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Basic Plumbing Emergencies

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Plumbing is the one system in our home that requires a fair amount of attention and interaction from homeowners. Many of us can fix day-to-day annoyances, make simple repairs, even upgrade fixtures, but for the big repairs and emergencies we need to establish a trusting relationship with a plumber or plumbing contractor.

In the following series of posts, we look at a variety of plumbing issues — from emergencies, to water leaks and repairs, to unclogging drains, to dealing with pipe and water supply issues, to installing or repairing plumbing appliances like garbage disposers. These are presented to give homeowners a basic understanding of what’s involved and what they can do working alongside a plumber.

There is never a convenient time for any emergency, let alone plumbing. In order to minimize water damage and repair costs, swift and decisive action is needed before the arrival of a plumber. The only way to act quickly and confidently is to be prepared.

Shutting Off a Water Main/Water Supply

It’s unofficially the first law of plumbing. Learn how to shut off the main water valve.

If a pipe bursts, an extra two or three minute delay wondering what to do or who to call can result in 30 or more gallons of water spewing onto the floor and causing a lot more (costly-to-repair) damage.

This is why it’s a good idea to keep the phone number or a business card handy of the plumber you use. If the contractor has a refrigerator magnet with his phone number on it, stick it on the side of the fridge so you know where it is.

Street Access to Plumbing Shut Off

Most homes draw water from a municipal supply, which usually places a shutoff valve and meter near the street in an underground access hatch.

Hatches, or manhole covers, usually have two “keyholes” that often require special tools to access. This is because the water utility doesn’t want homeowners, curious kids, or vandals to mess with the valve and meter.

  • Even so, you can pop up the hatch by placing a long, sturdy screwdriver into the keyhole and lifting up. Be sure to clear debris like overgrown grass and lawn clippings to make lifting the cover easier.
  • Inside you will find a “handle” or “valve.” A handle can be rotary like a manual sprinkler valve or a paddle. Turn or twist the handle until it won’t turn any further. Don’t force it.
  • If it’s a valve, they usually have a metal flange on top that requires a pipe wrench to operate. It requires a quarter-turn to close or open. A good idea: leave the wrench next to the water meter and valve or, if the utility company frowns on this, leave it (with the long and sturdy screwdriver) inside the home for quick access in an emergency. This way you won’t be running around the house in a panic looking for a tool that works, saving precious time.

Plumbing Shut Off in the House

Many homes have additional valves that can shut off localized sections of the water supply. These are convenient because, unlike shutting off the water at the street, this valve does not turn off water to the entire dwelling.

In many instances, where the water main enters your house there will be a hose bib and shut off valve. Sometimes these are recognizable and readily available, but other times they may be hidden behind shrubs or other landscaping. You may have been shown this valve when you bought the home, but many years later — after years of non use — you’ve forgotten where it is.

If you are unsure where the water supply enters the home or how to shut off the valve, the next time a plumber comes to the home for repair or service work, ask him to show you. Maybe even take a picture of the location so you remember where it is located — just remember to do something with the picture so it’s not lost forever in your phone’s camera roll.

In cold weather locations, this shut off may be in a basement or inside the house, possibly under the kitchen sink or under a closet floor. This valve is most often a rotary type. It’s recommended that you open and close it once a year to help prevent it from seizing. In an emergency, if it’s seized that’s not good. Homeowners, in a panic, may also apply extra force, potentially damaging the valve even more and complicating matters. Also not good.

Localized Valves to Shut Off Plumbing in the Home

Inside the house there will be more shut off valves localized to the fixtures that use them like the water heater, sinks, dishwasher, washing machine and toilets.

Like the other valves, know where they are and how to operate them off. It’s also recommended that you open or close them once a year to prevent them from “sticking” and making it more difficult to close in an emergency. It’s never wise to force plumbing to open or close.

How To Shut Off the Gas Line

This is one nearly every homeowner forgets or doesn’t even know about. But, just like water shut off, everyone should take the time to find their gas shut off valve before the need arises.

If you are unsure where the gas supply enters the home or how to shut off the valve, the next time a plumber comes to the home for repair work, ask him to show you. Again, take a picture for reference if that will help.

You can also call the local gas company and request a technician. Most of the time there will be no charge, but ask ahead of time. You do not want to be charged for a “house call” when no work is done.

In the event of a leak, quickly shutting off the gas can be life-saving. If you smell gas, or suspect a gas leak, leave your home, leave the door open and shut off the gas at the meter.

The gas meter is typically located along the perimeter of your home, often near where other utility services are located, such as your main electrical panel.

The gas meter should have a pipe coming out of the ground and another that enters the building, although other designs are possible. The shut off valve is usually located on the pipe coming out of the ground.

The shut off valve has a simple, square metal flange or tab. Use a pipe wrench, crescent wrench or pliers to turn the tab a quarter turn.

The the valve is closed when the tab on the valve is 90 degrees to the pipe. The valve is open when the tab is parallel in turned in the same direction as the gas line pipe.

If you turn off the gas, do not turn it back on. Contact your gas utility to send someone out to restore service.

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