Utilities Shut Off

 Utilities are almost an invisible part of our homes. We often take utilities like electricity and running water for granted, until we experience a power outage or water main break that disrupts our normalcy. In the event of an emergency, we should know where the utilities shut off valves, breakers, and/or switches are. If needed, and it can be done safely, shutting off a damaged, or potentially damaged, utility can help prevent or reduce damage or injury.

Shut Off Utilities?

There are two things you need to know about the home utilities when it comes to emergencies. First, you need to know where the “mains” are. Referring to a utility "main" can refer to the main line that comes to the building, or it can refer to the main valve or switch before the utility goes to the rest of the building. Where utilities shut offs are concerned, we're looking for these main valves or switches.

The second is related to the first, you need to know how to shut off the utility. It’s one thing to know where the gas meter is, and to think that is where you shut off the gas. But, it’s another thing to actually know where and how to shut off the gas.

A word of precaution. If you have any doubts about how to shut off a utility, please contact a qualified professional. While many utilities have become fairly standardized, there may be differences particularly between older and newer utility mains. The last thing you want to be doing is trying to figure out a shut-off in an emergency situation. In fact, if you can’t shut off a utility quickly in an emergency it's best for you to leave quickly.

While leaving is probably the safest course of action--particularly if life is threatened with injury or death--if you have time, and know how to do so safely, shutting off a utility may help prevent further damage to your home. And it may help reduce the risk to those in the building.

What I am sharing by no means constitutes professional advice, and applies to my own home and what I have done. Many utility shut-offs are similar. The three most common utilities—at least in the areas I have lived in—are natural gas, electricity, and water. 

Some utilities, like electricity, may be above ground. But be aware that many utilities, like gas and water, run underground.  And where I currently live, the electrical lines are all below ground in the residential area.

If you live in a house it’s very useful to know where those utilities are located. If you ever need to dig in your yard you are required to have the utilities marked prior to digging. Most states offer a free utility marking service by calling a service like 811. In some places it’s known as Blue Stakes.

In any case, if you get the utilities marked take a picture of the markings. Please note, this is not for future projects because you are required to get utilities marked before each digging project, and the marking is only good for two weeks. These photos are for emergency reference. For example, if you happen to find some bubbling or water puddling in the yard it's helpful to know if you have a gas or water line nearby.

Shut-offs for the most common utilities you should be aware of include:

  • Electricity
  • Natural gas
  • Water

If the home has solar panels there may be some things you may have to do in the event of an emergency. Some solar panel systems have an automatic switchover in the event of a power outage. In any case, after an earthquake you need to check your full system. Don't assume there isn't any damage. 

Other Utilities

Some houses have other sources of heat, such as oil or propane gas. Because of the varying nature of these other utilities I won't be covering them at this time. 

For houses with external propane tanks, usually found in rural environments, the shut-off is at the main tank, usually next to the gas level gauge. The next time the tanks are filled, learn how to safely shut them off.

I have no experience with homes that use heating oil, so I strongly encourage you to talk to your supplier or qualified professional about how to secure the system in the case of an emergency.

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