always be maintained in order to prevent a siphon from introducing water in the cistern back into the mains and contaminating the supply. For this reason, rigid plastic ‘silencer’ tubes which dip into the body of water in the cistern are prohibited, although some toilet float valves are equipped with an anti-siphon mechanism in their design, or a collapsible plastic tube attached to the valve.

Faulty ball valves are the most common cause of an overflowing cistern, and are usually simple to repair. Ball valve repair kits are available for plumbers and other individuals who repair a lot of ball valves, and contain low pressure and high pressure valve seatings, split pins, washers for Part 1 valves and diaphragms for Part 2 valves.

Types of ball valve

There are several different types of ball valve available. All of them must conform to BS-1212, the British Standard specification code for ball valves. The different ‘parts’ of the code are used to refer to the different types of valve.

Part 1 ball valve – Portsmouth valve

The Part 1 ball valve is easily recognised by its piston-like shape. Inside the valve is a small piston with a washer on the end, and inside the piston there is a slot in which the end of the float arm sits. The arm is secured to the valve via a split pin.

When the water level rises, the float pushes the arm of the valve upwards, which pushes the piston and its washer onto the valve seat, thereby stopping the flow of water. The brass housing of the valve has an unscrewable cap on the end, which is usually made out of brass too, but is plastic in some valves. If the valve has seen many years of use, then the cap will most likely be impossible to undo by hand, and grips will be required. Part 1 valves usually lack a mechanism to adjust the amount of water in the cistern: the only way to do so is to bend the valve arm. Part 1 valves are typically side entry, but bottom entry valves are available. However, Part 1 valves are gradually becoming obsolete in favour of Part 2 and Part 3 valves. This is because a ball valve with an arm that must be distorted in order to adjust the water level is no longer permitted by water byelaws, and that should the water level in the cistern reach the critical level, i.e., level with the centre line of the supply pipe, the risk of siphonage back into the mains is much greater due to the position of the outlet.

The Part 1 valve, or Portsmouth valve as it is sometimes known, is similar to its predecessor, the Croydon valve, whose piston moves up and down instead of backwards and forwards. Some cheaply made ball valves have broadly the same design as the Part 1 valve, except that they lack the plastic or metal cap on the end, exposing the piston. Since water is able to pass the piston when the valve is open (hence the cap), water is likely to spray in all directions inside the cistern. These valves should be avoided.

Part 2 ball valve – Diaphragm valve

Part 2 ball valves operate slightly differently. Instead of pushing a piston, the float arm pushes a small plastic or brass plunger into the valve housing, which in turn pushes a rubber diaphragm against the valve seating, closing the valve. The small plunger protrudes from the valve housing, and is partly visible.

Part 2 ball valves offer a number of advantages over Part 1 valves. Firstly, Part 2 valves have a specific mechanism for adjusting the position of the float on the arm and thus the water level in the cistern: the float is secured to the arm via a small nut, which can be unscrewed and moved up or down on the float arm. The other advantage is that they offer a much greater air gap between the outlet on the valve and the water level in the cistern: the outlet is located on top of the valve, and water is directed down into the cistern via a small plastic spout.

Part 3 ball valve – Plastic diaphragm valve

Part 3 ball valves function in exactly the same way as Part 2 ball valves, except they are made out of plastic instead of brass. They are generally used in toilet cisterns, and on the end of the arm, they sometimes have two screws which point out at different angles. This is so that there is room to attach the float for its location between the siphon and the opposite end of the cistern, depending on which side the valve enters.

Part 4 ball valve – Torbeck valve

Part 4 valves refer to compact plastic valves designed for toilet cisterns, which are sometimes known as Torbeck valves (Torbeck is the trademark name of a popular Part 4 valve). The term ‘ball valve’ is inaccurate in reference to these valves, as the float is not a ball. The design of these valves enables them to be compact and require small floats: Part 4 valves are always equilibrium valves. This means that they use the pressure of the water to help close the valve. Water is allowed to flow behind the diaphragm washer, meaning that the pressure either side of the diaphragm is equal, hence the term equilibrium. This in turn means that significantly less force is required in order to close the valve – the float arm does not have to overcome the pressure of the water entering the cistern.

