Utilities - Be Ready

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Did you know that in an earthquake and shortly thereafter, the worst damage is often caused not by the shaking itself, but by gas or propane leaks, broken water pipes, and damaged electrical systems?  Fires and flooding are the two most common indirect effects of disasters.  Not only can they destroy an otherwise-okay home or business, but they can be prevented.

Knowing how to shut off your utilities is crucial in a disaster.  Do you know where your electrical, gas or propane, and water shut-offs are?  Do you know how to shut them off?  How about turning them back on?  Our tip-sheet Utilities [PDF, 189Kb] will not only show you what these shut-offs look like, where they're located, and how to operate them, but also give you valuable safety tips on when to shut your utilities off, and how to safely turn them back on.

Know where your home's breaker panel or fuse box is.  In apartments, these are commonly located in a hallway; in houses, they can be anywhere but are usually inside the garage or on the side of the house, near the electrical meter.  After a disaster event occurs, go to your breaker box or fuse panel and shut off your electricity.  Damaged wiring can cause shorts, which in turn can start a fire.  In addition, even if your electrical system's fine, the small spark from something as simple as turning on a light switch can ignite a fire if you have a gas leak.

For circuit breakers: first turn off all the individual circuits (generally these are smaller, though air conditioners and other large dedicated circuits may be "doubled"), and lastly the main breaker switch (usually the largest one in the panel).  To turn your power back on later, start with the main breaker, then flip the individual breakers one at a time.  If you live in an apartment, check with your manager - the main breaker may be in a separate location outside of the apartment.

For fuse boxes: while relatively rare these days, some older homes may still have them.  To turn off your power, you need only turn off the main power switch (this may be a lever that can be flipped, or it may be a cartridge fuse that needs to be completely pulled out).  When turning your power back on, first check each individual fuse, replace any that have blown, and then turn the main switch back on by either flipping the lever or replacing the main fuse.

Always check to ensure you have no gas leaks or flooding before turning your power back on, and remember that even if you turn it back on you still may not have power due to damaged utility systems outside your home.

After you've shut off your electricity, check for gas leaks.  Go through your entire home, starting at the water heater (the most common source of a disaster-related gas leak).  Sniff for the distinctive odor of natural gas and listen for any hissing, whistling, or roaring sounds which may be indicative of a gas leak.  If you do hear or smell gas, immediately get everyone out of the home, shut off the valve, and open up the windows.  If you don't hear or smell gas, check your meter for rapidly spinning dials, as this may indicate an as-yet-undetectable gas leak (such as inside a wall, where the gas can quickly build up to explosive levels).

Your gas shut-off valve is located on the stand pipe that comes out of the ground and feeds into the meter (for houses, this is generally on the side of the house; for apartments, ask your manager where your meter is located).  Your valve is in the open or "on" position when it is in-line with the stand pipe; to turn it off, use a crescent or utility wrench to turn it 90 degrees (direction doesn't matter) so that it goes across the pipe.  ONLY shut off your gas if you can hear, smell, or see signs of a leak, as it can only be safely turned back on by a trained gas company technician.

Before a disaster, test your gas valve to ensure that it will turn if needed by turning the valve 45 degrees, so that it is at an angle to the pipe (halfway between the open and off positions); be careful not to turn it all the way to the "off" position or you will need to contact the gas company to safely turn it back on.  If it doesn't turn easily or is stuck, contact the gas company to have it repaired or replaced.  Do NOT use WD-40 or any other lubricant on the valve, as this may corrode the O-rings inside that allow it to turn.  Make sure to turn the valve back completely open after testing.

Your water shut-off valve may be in any one of a number of places, the most common being the garage, a closet or laundry room, or near the water heater.  If you're not sure, contact your water supplier or apartment manager to have someone come help you find it.  Once you've found it, clearly mark it with a tag or other visible identifier and test it to make sure that it turns easily.  For houses, this is NOT the same valve as the one in the concrete meter box at the street - that valve requires a special tool to turn, and isn't necessary if you know where your home valve is.

After a disaster event, turn off your water as soon as you have shut off your electricity and checked for gas leaks, even if you have no water leaks.  There are two reasons for this: first, a lack of pressure from the water main that feeds your house (whether due to a broken main, unpowered pumps, etc.) can allow gravity to drain all the water in your home - in the pipes, the toilet tanks, and the water heater - out back into the main system, instead of keeping it your home available for your use.  Second, shutting off your water prevents contaminated water, such as from damaged sewer lines, from entering your home's water supply and rendering it unusable (even with bleach).

Don't turn your water back on until local authorities have determined and announced that the water system is safe, which depending on the area in which you live may take several days or even weeks.

If you use propane instead of natural gas, know where the shut-off valve is located on your tank.  ONLY turn off your propane if you can hear a leak or smell an odor of rotting eggs, or if the tank's electrical components (if applicable) have been exposed to water, as just like natural gas it should only be turned back on by a qualified technician for safety.  Also check any barbeque propane tanks for leaks or damage.  Propane tank valves operate exactly like water shut-off valves, and should be tested before a disaster to ensure that the valve will turn freely.

For more information, visit the following websites (links will open in a new window):

Southern California Edison

Southern California Gas Company

Propane Safety

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