Broken water pipes can cause flooding, which causes further property damage.  They can also create drowning hazards in basements and other low-lying areas.  To turn off your water supply you will need to locate your water shutoff valve and make sure it works.

A friend of mine was working in his basement when he accidentally broke a pipe.  Having just moved in to the house he wasn’t familiar with where the water shutoff valve was located.  When he finally found it, he almost broke his hand trying to turn it off because it was stuck open.  By the time he got the water to stop, there was a considerable amount of water in the basement and many boxes had been damaged.

Water pipes can burst due to any number of disasters including earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, and fires.  They also routinely break from corrosion, freezing, and accidents such as my friend experienced.

Municipal (City) Water Shutoff

If you have city water finding the shutoff can be a challenge at times.  In some houses (normally ones with basements), there is an easily accessible valve where the main water pipe enters the building.  You can simply turn off the valve to stop the water flow.

Disaster Survival Guide - Main Water Shutoff Valve

Main water shutoff valve on pipe exiting a basement wall.

However, not all houses have such a valve. In that case, you will need to find the water meter valve located underground near where the water main runs by your house. It is normally located under a heavy iron cover near the curb.

In some locals it takes a special tool (a five-sided “pentagon” socket) to remove the cover (this is to prevent tampering with the water meter).  Apparently, however, there are two common sizes of these bolts.  I discovered this after I purchased a combination shutoff tool that claimed to turn the five-sided bolt.  The tool did, in fact, have a pentagon socket, but it was much too large for the bolt on my water meter cover.

Disaster Survival Guide - Water Meter Cover

Water meter cover with a pentagon (5-sided) security nut

If you have a pentagon bolt on your meter cover, measure it before you buy a tool.  If it is 1” across (measured from a flat side to the opposite tip), then the Orbit Emergency Tool will fit the bolt.  If it measures 13/16” (like mine does) then you will have to purchase a 13/16” pentagon socket that attaches to a normal 1/2″ drive ratchet or this handy penta wrench.

In an emergency, you may be able to use a pair of pliers to turn this special bolt. However, some bolts are recessed so you can’t easily get a pair of pliers on them. In this case it is doubly important that you have the correct tool to open the cover.

Some covers have a special “key hole” that require a water meter box key to remove. The Orbit Emergency Tool also contains this key.

Other covers just lift off, perhaps after a twist.

Disaster Survival Guide - Water Meter Cover

Water meter cover – twist and lift off

Under the cover, you may need another special tool to shut off the valve if there is not enough room to use an adjustable wrench in the hole. You can get a water valve tool at most hardware stores or online (again, the Orbit Emergency Tool should be able to turn most common valves).

In some locations (normally cold ones where the frost line is deep), the actual water valve is up to 5 feet underground. In this case a long shaft water shutoff tool is required.

Some underground valves do have a standard knob – but don’t count on turning it by hand if it has not been moved in many years.

Disaster Survival Guide - Water Meter Shutoff Valve

“Hand-turn” water meter shutoff valve.

It is best to exercise the main shutoff valve periodically by turning it at least partially off and then back on to prevent it from freezing up due to corrosion and becoming very difficult to turn.  If the valve cannot be moved at all or does not shut off the water completely it needs to be replaced.  Do that now before you need to use it in an emergency!

Well Water Shutoff

Most rural locations have well water. To turn it off simply shut off the switch or circuit breaker to the well pump.

As the pressure tank will still have some water in it you will need to shut off the water valve after the pressure tank.