Equilibrium ball valves

Ball valves which equalise the water pressure on either side of the valve washer are not limited to Part 4 Torbeck models – there are also equilibrium Part 1 valves. In this case, the piston has a channel which allows the water to flow through it in order to occupy the other side of the washer.


A faulty ball valve is the most common cause of cistern overflow, and can easily be repaired or replaced. Typical ball valve faults include:

  • The washer or diaphragm and/or the valve seating has worn and no longer forms a seal.
  • The float has become waterlogged and has sunk.
  • Grit, limescale or other debris is preventing the valve from closing off.
  • The valve arm has jammed down (alternatively the valve arm can become jammed upwards, prevent the cistern from being replenished.
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Ball valve repair kit

A ball valve repair kit is a repair kit which contains multiple types of spare parts for ball valves. A kit will typically include split pins, high and low pressure valve seatings, washers for Part 1 ball valves, and diaphragms for Part 2 ball valves.


A leaking ball valve is often caused by a worn or defective component. In theory, this means that replacing the faulty component will repair the valve without needing to replace it entirely.

A comprehensive ball valve repair kit usually consists of a plastic box with several compartments, much like a tray in a fisherman’s tackle box. As mentioned, a repair kit will usually include high and low pressure valve seatings, washers for Part 1 ball valves, diaphragms for Part 2 and Part 3 ball valves, and brass split pins for ball valves in the cold water storage cistern and feed and expansion tank.

Buying a ball valve repair kit is usually cheaper than buying the components separately, and will be an extremely useful tool for the plumber to have in the back of his van.

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Essex flange

An Essex flange is a fitting on a hot water cylinder which prevents a device, such as a shower pump, from being damaged by air. It does this by drawing off water from the side of the cylinder.

When water in the cylinder is heated by the coil or the immersion heater, air bubbles form. The top of the cylinder is shaped like a bell in order to prevent these air bubbles from being trapped. This allows them to rise to the highest point of the cylinder and out at the top, before venting out of the system via the expansion pipe as normal. By drawing water off from the side of the cylinder using an Essex flange, the ingestion of aerated water is prevented.

An Essex flange is slightly different to a Surrey flange, which fits at the top of the cylinder, and has a tube which dips down into the main body of water. The advantage of an Essex flange is that there is no need to modify the pipework at the top of the cylinder. Depending on the manufacturer, some brand new hot water cylinders are already equipped with an Essex flange.

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Surrey flange

A Surrey flange is a fitting on a hot water cylinder which prevents a device, such as a shower pump, from being damaged by air. It does this by drawing off water via a tube which dips down into the main body of hot water.

When water in the cylinder is heated by the coil or the immersion heater, air bubbles form. The top of the cylinder is shaped like a bell in order to prevent these air bubbles from being trapped. This allows them to rise to the highest point of the cylinder and out at the top.

Hot water drawn from below this point with a Surrey flange will be devoid of these air bubbles, protecting a shower pump from damage. The tube which dips down into the cylinder may also have a component on the end which deflects any air bubbles that rise up towards it from directly beneath it.

A Surrey flange will have two outlets. Non-aerated water exits at right angles to the dip tube. Aerated water rises to the top of the cylinder, and out of the top of the flange. This allows air bubbles to rise up and out of the system via the expansion pipe as normal, with the hot water carried off to the rest of the domestic services.

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Hot water in the cold water tank – why?

While the cold water cistern is designed to accommodate modest levels of hot water entering via the expansion pipe, things can go wrong, and in some cases, there may be hot water in the cold water tank. In such circumstances, the temperature of the water can range from unusually warm to scalding hot. Let’s take a look at the possible reasons why.

