A couple of years ago, I was installing a disposal when one of the lines under the kitchen sink that I was working on sprung a leak. No problem I thought; just turn off the water valve under the sink. That handle broke clean off. Ok, still no problem I thought; all I have to do is shut off the main shutoff valve to the house. So I ran downstairs to close that valve, and as soon as that valve was closed, it started spraying water everywhere. So now I have a water leak upstairs in my kitchen as well as one at my main shutoff valve in the basement. So what now? What would you do? That’s right…there is one more chance to prevent what would otherwise be a very expensive repair…one more shutoff valve…at the street, but do you know where this is? Or how to shut it off? Luckily, I did know where this valve was and and how to close it. In less than a minute, I had the water to the entire house shut off. So the question is, do YOU know where all of these valves are and how to shut them off? What if this happens when you're not home...would your spouse know how to do this? If not, it’s time to learn.
SOV's (Shut Off Valves)
Every adult (and even older kids) should know how to shut off ALL utilities, when necessary. This includes, the water to the house, the stop and waste line, the main lot water, the water to any appliance requiring it (such as the dishwasher, the refrigerator, the hot water heater, etc.), the gas main, the gas to the stove (if applicable), the gas to the furnace and hot water heater, the house circuit breakers, etc.
Make sure everyone knows how to shutoff the:
Stop and waste valve- Usually people refer to this as the “sprinkler main shutoff” that is 4-5 feet underground. It’s essentially an isolation valve which allows you to shut off the sprinklers in the winter without shutting off the water to your house. Know where this valve is (usually inline between the street valve and your house), what it controls, what and where the ‘Key’ or 'T-bar' is to turn it on and off. Tip, take a flashlight with you. If you’ve never worked with this valve, you’re about to learn they are burried fairly deep and accessed via a small skinny pipe. You'll need a light to see the orientation of the valve so you can get the key on it. After a while, you go off of feel.
Main Water shutoff valve (also called the pressure regulating shut off valve or PRSOV for short)- This is the valve that shuts the water off as it comes into your house. Don't worry, your sprinklers will still work when this valve is off as your sprinklers should be on a different line. If nothing else, make sure you know where your PRSOV is and how to turn it on and off. Valves are usually standard in that turning them clockwise will close them (righty tighty) and turning them counter clockwise will open them (lefty loosy).
Tip: I shut mine off every time we leave town. The last thing you want is to come home after a long vacation to a flooded basement. It happens more than you think. I also have a water sensor in my basement utility room that notifies me whenever it senses water. I added this feature after my PRSOV failed. Fortunately, I was home and caught it quick.
City shutoff valve- Know where this is (usually out by the street, in the parkway if you have one). This valve is the city valve and is located in the cities meter box. This will turn all of the water off to your house and yard. Check if this requires a special pentagonal tool. Mine used to, but now it is just a valve that you turn with your hand. While the city probably doesn't want you messing with this valve very much, it is important to know how to turn it on and off if you absolutely need to, as I did in the beginning of this article.
Is is important to know that almost every water source in the house has an associated shut off valve. Get familiar with all of them. For example:
If any faucet is leaking, there is almost always a shut off valve below that faucet (probably under the counter of which it is connected.
If any of your toilets are leaking, there is always a shut off valve on the line that comes into the toilet (often behind and below the bowl). If it starts to overflow, you can uaually stop this immediately by pushing the flapper valve in the tank (not the bowl!) back down and thus stopping the water from draining from the tank into the bowl.
If your bath faucet is leaking, there may or may not be an associated shut off valve with it.
I don't believe most showers have an associated shut off valve, so this is leaking, you may have to go right to the main house shut off valve.
If your dishwasher is leaking (happened to me just last week- inlet valve failed), it has an associated shut off valve usually under the nearest water source (sink).
If your refrigerator is leaking, it also gets its water from the nearest source which is usually your kitchen sink.
If your hot water heater is leaking, there is a shut off valve going into the heater that will at least stop new water from filling the heater.
Your sprinkling system is almost always shut off by the stop and waste valve and not your main house shut off valve.
If they are coming out of the house, they are usually controlled by your house pressure regulating shut off valve.
If they are coming out of the ground, they are most likely connected to your sprinkling system line which is controlled by the stop and waste valve.
Make sure everyone knows how to shutoff the:
Kitchen appliances- know if there are any gas valves associated with kitchen appliances such as your stove, oven, etc.
Furnace gas valve- know where this is, what tools are required to operate it, and how to turn it off and back on. Also, make sure you know to relight your furnace if necessary.
Main meter shutoff valve - know where this is, what tools are required to operate it (I recommend having this tool near your valve), and how to turn it off. I have a pry bar under my bed in my bed kit and it has the key in it for the main gas SOV. Following an earthquake, you probably want this prybar in your hand anyway as you are checking on everyone. You never know when you are going to need to pry open a jammed door or break a window.
Note: If you turn your main gas off, only the gas company (or certified professional) is supposed to turn it back on, and depending on the emergency, this could take days or even weeks. So, only turn your gas off if there is a leak, and not just as a precaution.
