How to shut off water, gas, electricity when disaster strikes

Helene Lesel
Inman News

Before calamity strikes, do you know where the gas shutoff valve is? Are you in the dark when you need to locate your breaker box or even the fire extinguisher? As a tenant, you often don’t have any idea where various shutoff equipment is located, and you may not have the tools to do the job. Knowing how and where to shut off water, gas and electricity are basic abilities every tenant should possess. That problem can be handily solved by making a checklist and requesting the landlord provide shutoff information.

In addition, know where to call in case of an electrical outage, gas leak, fire or other natural disaster, both to report and get updates. Most utility companies’ phone numbers are found on the utility bill itself.

What’s first on the safety to-do list? Fire safety — which starts with prevention. Functioning smoke alarms in at least every bedroom and hallways are a must and are usually required by code. Checking smoke alarms is easy and should be done monthly. Use the eraser end of a pencil for hard-to-reach buttons. Some smoke alarms are battery-operated while others are “hard wired” into an electrical source. Newer alarms have both sources to draw on. Whichever combination is used, it’s easy to check and request that the alarm be repaired or replaced if it fails the simple “button push” test.

No smoke alarms? If local codes require it, request alarms be installed by your landlord. Point out they protect their property as well as yours. Keep fire extinguishers handy and show all family members where they are kept. Inexpensive and easy to use, extinguishers are readily available at any hardware store.

More fire safety information can be found at www.firesafety.gov, which according to the site is a “one-stop information resource on the Internet for residential fire safety and prevention information.” Information is courtesy of the federal government. An estimated 4,000 people a year die in home fires in the United States; the agency’s goal is to educate and eliminate residential fire tragedies.

Other fire hazards? According to the American Natural Gas Association, a total of 60 million residential, commercial and industrial customers receive natural gas in the United States. That’s a lot of gas lines, and all it takes is a spark to start a disaster; even a pinhole leak can cause a place to blow in seconds.

Gas appliances, such as stoves, hot water heaters and laundry dryers should have individual shutoff valves located behind them via the incoming gas line. Hot water tanks should be strapped for earthquake safety. Check that all incoming appliance gas lines are the flexible type and not a fixed pipe that can break or rupture more easily. Main gas-shutoff valves are usually located outdoors or under the dwelling close to the gas meters. Individual shutoff handles range in size from a thumb’s width to a larger handle you can get a grip on. For particularly small handles, keep a crescent wrench that’s adjusted to the proper size. Shutoff diagrams are usually available on the gas company Web site. Some main gas lines have automatic shutoff features and should be left alone. Ask your landlord for details.

How can you tell if there’s a gas leak? Sniff it out. Gas companies add a distinctive odor to gas, so that even small leaks can be noticed easily. Only turn off gas lines if you suspect there’s a leak. If you turn the gas off, you’ll need a professional to turn it back on.

What if the power goes out? It depends on why. Calling your local utility should shed light on the problem. Always have at least one non-electrical “land phone line” handy. If it’s just a fuse box problem, know where the box is before the power goes out and save yourself from wandering in the dark.

Need to turn off the water? Main water lines have shutoff valves and piping similar to gas lines so keep your wrench adjusted and nearby. Know which line belongs to which utility. For specific water leaks or flooding, individual shutoff valves can be found behind toilets and under most sinks. Ask your landlord for details.

And last but not least, avoid panic by organizing a plan that all occupants follow when an emergency strikes. Find two escape routes from every room if possible, and decide exactly where to meet outdoors if you’re forced to leave.

Agree on an outside phone number for mutual contact. No one expects a disaster, but it can be a disaster if you don’t know what to expect.

Copyright 2008 Helene Lesel

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