Hot water in the cold water tank

The cistern is not lagged

The water may not necessarily be hot, but warm water coming from the cold water cistern is still undesirable. In the warmer months, the cause may be the absence of lagging. Not only does lagging prevent the cistern from freezing, it also keeps the water cool. During the summer months, the temperature in a loft can easily reach 100° F / 38° C. Water in the cold water cistern ideally should be kept below 68° F / 20° C in order to minimise the risk of bacterial growth.

A mixer tap or mixer shower is displacing hot water

If the problem correlates with the installation of a mixer tap or a mixer shower, then that is very likely to be the cause of the problem, especially if the cistern overflows when a mixer valve is open, such as while someone in the household is taking a shower.

The cause is usually the result of a mixer valve which is supplied with mains cold water, and hot water from a hot water cylinder. Mains cold water is at a much higher pressure than hot water from the cylinder, which is delivered via gravity. When the two waters are allowed to mix, the mains cold water displaces the hot water and pushes it back the way it came: back into the hot water cylinder, up the supply pipe into the loft, and into the cistern via the outlet. The supply pipe at the base of the cistern may feel warm when the mixer tap in question is open, and it may be possible to see or feel a current of water entering the cistern.

The expansion pipe is dipping into the water in the cistern

The expansion pipe must not dip into the water in the cold water cistern, as this may prime the expansion pipe with water, and create a thermal convection circuit with the hot water cylinder. Once heated in the hot water cylinder, hot water will rise up the expansion pipe and into the cold cistern – the cold cistern will effectively become one with the hot water cylinder.

The immersion heated thermostat has failed

This is the most concerning cause of hot water in the cold water cistern, and the consequences can be disastrous if left unfixed. Older pattern immersion heater thermostats may fail in the ‘on’ position and heat the water in the hot water cylinder indefinitely. The water rises up the expansion pipe and discharges into the cistern. Bearing in mind that the cistern is also the hot water cylinder’s source of water, it is only a matter of time before the cold water cistern is full of scalding hot water. There have been fatal incidents in these circumstances in which improperly supported plastic cisterns collapse, dumping hundreds of litres of scalding hot water onto a resident in the bedroom below.

As explained by the Health & Safety Executive, signs of a failed immersion heater thermostat include:

  • Excessively hot water coming from hot water taps and outlets
  • Bubbling or fizzing noises from the hot water cylinder
  • Hot water coming from certain cold taps
  • Steam/moisture in the roof
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Pumping over

Pumping over refers to a symptom of an improperly configured central heating system in which water is discharged into the feed and expansion cistern via the expansion pipe while the pump is running. The cause is usually either:

  • The pump has been installed in a sub-optimal location on the system
  • The pump has been installed the wrong way, and is directing water the wrong way around the system
  • The pump’s speed is too high

While seemingly inconsequential at first, pumping over can have devastating effects on a central heating system in the long term. When the system is pumping over, the feed and expansion cistern and the expansion pipe together form the perfect aerator, enriching the water with oxygen like an aerator in a fish tank. The oxygen-rich water accelerates the production of oxides within the system, and eventually cripples it via corrosion: heat exchangers get blocked up, and radiators develop leaks due to internal rusting. If left uncorrected, the cost of repairing the damage to the central heating system and damage to the property can run into hundreds or even thousands of pounds. Cleansing, powerflushing, or adding inhibitor to the system will not resolve the issue, since the cause most likely relates to how water is distributed around the system.

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A stopcock, or stop valve or stop tap, is an inline valve which controls the water supply to a property. It is usually located on or near the rising main, and usually under the kitchen sink, although in some homes it may be located in a pantry or hallway. In addition to an internal stopcock, some homes may have an external stopcock, which in some cases, is shared with adjacent properties. An external or outside stopcock is usually located under a service hatch. Its operation usually requires a long metal tool known as a stopcock key, as the stopcock itself may be two or three feet below ground level in order to avoid frost.

Stopcocks are available in a range of pipe diameters. They are usually made out of brass, and consist of a spindle with a washer attached perpendicularly at the end. When the spindle is turned via the handle on top, the washer is lowered onto a seating inside, which shuts off the flow of water. Stopcocks should not be confused with gate valves, which function differently and are used on the low pressure side of a plumbing system. A gate valve should never be used as an alternative to a stopcock, as stopcocks are specifically designed to handle water at mains pressure.

