Home inspectors

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Emergencies: Shutting Off Gas, Water & Power


A corroded washing machine hose, flickering lights and the faint odor of natural gas can be a sure signs of impending disaster. A corroded washing machine hose can be the cause of a flooded home.

Lights that flicker are a signal that there is a problem with the electrical system. Potential causes of such a problem could range from a loose wire connection to an overstressed circuit. Both can cause a fire that could level a house. If you smell natural gas in the air, there most likely is a leak at a fitting that connects the individual pieces of gasline together or the gasline to an appliance. In either case, errant natural gas is a bomb waiting to go off.

All of these disasters can be avoided with preventive maintenance.

The first and most important step in being prepared for an emergency is knowing where and how to shut off the water, gas and power to your home. All adults and teenagers in a family should have this information.

There are usually a couple of locations where the water supply to your home can be turned off. The first is at the water main. This is a large valve with an analog or numeric gauge that is used to measure the amount of water that you consume. Although a water meter can be located virtually anywhere surrounding your home, it generally is located below grade in a concrete box with a concrete or metal lid. The box is located in the sidewalk or in a planter near the sidewalk.

The lid can be opened by using a large screwdriver or pry bar. In most cases the lid is regularly opened and closed by the utility company to read the meter, thus it should be easy to open in the case of an emergency. If, however, the box is rarely opened, do so periodically to avoid having to struggle in an emergency.

The easiest means of turning off the water at the water main is with a water-meter wrench. It is shaped like a ``T'' with a slot at the bottom that fits over a lug on the valve. This type of wrench is made of metal and stands about 30 inches tall. Other wrenches can be used, but might require more strength than most people have.

A second location to turn off all the water to the house is the main water shutoff valve. This valve typically is located where the main water line enters the home. This is at the outside wall of a home or in the basement. It is a gate valve that must be turned clockwise several rotations to fully close. No tools usually are needed to operate this valve.

There is another means of turning off water - the fixture shutoff valve or angle stop. Unlike the two previously mentioned valves, these control flow to a given fixture and not the entire house. These valves generally are located at each plumbing fixture with the exception of a tub or shower. They are at toilets, sinks, automatic dishwashers and icemakers. A variation of this valve can be found at the clothes washer. A shutoff valve also can be found at the top of a water heater.

Gas can be shut off in more than one location. To turn off all of the gas supplied to your home, do it at the meter. Although the gas main can be located virtually anywhere on your property, it typically is found at an exterior wall close the street. The gas meter is used to join incoming gas from the utility company to the gas pipes that run to your various gas appliances. The meter is also used to measure the amount of gas that you consume.

There is a gas whole-house shutoff valve located on the pipe at the utility side of the meter. To turn the gas off to the entire house, turn the lug on the valve perpendicular to the pipe. An adjustable or open-end wrench can be used to operate the valve. We suggest attaching a wrench to the gas meter with a short length of chain. This will prevent the need to search for a wrench in the event of an emergency. Gas lines are still filled with gas even after the valve has been closed, so lines should be bled before attempting any work.

If you suspect that there is a gas leak at an appliance or the gas to an individual appliance needs to be turned off, close the appliance gas shutoff valve located at each appliance. As with the valve at the gas meter, an appliance gas shutoff valve can be turned off by rotating it 90 degrees or at a right angle to the gasline. CAUTION: If you suspect a gas leak, immediately turn off the gas to the house and call the utility company emergency service department.

Electrical power is supplied to a home via wires that are connected to a main service panel. The panel can contain either fuses or breakers depending upon the age of the home and/or the panel. Often, if the main service contains only one breaker - the main breaker - there are one or more secondary or "subpanels" that contain breakers or fuses that control power sent to various circuits throughout your home.

Use the fuse or main breaker in the main service to shut off power to your entire house. Pulling the fuse or tripping the breaker does this. If you wish only to turn the power off to a branch circuit (as when making a repair), trip the breaker or remove the fuse for that individual circuit.

Loose electrical wires can level a home. If you suspect a problem with your electrical system, call the service department of your local utility company or a qualified electrician to make an inspection.