Bruce W. Maki,
Simple But Important:
There are several reasons why every
homeowner should know how to shut off the water supply:
Emergencies: If a major leak
happens suddenly, you need to know how to shut off the water to
prevent serious water damage.
When winterizing the plumbing
Precautions: It's a good idea to
shut off the water supply if the house is going to be unoccupied
for any length of time, even a period as short as a weekend. In
any area with cold winters there is a risk of plumbing pipes
freezing during cold weather. I once had a pipe fitting break
while away, and having the water shut off prevented a
potentially disastrous flood. Read more about this later...
Working On The Plumbing: If
you're going to repair or modify the plumbing supply system,
then you need to know how to shut off the system.
Every house with running water has either a
private well or some sort of externally-supplied water service, such
as a municipal water system.
Shutting Off The Municipal Water Service:
|If a house is
on the "city" water system there will be a pipe
entering the building somewhere. If the house
has a basement or crawl space, I would expect to
find a pipe that passes through the foundation,
or possibly the floor. I would also expect to
find a water meter nearby.
house has two ball valves. Each of these
valves will shut off the water to the entire
house. Why two valves? The valve above the water
meter (i.e. downstream of the meter) simply
eliminates the need to drain the entire system
if the meter needed to be removed.
To turn off the water on this house, I simply
turned the valve handle a quarter-turn.
When the handle is perpendicular to the
pipe, the valve is closed. When the handle is
parallel to the pipe, it's open.
Note that I
closed the upstream valve (the valve
closest to the point where the pipe enters the
building). If I only closed the other
valve, the meter or the fittings next to it
could still leak.
|In my own
house (built in 1963) there are older valves
with round handles. To turn off the water,
I turned the handle clockwise until it
These valves are often very difficult
to turn when they haven't been used for a while.
Sometimes I have to use large pliers to unstick
the handle, and then it will turn without a
Note: Old valves can be
deceiving. I have worked with older valves where the
handle turned freely (for up to a full turn) and then
encountered some resistance, giving the feel that the
valve was shut off. But... that freely-turning action
was simply the "backlash" (or slop) in the screw
threads of the internal mechanism. If the handle turns
suspiciously easy, I will try opening the valve
instead (by turning the handle counter-clockwise) and
then closing it again. Sometimes the internal parts
become stuck from years of mineral deposit buildup, and
it takes some careful force to break up this crud. It
may take several opening/closing attempts to loosen the
internal parts. Once a hard-water-clogged mechanism
starts to move, it offers much less resistance.
If A Small Leak Develops: After closing and
opening one of these older shutoff valves, they often
develop a small leak around the handle. The water is
leaking around the packing, which is a flexible
seal around the handle stem. Usually this leak can be
stopped by tightening the packing nut, which is the hex
nut where the handle stem meets the valve body. But...
sometimes tightening the packing nut doesn't fix the
leak, possibly because the handle stem has some crud on
it, or the stem has been gouged by using pliers directly
on the stem. The stem and packing can usually be
replaced... but that may require having the utility shut
off the water at the street, which isn't cheap. These
old valves are inferior... that's why everyone uses ball
Since old valves
can be troublesome, it's probably best to shut off the
downstream valve if there is a valve before and after
the water meter. That way the upstream valve can be
closed so the other valve can be repaired, if necessary.
Shutting Off A Private Well System:
If a house has a well, there will probably be a
pressure tank near the point where the
water line enters the house. In my area, the
pressure tank is usually located in the basement
or crawl space, but I've seen houses with
shallow crawl spaces where the tank was located
on the main floor.
important thing to do is simply turn off the
power to the pump by turning off the circuit
Most well pumps have 240 volt motors,
so the power will be controlled by a 2-pole
breaker, which is twice as wide as ordinary
Sometimes there will be a separate
disconnect box near the pressure tank. This
is a small metal box with a handle and markings
that say ON and OFF. This switch can be turned
off instead of the breaker, if desired.
I have also seen an older house
where two separate fuses were used to control the
power to the well pump. Of course, that particular house was
a textbook of code violations.