Turning off the stopcock will stop the flow of water to everything supplied by the mains, such as the kitchen tap, and any cisterns in the loft, such as the cold water storage cistern and the feed and expansion cistern. Anything whose source of water is the cold water storage cistern, such as the hot taps, or the bathroom toilet and bathroom cold taps in an indirect system, will continue to work and flush until the water in the cold cistern is exhausted.

It is extremely advisable for homeowners to know where their stopcock is located, should the mains water supply need to be closed in an emergency. While in many homes, the stopcock may be hidden behind the cleaning products stored in the cupboard under the kitchen sink, in some cases it may have been completely obscured or hidden by subsequent kitchen fitting or DIY work.


Possible faults

There are two main faults which can occur with stopcocks: they leak internally, and do not completely shut off the water; they leak externally, often from the gland nut or the spindle, or they seize up, and the spindle cannot be turned.

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Rising main

The rising main is a pipe in the home which delivers fresh mains water to the highest part of the plumbing system, most likely the cold water storage cistern in the loft. It will also supply the feed and expansion cistern, if there is one (which there will be if the home has an open vented central heating system).

The rising main may also supply other outlets, depending on the cold water system. In a direct system, the bathroom cold taps are fed by the mains. In an indirect system, the bathroom cold taps are fed by the cold water storage cistern. In both systems, the mains feeds the kitchen tap and any other device in the vicinity, such as a water softener or an outside tap.

The rising main can be susceptible to what is known as water hammer: vibration, banging, or shuddering noises from pipes. When pressurised water or indeed any fluid in a pipe is stopped suddenly, the pressure in the pipe suddenly increases. This pressure surge creates resonance, which can manifest in these unwelcome vibrations and sounds. This can of course happen to any section of pipe carrying mains water. The cause may be a tap or a ballcock closing too suddenly, or an improperly secured pipe.

The advantages of an indirect system are that there is a reserve of water to mitigate any disruption to the mains, and that the system is less likely to be vulnerable to water hammer, due to the lower pressure water. The primary advantage of a direct system is that water from outlets fed by the mains is usually drinkable.

rising main can also refer to a pipe through which sewage is pumped so that it can gravitate to a lower point.

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Cold water tank

Check cold water tank prices at B&Q/a>

The cold water tank, or technically speaking, the cold water storage cistern, is an important part of a gravity-fed domestic water system, supplying cold water to the hot water cylinder, and to potentially every cold water outlet in the home, except the kitchen and outside taps. It is usually made out of plastic, although more rigid materials such as galvanised steel and asbestos cement have been used in the past. A typical cold water tank may hold anywhere from 15 to 100 gallons of water, reducing a household’s demand on the mains, and serving as a kind of safety valve for the hot water cylinder.

The cold water tank is technically a cistern because a tank is a sealed vessel – as opposed to a cistern, which is open to atmospheric pressure. Fed from the rising main, it is usually situated in the loft because of its size and in order to minimise the annoyance of the sound of running water. Nevertheless, in some homes it can be found above the hot water cylinder in the airing cupboard.

Modern cold water cisterns are generally made from black plastics. This makes them light, flexible, and resistant to algae growth. They can be round, square, or rectangular in shape, and should be insulated to prevent the water from freezing in the winter, and to keep it cool during the summer. Certain fittings are also required in order to minimise the risk of contamination, such as a lid.


General overview

The flow of water into the cistern is controlled by a ballcock. The float on the arm of the ballcock is usually plastic, although copper floats are sometimes used. Should the ballcock fail or water enter the cistern by any other pipes connected to it (it can happen), an overflow pipe carries the water away, discharging outdoors. The overflow is extremely important and serves two purposes: to prevent the cistern from being overwhelmed with water, leading to property damage, and to alert the homeowner to a fault. The overflow pipe should be fitted at a constant fall, and its exit outside should be clearly visible. It should be at least 19mm in diameter, and should be capable of evacuating all of the excess water under maximum fault conditions, such as in complete failure of the ball valve.

