If I were to offer you several hundred dollars, or perhaps even a cool thousand, to turn off the water main to your house in 30 seconds or less, would you be able to do it?
I’m not actually offering, mind you, but there’s a chance that offer may be made to you somewhere down the road. It won’t be someone waving an envelope of cash, though; by being able to turn off the water quickly, you may save that much money. Which is pretty much the same thing.
What about the natural gas, or the electricity? Could you turn those off just as quickly? Those may be more of life-saving activities than money-earning ones, but I imagine you’d value that too, if you ever needed to know.
Water, gas, and electricity – highly useful in the home, but also potentially highly destructive. If you ever need to know how to turn them off, your finances, and perhaps your life, may depend on doing so very quickly.
Fun with Plumbing
Having a contractor work in your house can be a bit stressful. While I like to stay out of their way and let them work, I’m always a little on edge knowing there’s a stranger lurking somewhere in the house.
On one occasion many years ago, this went to a whole new level: the contractor, who was working throughout the house, starting calling my name. Loudly and desperately, with real panic in his voice. There is no logical reason for a contractor to ever use that tone, and it got me scared, fast. As I sprinted back to where he was working, my mind was racing. Heart attack? Sinkhole? Giant rats?
He had put a hole in a water pipe (don’t ask). It wasn’t a big hole, as far as those things go, but it gave me a real respect for the water pressure that is sitting in all of the pipes around my house, just waiting for an outlet. This tiny hole was well on its way to flooding the floor of my closet.
The water was spraying everywhere, and he was trying to hold it in, rather unsuccessfully, with his hand. He cried, “Go to my truck – there’s a special tool you need to use to unlock the water main at the curb – grab it and turn off the water!!!”
The only thing I’m proud of from that day was being able to think really quickly. I immediately knew that me rummaging through his truck for some unknown tool to turn off the water main, which I’d never done before, wasn’t our best team effort. Without a moment’s pause I jumped onto the floor and grabbed the pipe myself and told him to go. Since I was clueless on how to turn off the water at my own house, I had to sit there like Curly from the Three Stooges trying to hold back the water as it sprayed all over me and the floor. Everything worked out fine in the end, but it was a rather exciting introduction to the dark side of plumbing.
I promised myself that I’d know how to turn off the water main wherever I lived for the rest of my life. I also used this wake-up call to make sure I was ready and able to turn off the other key utilities (electricity, gas) to the house.
The steps I took, and will always take for any new house, are:
- Find out where the water main is located
During my Three Stooges moment, I knew the water main was in the front of the house near the street, but had never been out to check. I never want a voyage of discovery during an emergency – it could be covered by dirt / leaves / grass, it may be easy to confuse with a sprinkler system box or my neighbor’s water main (sorry neighbor), or it may just be in a less obvious place. Locating it takes a few minutes at most, but I’d prefer those minutes to not occur while my house is flooding.
- Confirm I can open it to access the valve
Being inches away from being able to turn off the water flooding my house, but unable to do so, would be a really extraordinary feeling of desperation that I’d like to avoid.
At my old house, the water main cover had a special locking mechanism, and you needed the right kind of key to open it up – I would have been trying to claw through plastic in an emergency. A short trip to the hardware store, about $5 for a special wrench, and 30 seconds of practice made me an expert at opening it up. At my current house, I can just pull up the plastic cover.
- Confirm I can turn off the valve
The valve at both houses could be turned with any ol’ wrench – I just turn the valve 90 degrees until it makes a “T” with the pipe (open, it’s parallel to the pipe; closed, it’s perpendicular). Since I’ve now turned off the main several times for minor plumbing repairs, I’m good to go here.
- Store whatever tool is required in the best possible place
Just like the rest of this process, I don’t want any uncertainty finding the wrench in a crisis. I don’t keep it with the rest of my tools; it’s always stored right at the front door, which will always be on my path to the water main in an emergency.
The whole process to find the water main and confirm how to shut it off only takes a few minutes (plus perhaps a trip to the hardware store).
Why might I need to turn off the water main? Frozen pipes burst and then thaw. A contractor breaches a pipe (again). I notice water streaming down a wall. There are countless scenarios that could occur, but they all require the same response: turn off the water main fast. Seconds will count, and repeating steps I’ve already practiced is the only way to go in an emergency.
One added bonus of locating my water main is reading my water meter, which tells me the rate of water flowing into my house. If everything is off, and my meter’s still running, I’ve got a problem I need to investigate…
Flush with my watery success, I turned my attention to electricity. Most houses have a circuit breaker panel where the electrical main comes into the house, and mine was no different.
The steps I took for electricity were even easier:
- Find out where the electrical panel is located
This was highly visible in my garage, and it’s just inside where the electric meter sits on the outside. Making sure I know where the panel is in a new house is the biggest area of uncertainty to this whole process.
- Find the main breaker
This is the biggest breaker, at the top of the panel. It also is helpfully labelled “Main”.
- Confirm I can turn it off
No special tools are required – just a flip of the switch. I haven’t tested this (I use individual breakers when I’m doing electric installs and the like) as I don’t want to reset every clock in the house, but it seems pretty straightforward.
What kind of emergency would warrant killing the main breaker? Perhaps if someone were being electrocuted in my house – that’d be a good time, because if I touched them I’d get electrocuted too. Maybe if my house had partially flooded, and I could safely get to the breaker panel – that’d be a good way to reduce risk of shock and assess damage. If a James Bond villain hooked up a nuclear missile silo’s controls to my house’s electricity and was prepping to launch, definitely.
I don’t know all of the electrical disaster scenarios that would warrant killing the main breaker, I just know I’m ready if they arise. It’s a very simple process, but, like the water main shut off, one I don’t want to learn in a panic.
Natural gas is another potential destructive force in the home, so knowing how to turn it off could be important.
Now, if I ever find my house full of natural gas (the “rotten egg” smell), I’m going to get everyone out immediately without turning on any lights or other sparks, run far away, and then dial 911 (after my cell phone won’t risk igniting the gas…). Natural gas explosions can level city blocks, so I’m calling 911 rather than playing Mr. Fix It.
It’s therefore likely that I’ll never turn off my natural gas unless someone on the other end of the 911 call tells me to. But if they do, I’d rather not confess I don’t how or where to turn it off.
Figuring this out was easy:
- Find where the gas main comes into the house
I found my gas meter, and saw the pipe coming up from the ground to the valve.
- Confirm – without actually doing anything – that I could turn it off
The valve is similar to the water valve; it’s open when parallel to the pipe and closed when perpendicular. My wrench for the water main would work for this too – I would just turn it 90 degrees to make a “T”.
But I’ll never turn off the gas unless I’m told to do so – it can be dangerous to turn gas off then on. Turning off the gas will extinguish my pilot lights (I still have a few), so I couldn’t safely turn the gas back on by myself.
- Store whatever tool is required in the best possible place
The wrench for my water main will also work for my gas, so I kill two birds by keeping it stored at the front door, always on the path to the gas valve.
Also, by finding where the gas came into my house, I was able to find the gas meter. Just like with water, if I see the meter running and there’s no reason for it to be, I may have a leak that warrants an investigation.
There’s No Substitute for Experience (Best Gained When You’re Not a Panicked Mess)
There’s no single “how-to” guide for turning off these utilities, because houses, and the way utilities connect to them, can differ. I could read scores of guides and watch lots of youtube videos, and they’d be secondary to just walking around my house and investigating.
It only took about five minutes for me to confirm how to turn off these utilities when I moved in, and now I feel far more confident than I did on that fateful day of plumbing fun so long ago.
If you don’t know how to turn these off yourself, learning right now – at your calm leisure – could save you a lot of money down the road, not to mention a scene of panicked madness like the one I so enjoyed.