On this system (in my previous house) I
installed a ball valve just downstream
from the pressure tank. The water enters the
tank through that silver-colored pipe at the
bottom-right of the photo, the vertical copper
pipe leads to the rest of the house.
of turning off the breaker, sometimes I would
just shut off this ball valve. However, if a
leak developed between this point and the pipe
entering the basement from the well, I would
still have a flooding problem.
If a well system is shut off by
turning off the power to the pump, the entire contents of
the pressure tank could spill into the house if a leak
occurred. This tank held 36 gallons.
If the system is shut off by closing the
main valve, and leak develops in the main system, then only the
volume of water inside the pipes will spill out. That could be a
couple of gallons.
Perhaps the best approach is to shut off
both the power and the main valve.
Yet Another Story:
I once had a near-disaster in
the house shown above. Just downstream of that red
handle there was a whole-house "swirl-down" water
filter. The filter had a clear plastic bowl so you could
see the junk that it was keeping out of the system. At
the bottom of the bowl there was a male pipe thread.
When I bought this filter, the plumbing supply shop sold
me a PVC ball valve with female threads to attach to the
bottom of the bowl. Every month or two I would just open
the ball valve and all the debris in the filter bowl
would blow out into a bucket. It worked great... we had
a lot of crud that was being picked up by the well pump
and this filter kept it from clogging all the faucet
My then-girlfriend had
taken a job downstate and only came up north on
weekends. The first winter she didn't feel like driving
up every weekend, so I would drive the two hours south
to Grand Rapids. I got into the habit of shutting off
that ball valve before leaving, because I knew the old
house had a history of freezing pipes.
One Sunday night in February I came home and went
downstairs to turn on the water. Before I reached the
shutoff valve I noticed a 3-foot-diameter puddle of
water on the floor. Puzzled, I looked around for the
leak. I could see drops of water on that PVC ball valve,
and where the valve was screwed onto the clear plastic
bowl there was a good-sized crack. If I hadn't
shut the water off, I would've come home to a flooded
basement. It's hard to say exactly how much water would
have leaked out... it might have just dampened the
concrete floor or it might have flooded a foot deep. The
point is... I'm really glad I got into the habit of
shutting off the water whenever I go away.
Shutting off the water every time you spend
a weekend away from home may sound paranoid to some people, but I've
seen enough burst pipes and water damage to make me realize how
serious a problem this can be. I've read that water damage is the
second-biggest source of homeowner's insurance claims. Your
insurance may cover water damage from a burst pipe, but it might not
be able to replace all of your belongings. This kind of
mini-disaster is simply a major hassle. And there is still the
One of the most common sources of gushing
water leaks, besides freezing pipes, are the washing machine
supply hoses. Most hoses are just rubber, and these have been
known to fail without warning. It's a good idea to periodically
inspect your washing machine hoses and replace them if the rubber
appears swollen or cracked. For a few extra dollars you can buy
washing machine hoses that have a braided stainless steel covering.
I understand these premium hoses are much more burst-resistant.
All House Are Not Created Equal:
There are some types of houses that face
little or no risk of damage from major plumbing leaks:
Single-story houses built on a concrete
slab, with all of the plumbing installed below the floor. This
type of construction is common in the southern and western
Single-story houses built on a crawl
space or basement, with nothing valuable stored in the crawl
space or basement.
Some types of houses face significant risk
of water damage from plumbing leaks:
Any multiple-story house with plumbing
on the upper floors. My old saying applies: "Pipes behind
plaster, recipe for disaster".
Any house with water supply pipes in the
ceiling. I understand this practice is sometimes done in the
southern and western states.
Houses with basements, where the
basement is finished or valuable items are stored there. A
basement is basically an empty swimming pool beneath your house,
so there is always a chance that "pool" will fill up.
For homeowners in this last group, it's
worth taking a minute to shut off the water when leaving for a few
days, unless you have somebody checking on your house every day.
Some people install a sump pump in
their basement to pump out water that may enter through a leaky
foundation. A sump pump will also pump out water if a pipe breaks.
It won't keep everything dry, but it should prevent the water from
getting too deep. However, I have heard of people who had a pipe
burst, and they had a sump pump, yet the pump burned out from
constant use. They still ended up with a flooded basement. That
sounds like a good reason to use a heavy-duty sump pump that is
rated for continuous use.
That May Be Required: