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In a medical emergency, you probably know it’s important to be able to locate the essentials, like a first aid kit, a phone number to call for help, and so on. But you might be surprised to learn that it’s just as important to be able to locate similar essentials in a home emergency. Homes have built-in features that are designed to limit damage or danger, like water and gas shutoff valves and electrical panels, but you usually have to know how to access them (and access them quickly!) in order to put them to use.
Think of these home safety features like giant STOP buttons you can push in an emergency to slow things down and make time to call for help. Kat Christie, licensed contractor, DIY expert, and founder of She Fixed That LLC, recommends locating these items ASAP — before purchasing a house or signing a lease, if you can! — because if you’re unaware, there could definitely be an emergency situation. “When you are going through your inspection, it’s important to ask questions about where these items are, when they were last updated, and if there have been any issues with them,” Christie says.
Already moved in? It’s not too late to learn the lay of the land. Here are six safety features Christie and other pros say you should definitely know how to find and use.
Breaker Box, aka Electrical Panel
Christie says that the breaker box is probably one of the most important features in the house that you need to be aware of.
A breaker box is also known as an electrical panel or circuit breaker. It’s usually found inside your garage, basement, or a utility room.
Inside the breaker box there are fuses or “circuit breakers” that act as a central distribution point for all of the electricity in your home, according to Christie. Each switch is tied to a different electrical circuit, allowing you to turn the power in various rooms on and off at the source. The breaker box also protects all of the electrical circuits in your home from surges so they automatically shut off in case of overload.
It’s important to know about the breaker box for minute reasons — so if you blow a fuse when you’re blow-drying your hair, you know how to flip the circuits back on, for instance — but also in case of major emergencies, according to Christie. If there is a short circuit, overload, or any other electrical issue that could pose a safety hazard, you’ll need to be able to locate the breaker box quickly to shut things off or to reset a fuse (which typically entails flipping a switch).
You’ll also need to be able to find the breaker box — and identify which switches belong to which circuits — if you have plans to replace any lights, outlets, or other electrical features during a renovation.
Christie recommends taking note when the box was updated, and if there have ever been any issues with it when you’re looking through a potential home to purchase. “If you are purchasing a house and the electrical needs updating, this is something you would want to discuss and have agreed upon contractually,” she says.
You have to know where the water shutoff valve is so you can cut off water supply in the case of clogged toilets, overflowing sinks, burst pipes, and other plumbing emergencies.
In addition to a main water supply shutoff valve — often located in a basement or utility room — there will also be shutoff valves located at each plumbing fixture so that you can isolate shutoff to specific areas. For instance, a toilet’s shutoff valve will be behind the tank, usually right next to the wall; a sink’s will be beneath a vanity or behind a pedestal.
When it comes to water, “time is of the essence in limiting damage,” says John Caldwell, a home inspector with WIN Home Inspection in Lindale, Georgia. Being able to quickly shut off the water could be the difference between hundreds of dollars worth of damage and thousands.
Knowing where the water shutoff valves are is also good knowledge to have if you’re planning on renovating your space. Even if you’re not replacing plumbing fixtures like faucets or toilets, if you’re remodeling a bathroom, kitchen, or laundry room, you don’t want the water to be on when you’re demoing or moving appliances around. Turning it off beforehand can minimize risk.
“Plus, if there’s a water leak, or running faucet, being able to quickly shut off the water at the source can help conserve water and not have your water bill go up because of a minor leak,” Christie says.
In “toilet emergencies,” it’s crucial to know where your sewer line is so you can show the plumber as soon as possible where the access point is for them to do drain cleanings, camera inspections, and more. It can be located inside of your house in the basement, crawl space, or garage.
Another reason you should know where to find it? If it’s outside and you’re planning on doing any digging — say, to install a fence or to plant some new trees — you want to know where it’s located so you don’t accidentally damage it. The sewer line is also the key to a sanitary sewer system because it protects the water quality in your community.
If you’re having multiple plumbing backups in your home, the sewer line could be the culprit. Call your plumber ASAP to check out the line — you don’t want sewage backing up into your house.
The main gas shutoff is one emergency feature you should almost always leave to the pros. If you smell gas or hear a gas leak, get out of your home immediately and call 911 or your gas company’s emergency line. They’ll handle the shutoff safely.
That said, you should still know where your main gas shutoff valve is located and how to turn it off if you are ever directed to by your gas company (say, in the case of extreme weather or other natural disaster).
You’ll find the main shutoff outside your home. You’ll need to use a wrench to turn it off, so make sure to have one in an easy-to-locate emergency kit. A valve that’s parallel to the pipe is open; to close it, make a quarter turn to the right or left.
Never turn your main gas line back on yourself. Always call your gas company to make sure a trained technician can do it safely.
There are less pressing instances in which knowing where the interior gas shutoff valves are located will be very important, too. For instance, if you are installing new gas appliances, you will need to turn off the gas first. In those cases, use the shutoff valve that’s located by the appliance. According to building codes, the valve should be within 6 feet of the appliance it’s connected to.
“Being aware of the shutoff valve’s location allows you to disconnect and reconnect the gas supply as needed, ensuring a safe and proper installation,” Christie says.
Knowing where your dryer vent is is important for a few reasons, according to Christie. For one thing, you need to be able to clean it out so it’s clear of buildup that can cause damage. Dryer vents accumulate lint and dust over time, which is a fire hazard.
“Any dryer vent that is on the exterior of the house cannot be covered by snow or furniture, as it can cause serious damage if not properly ventilated,” Christie says. “A properly ventilated exterior vent allows for the prevention of backdrafting, which occurs when exhaust gasses from the dryer flow back into the house. Backdrafting can introduce harmful gasses, such as carbon monoxide, into your living space, posing serious health risks.”
Make it a point to know the exterior location of your dryer vent so that you can ensure it’s free of obstruction year-round.
Compared to dangerous gas leaks, this might be less of an emergency — but when your shower water turns ice cold in the middle of your rinse-off, you’ll want to fix it ASAP. Your water heater is what heats all the water you use in your home for bathing, doing dishes, and washing clothes.
While a number of issues could be at play, knowing where your water heater is, and where its pilot light is, makes for a great start. Re-lighting a pilot light is a DIY fix, so you can avoid calling in expensive pros for that job. But if the pilot light is still on and the water heater isn’t, well, heating, there could be a bigger issue that only a pro can solve.
Water heaters are also prone to rust and leakage, which can lead to water damage in the surrounding area if you don’t catch those issues in time.
You can help your water heater stay in top shape with a regular inspection. Take a good look at it every few months, making sure to check the drain valves as well as the inlet and outlet connections. Giving it some attention can help your water heater last longer, and can help you identify any possible wear-and-tear issues before they result in expensive leaks.