Tank connectors connect the cistern to 15, 22, or even 28mm distribution pipes via a compression fitting, supplying most cold water outlets and devices in the home apart from the kitchen tap. These are fitted 50 – 75mm from the bottom of the tank so as to avoid ingesting any sediment or settled limescale into the system. The outlet supplying the hot water cylinder should be fitted higher than the cold outlet, so that if the water in the cistern is exhausted, the hot water will stop flowing before the cold does. This means that an individual taking a shower will not be scalded if the water in the cistern runs out: the water will run cold, not hot. However, water regulations recommend that, where possible, outlets should be fitted to the bottom of the cistern in order to reduce the collection of sediment.

An isolation valve must be fitted to the pipe supplying the cistern. This allows for the cistern to be isolated without disrupting the mains water supply to the property. It is also far more convenient for an individual working on the cistern, saving them from having to go up and down between the loft and mains valve access points, such near the kitchen sink or out onto the street or driveway. Gate valves or quarter-turn lever valves on the distribution pipes prevent the need for the cistern to be drained down when work is carried out further along the system.

Water expands when heated. In order to accommodate the expansion of water heated by the hot water cylinder, a pipe rises from the top of the cylinder and curves down into the cistern, without coming into contact with the water. This pipe is known as the expansion pipe. If the hot water expands to the extent that it cannot be accommodated by the hot water cylinder or the expansion pipe, it vents into the cold water cistern. It is very important that the expansion pipe does not dip into the water, as this may create a gravity circuit that fills the cistern with hot water from the hot water cylinder.


Modern cisterns are generally made from plastics – either polyethylene, polypropylene, or polyvinyl chloride (PVC), although glass-reinforced polyester (GRP) may also be encountered. Older cisterns may be made from galvanised steel, which is susceptible to corrosion, and may be impossible to remove from the roof space via the loft hatch because they were installed before construction of the roof was completed. Once drained down, an older galvanised cistern can be cut up. This should be done manually so as not to create a stream of sparks in the loft – a serious fire hazard. However, this can be a laborious task, and if there is no particular reason to remove it, it may be more convenient to simply move an old metal cistern to a corner of the loft and leave it there.

Some older cisterns may be made from asbestos cement. You should never attempt to cut up or even dispose of such a cistern yourself. Even in tiny amounts, asbestos particles are extremely dangerous to human health; skin contact alone can cause nasty dermatological problems. Contact a professional asbestos remover – it’s just not worth the risk.

Some cisterns may be made entirely from copper. Metal cisterns are required where the domestic hot water is heated by a device without any form of thermostatic control, because they may vent extremely hot water into the cistern even as part of their normal operation.

Modern plastic cisterns are generally black in order to resist algae growth. They can be round, square, or rectangular in shape. Some cisterns are long and narrow, and relatively shallow in comparison to conventional designs. These “coffin tanks”, as they are known, are ideal for confined spaces.

Some cisterns are designed in such a way that they are no longer than a given dimension on any plane. This means that they can fit through even the smallest of loft hatches.

In circumstances where extra capacity is needed but a specially designed tank is not a viable option, it is possible to connect two tanks together, e.g., to connect a 25 gallon cistern to a preexisting 25 gallon cistern. However, it is extremely important that the outlets are on the cistern without the ball valve. This ensures a flow of water through the tanks, preventing stagnation. The overflow and expansion pipe must be connected to the cistern with the ball valve.


Cold water storage cisterns are very heavy when full: a 50 gallon cistern will weigh around a quarter of a ton. Plastic cisterns of up to 500 litres must be situated on a base of at least 19mm marine plywood and ideally 25mm, providing flat, stable, continuous support under the entirety of the cistern. This base should be situated on timber bearers laid across the ceiling joists. Chipboard should never be used as a base, as it is liable to disintegrate if it gets wet.

