Water 101: Know how to shut off the water main.

In a previous post, I mentioned that my water line broke and we had trouble getting it turned off.

Knowing how to turn your water off is a basic home ownership skill that everyone should have.  Here are the basics.

Ideally, every home has two water main turnoffs, one inside the house and one on the outside of the house.  The valve on the inside of the house may or may not exist, it really depends on how old the house is.  Here’s an example of what it might look like:

I chose this picture because it shows two types of valves, a quarter turn valve (the one the arrow is pointing at) and a regular valve (on the spigot).  You could see either of these types in your home.
Even if you don’t have an indoor water shutoff valve, you definitely have one on the outside of the house.  Walk around the edge of your property and look for a cast iron box like this one:
CWM stands for “City Water Meter”

This metal plate is the hatch on your water valve.  If you lift the cover off you’ll find a shutoff valve as well as a dial.  This is the dial the city reads every month or two to determine usage.  If you can’t find your meter call: 206-684-5800 and they’ll help you locate it.

Underneath the metal cover, you’ll see the water meter and an access valve, if you have a modern valve, it’ll look like this:

This is the “modern” style valve.  Turning it is easy, use a crescent wrench or vice grip and rotate so that the two holes line up, that puts it in the “off” position.  This meter is currently in the “on” position.
But what if you have the old style?  If you don’t have this kind of valve, then your valve requires a special tool, a water valve key.  Unfortunately, keys come in a bunch of different styles, I *think* the old style Seattle one is the pentagon style key.  Be warned though, the old valves are easy to break, when the city came to turn off the water on mine, they broke it twice trying to turn it off.  A better option is to call city utilities at 206-684-5800 and see if you can talk them into switching you to the new style.  Otherwise, when you do need it off, you’ll have to call the city emergency number: 206-386-1800.  They use the term “emergency” real loosely, in my case, it took them a few hours to get to my house and this was in the middle of the day.

AOE: Water damage and backwater valves

A few years ago my rental home experienced what I like to call an “adverse ownership event”.  In my book, an AOE is the kind of thing that makes you wish you were a renter and not a homeowner.  While I love home ownersihp, there are the occasional incidents that make me wish I could just call a land lord and say “this is your problem”.

My AOE was a sewer line flood of my basement rental unit.  My renter was home and out of nowhere, the sewer line started backing up into his unit.  He called me and I had to get to work dealing with it.  Luckily, he noticed a Roto Rooter truck at the neighbors house, my neighbors had cleared their sewer line and it had jammed further down and blocked my line.  This was luck for me because it meant I could show my insurance company that someone else was responsible which means they’d pay for the damage (more on this in a later post).  The reason my neighbors could affect me like this is because we are on a shared side sewer.  The side sewer is the sewer line that connects your home to the city main line.  It is the homeowners responsibility to maintain the side sewer, in a shared side sewer situation, multiple homes use the same side sewer line.
When the sewer line backed up I ran to the house and got the Roto Rooter guys to clear the blockage all the way down to the sewer main so that the sewer line to my house would start to drain again.  Next up I had to call a water damage company, you’ve seen the commercials on TV, these are the companies that claim to make things like it never happened.  When dealing with sewage, anything the waste water touches has to be removed, all of the dry wall, wood paneling, carpet, etc…
The water damage people removed the carpet, the bottom 6 inches of the wood paneling, and the drywall.  Unfortunately they couldn’t remove the floor tiles because they contained asbestos.  I had a specialist company come out to remove that (thankfully insurance paid!).
The basement unit was extremely old, at least 30-40 years so I used this as an opportunity to redo the basement unit and modernize the kitchen and bathroom.  My main concern at this point was, how do I keep this from happening again?

The answer to this question is pretty straight forward, I have basically two options, I can redo the sewer to my house so that I’m not sharing it with anyone else which would be way too expensive for me to justify, or, I could install a backwater valve.
A backwater valve is a one way valve that lets sewage go out, but prevents it from coming back into the house.  It’s an extremely simple device and not expensive, mine is a $200 valve I bought at backwater-valves.com.  The valve has a plastic gate in it which floats, if water flows back in then it will automatically raise the gate and keep water from going back into the house.  Once this happens, the only danger we have is that someone in the house will run water and fill the pipe.  To prevent this from happening, we attached an alarm to the backwater valve so that we know when the valve has stopped.
When the alarm goes off, the tenants call me and I call someone to clear out the sewer line.  Easy and I sleep much better at night knowing this won’t happen again.
Installing a backwater valve can be tricky, you need to  install it between the point where your house sewage drains and where the  shared line starts.  This usually means digging down fairly deep to install it, in my case, it meant my contractor renting a jackhammer and installing it in my basement.