If you suspected a gas leak in your home, would you know how to turn off the gas supply? What about shutting off the water to prevent flooding if a pipe bursts? And if you noticed a burning smell coming from a wall outlet, could you quickly turn off the electricity?
A PEMCO Poll from a few years ago suggests the answer may be "no," especially if you're under age 35.
Only 47% of poll respondents in Washington and Oregon under age 35 knew where to turn off their home's main gas line in an emergency. Half knew where to locate their home's main water shutoff. And, fortunately, 91% knew where to find their home's electrical panel. The poll found that older generations, men in particular, were more likely to know how to turn off utilities.
The time to locate utility shutoffs and learn how to use them is before an emergency strikes (not when you're already feeling panicky and searching in the dark with a flashlight!).
How to shut off the gas
Safety first. If the smell of gas is strong or you're feeling physical symptoms, get out immediately. Don't use a landline phone or anything electric (even switching off a light, unplugging an appliance or using your garage door opener), which could create a spark. Find a safe place away from the property and call 9-1-1 and then your utility provider. Consider seeking medical help.
If the smell is faint or other signs of a leak are minor and you feel no symptoms, go through your home quickly and open windows and doors to keep gas from building up. Get out and call your utility company or 9-1-1 from a safe place.
Follow the utility company's instructions before you act, but if they tell you to shut off the main gas-line valve (usually the first fitting on the natural gas supply pipe next to your meter) you'll need the right kind of wrench. We recommend storing a crescent wrench inside a plastic zippered bag near the valve just in case.
Once the gas flow is stopped, don't turn it back on until the leak is fixed. (Your gas company can confirm the source of the leak, but you'll likely need to hire a contractor to fix the problem.) Make sure a qualified technician checks that all pilot lights and appliances are operating safely before you go back to using gas.
How to shut off the water
Generally, it's best to shut off the valve closest to the problem (for example, turn the valve by the toilet clockwise to quickly stop an overflowing toilet).
If you need to shut off water to the entire house, you'll likely find your main water valve in the garage, basement, next to the water heater or even under the kitchen sink. You also have a shutoff valve outside, adjacent to your in-ground water meter near the street. (The street valve often needs a special wrench or "key" available at hardware stores. But it may be the best choice if your plumbing is old and indoor valves are brittle.)
Depending on the type of hot water heater you have, you may need to shut it off, too, when turning off water to the house. Check your owner's manual.
Important safety notes: Don't wade through standing water to reach the water shutoff until you've turned off electrical power to the house. That's because there's a chance the water is in contact with electrical current (particularly if it's several inches deep) and could pose an electrocution danger. Also, if a water line has broken, don't use the water until your utility company has confirmed the water is free of contaminants and safe to drink.
How to shut off the electricity
This one is the easiest of all – no tools required – and is essential if, for example, you're attempting any kind of DIY repair or you've experienced flooding that could expose outlets or appliances to water.
Start by opening the metal cover on your electrical panel, and have a flashlight handy (since everything will go dark when you cut power). If the floor under your panel is flooded, call your utility company before opening the panel box and attempting to turn off circuits.
To cut power to the entire house, turn off each individual circuit, then turn off the main breaker. Remember that turning off the breakers doesn't affect power lines coming into your home, so never go near a damaged or downed line in an emergency. (While you can turn off individual circuits to cut power to an area of concern, know that labels on electrical panels aren't always accurate; when in doubt, it's best to completely shut off power.)
When it's time to restore the power, reverse the process – turning on the main breaker, then each individual circuit. Doing so prevents a big surge that would occur if all the power was turned back on at once. Some breakers may require you to push the lever past the OFF position before pushing it back to ON. Flipping circuit breakers requires more force than turning on a light switch, so don't be surprised that they feel stiff.
If you've suffered any kind of natural disaster and there's a chance gas lines may have been damaged, don't restore power until a utility worker has confirmed it's safe to do so.
If you're still not sure what to do or can't find your shutoffs, talk with a service technician the next time you have plumbing or gas appliance maintenance done at your home. If you live in a condo, check with your building manager, who can guide you specifically for your unit.
Bonus tip: Install sensors to alert you to trouble before damage sets in
You can keep your home and family safer – and get a discount on your PEMCO homeowner, condo or renter insurance – when you install sensors to alert you to water and gas/propane leaks. Your discount grows when the sensors are self- or centrally monitored, and you get the biggest discount when they're also tied to an automatic shutoff if trouble is detected. Talk to your local PEMCO agent or a representative at 1-800-GO-PEMCO for details.
For water leaks, we recommend multiple detectors across your home. Install them in leak-prone areas like the laundry room, bathrooms and kitchen.
Gas/propane detectors are different from carbon monoxide detectors (although they may look similar) and should be used together. For natural gas, place them on the ceiling near gas appliances. If you're using propane, which is heavier than air, put the detector closer to the floor.
Be sure to follow manufacturers' instructions for any sensors you buy.