It is absolutely fundamental that the entire underside of the cistern is supported, without any part of it overhanging. Older pattern immersion heater thermostats which fail in the “on” position will heat the water in the hot water cylinder indefinitely. This water will be discharged into cistern via the expansion pipe. Since the hot water cylinder is fed from the cistern, it is only a matter of time before the entire cistern is full of scalding hot water. In such circumstances, there have been incidents where an improperly supported plastic cistern splits, dumping its contents through the ceiling and injuring or killing the resident in a bedroom below. If a metal cistern has been replaced with a plastic one, it is advisable to check the immersion heater thermostat and replace it with one that has a cut-out.

Extra fittings

The cistern and all its adjoining pipes must be lagged to prevent water from freezing during the winter and to keep it cool during the summer. Loft insulation should not be placed underneath the cistern, as heat rising from the household below during the winter will help prevent the water from freezing.

A small backing plate, either metal or plastic, and located on the outside cistern wall, is secured via the ballcock’s rear nut. This reduces stress to the cistern wall from the upward force of the float.

A cold water storage cistern is the water source in which you shower, bathe, wash the dishes, and potentially brush your teeth. A lid is therefore a must, and is usually supplied with the cistern. This will prevent dust, insects, and rodents from getting inside, as well as bits of loft insulation and other debris which could cause a blockage or damage, such as in a shower pump. The lid must be close-fitting, and must be made from a substance which will not react with the water, and will retain its structural integrity if it gets wet.

Water byelaws require the fitting of certain components in order to minimise the risk of contamination. These are:

  • A rubber grommet, to create a sealed admission point for the expansion pipe.
  • A screened breather, to keep the cistern at atmospheric pressure.
  • A screened warning pipe unit, to prevent anything outside, such as insects, from entering the cistern.
  • A dip tube, allowing the warning pipe to dip into the water so that cold drafts cannot enter the cistern.

These parts can be bought as a kit. Byelaw 30 and Byelaw 60 kits as they are known, are often supplied with a new cistern, but you can also buy them separately if you are looking to upgrade an older cistern.

Where to buy

Brand new cold water tanks for new installations or to replace an existing cistern are available from most of the major UK hardware stores, including B&Q and Wickes.

All of the cisterns from B&Q come with lids, an insulation jacket, a Part 2 ball valve and float, a tank connector and ball valve backing plate, and a Byelaw 30 kit. As most of the cisterns and included parts are over £50, you can also enjoy free next-day delivery.



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How pipe insulation can save your home from destruction

The plumbing in your loft is generally out of sight and out of mind, but during the colder months, the absence of pipe insulation can remind us of its presence in the most expensive way imaginable. Every year, burst pipes and split water tanks cause tens of thousands of dollars/pounds/euros worth of damage to houses, with families coming back from dream holidays and vacations to find that one of their worst nightmares has come true. Insurance companies unwilling to fulfill any claims because of technicalities may mean that repairing the damage will come at the cost of the homeowner’s life savings.

Fortunately there is one thing you can do which will drastically reduce the chance of this happening to you, and that’s insulate your loft pipework and tanks. Pipe insulation is available for various pipe diameters, and slips around pipes to keep their residual heat in, preventing them from freezing.

If you have any tanks in your loft, such as a cold water storage cistern, a feed and expansion cistern, or a rainwater collection cistern, you can buy special insulating jackets for them. These tend to be made from fibreglass and are made in different sizes for different capacity cisterns, but make sure they will fit the shape of your cistern, depending on whether it is round, square, rectangular, or long and narrow.

Make sure there is no loft insulation underneath any cisterns or tanks in your loft – heat rising from the rooms below will also help to protect them from freezing during the winter. The benefits of insulating them will be felt during the summer too: the insulation will also help to keep the water cool at a time during which the roof space can get very hot.

This simple job can easily be completed within a day – just make sure that it is safe to work in your loft, e.g. that you have a safe way of entering and exiting, and that where you are working is well-lit.

Good luck, and enjoy peace of mind when you are away from home during the colder months!

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