Misc gas- know where any other gas valves are and how to operate them, such as fireplaces, pool or hottub heaters, barbeque lines, firepits, etc.
Consider getting a backflow or waste valve installed. There are also one-way valves you can install in the drain in your utility room. If there is a sewage backup at all, it is going to start at this drain. Some people will retrofit a pvc riser on thier utility drain, only installing it 'as needed' verses a permanent fixture. The idea here is if the utility drain backs up, it is almost always a sewage level issue, and not a back-pressure issue. So by being able to quickly install a 2 or 3 foot riser onto this drain, you can avoid a potential disasterous situation as the main sewage level would now have to rise 2 or 3 more feet before overflowing your riser. This is somewhat of a tricky concept to understand, just know that if the sewage backs up, it's not a pressure issue, per se. It is a volume/rising level issue.
Make sure everyone is familiar with the:
Main power meter breakers- these will isolate the house from the grid. A must if you plan on connecting a generator to the house.
Breaker panel- It is a good idea to have these individually labeled in case you need to kill power to certain rooms or sections of the house. This is particularly important again, if you plan on connecting a generator to the house.
In the event the power does go out, make sure everyone knows how to manually open the overhead garage door. You may still want to get your vehicle out.
Live in Earthquake country? Earthquake-proof your house
Since you are already going through every part of your home learning about utility shut off valves and such, I would also encourage you to go through each room and look for items that need to be addressed, moved, or secured. In the event of an earthquake, you want to make sure all the heavy dressers and other items on the walls aren't going to fall on anyone. I always start in my kids room and go from there, walking throughout each room, including the storage rooms, utility rooms, and garage. Here are some of the items I look for:
Cabinets and dressers- Make sure that there are no cabinets or dressers that when tipped, come in close proximity to any beds or block any doorways. Every room should have at least two exits (window, door, etc). Make sure nothing is blocking (dresser against the window) or could potentially block (dresser tipping over and obstructing a door or window) any of your exits. And to ensure nothing can fall or tip, make sure everything that needs to be is anchored to a stud in the wall.
Mirrors and Clocks- Realize that these will probably fall and break, but secure them the best you can. This is why those shoes (near your bed or in your bed kits) are so vital. Try to get the anchors into studs.
TV’s- If your TV's are wall mounted, that is probably as secure as they will get, but if they are heavy, they still may fall. Some choose not to mount their TV’s, but instead use the included table top mounts. This doesn’t mean you still can’t anchor it to the wall. Without anchoring these free-standing TV’s, they are just prime for falling over. Again…shoes.
Pictures/Decorations- I make sure none of these are anywhere near the beds, especially in my kids room.
Windows- A couple of considerations regarding windows. They are going to break. Again, shoes are your best defense against this, which is why I like the shoes under the beds. The closet sounds fine, but in the case of my kids, one of them has to walk between the bed and the window to get to the closet. So no, the closet is not good enough. They need those shoes the second their feet hit the floor. You may want to consider installing plastic liners on your windows. These adhere to your windows and are designed to help insulate the pane, and some even block out the harmful UV rays. But they also do a great job of keeping the window in one piece (no flying glass shards) if it does break. These liners are cheap and easy to install.
Beds- I like to make sure the areas around the beds are clear. And anchor those night stands to the walls. I also make sure there are not any dangerous items on their night stands, such as any glassware.
Water heater- It is very important that this is anchored to the wall. Not only will you have a major water leak if this falls over, you will also have a major gas leak. In the case of my water heater, it is next to the furnace (not a wall). So, I installed a couple of 4 x 4’s vertically, anchoring each of them to the ceiling joists and also into the concrete floor with concrete anchors. While this may not be quite as good as a wall, it is better than nothing.
Cold storage shelves- It would be a real shame to spend years on your food storage just to have it end up all over the floor in a scattered and broken mess. Make sure your shelves are secured to the wall and make sure that you secure the items on the shelves. Depending on your shelves, bungee cords work well for this.
Kitchen Cabinets- These worry me, even in my own house. Any moderate shaking and everything is going to fall out. Besides the danger of broken glass and ceramic, replacing them could get expensive. They do make latches that you can install on your cabinets to prevent everything from falling out.
While doing your walkthrough, ensure all windows in each room (especially the bedrooms) open easily and the associated window wells are not obstructed (heavy covers or excessive debris). They make window well covers that can only be released from inside the well, thus acting to secure your basement windows from intruders while allowing egress from inside.
Address anything else you notice while doing your house walkthrough.
I’m sure there are other considerations I haven’t addressed, but this should get you off to a good start. This takes a little bit of time to go over, but it could one day be well worth the time spent. Let’s make sure we don’t skip out on this opportunity to make our homes a safer place to live. They say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of repair; that could not be more true for this module. They also say it was not raining when Noah built the Ark. While it may sometimes feel like it is sprinkling, we are not boarding the Ark yet. So let’s just keep on building.