Find and Use the Controls That Drive Your House

A circuit breaker with one switch flipped to the off position.

Most homes have three major utility bills that need to be paid every month—electric, water, and gas—each instrumental in helping to control and drive a home.

Each utility has its own meter somewhere on the property by which the utility company can measure usage and then, of course, charge you for consumption. You need to know where each meter is not only to monitor your bills but to know how to shut it off in an emergency.


Your electricity is connected to the home at a meter, which measures the home’s usage in watts or kilowatts. In newer homes, there is the main switch inside the meter or just inside the home from the meter, which, if thrown, will shut off the flow of electricity to the inside. In this case, there will also be a subpanel, which can be located almost anywhere in the home. The subpanel is a box that contains a system of circuit breakers, which subdivide and enable the flow of electricity to the individual rooms and appliances in the home.

Each circuit breaker is rated for amperage and each allows a certain flow of electricity to meet the needs of a room or particular appliance. If there is a surge of electricity and the flow of electricity exceeds the circuit breaker’s rating, it will shut off automatically. It is generally easy to tell which breaker has shut off because the switch on the breaker will be thrown in the opposite direction of all the other breakers. It should be noted that safety requires each breaker be labeled to show what room or appliance it controls.

While circuit breakers can go bad and burn out, typically you need to only throw the switch back to the on position to restart the flow of electricity. In much older homes that have not had their electrical systems upgraded, there is likely no main shutoff—the electric panel box is connected directly to the electric meter. It may even contain a system of individual glass fuses, also rated in amperage, which control the flow of electricity to each room and appliance.

Such systems are often underpowered and frequently cannot handle the power requirements of modern appliances, so it is easy to blow a fuse. If that amperage is exceeded the fuse will burn out and require replacement—simply screw out the old one and screw in the new one with the same amperage rating.


Find and Use the Controls That Drive Your House, water, valve, shut-off

Most every toilet or sink has its own shutoff. They are typically found behind the toilet or under the sink. If a toilet starts to leak, look behind the toilet and turn the shutoff to stop the flow of water. However, sometimes it is not that simple.

Tubs and showers typically do not have shutoffs other than the faucets that control the flow of water into the tub or shower. If a more extensive repair is necessary, say a pipe leaking in the wall, it requires shutting off the water to the whole house. In order to do that, locate the pressure regulator, which usually can be found outside near a wall of the house, usually a direct shot from the water main. Water coming from the utility can be under enormous pressure, 300 or more psi, but water coming into the house needs to be regulated or pipes will burst, and is typically only at 75 psi. Just before the regulator there is typically a hand valve, which will stop the flow of water into the home if turned off.

It should be noted that this is still not the water main or the place where the water meter meets the road. Depending upon the age of your residence, there is a box, often in the ground just inside the property line, which holds the water meter and main shutoff. If water needs to be shut off at the main, a special water key is necessary to do so. It is also at this point that you can monitor water usage by regularly reading the meter, which will tell you the number of feet of water being consumed, which can then be converted into usage in gallons per day.


Find and Use the Controls That Drive Your House, gas meter, shut-off

Almost all homes in urban and suburban areas have gas appliances. As with water flow, building code requires that each appliance have a separate shutoff at the appliance—usually behind it, which facilitates repairs and/or replacement. Gas leaks are extremely dangerous and at the slightest smell of gas, a call should be placed to the governing utility.

Such a call is treated as an emergency, requiring utilities to respond quite promptly. Outside the home, usually along a wall, there is a gas meter. The meter has a main shutoff below it, which will stop the flow of gas into the home. Turning off a gas main requires the use of a pipe wrench, and it is recommended that you keep one near the shutoff for emergencies.

Many municipalities in California require gas lines to have an automatic shutoff for an earthquake and/or what is called excess flow. If an automatic shutoff is triggered, it can only be turned back on by the utility. As with the water meter, the gas meter can be read to monitor usage, which measures gas consumption in cubic feet.

Today, even in older homes, utility companies have the ability to monitor consumption remotely and advise the consumer of consumption on a daily basis. You can and should still double-check your consumption by learning how to read a utility meter, especially if a particular bill seems out of the ordinary.

Moral of the Story

It is very important, especially in the case of an emergency, to learn how to shut off the flow of these various utilities in your home. While current building code facilitates some consistency in meter location, especially in newer homes, finding these meters in older homes is not always straightforward. Before moving into a home or an apartment, become aware of the location of each meter. Undoubtedly, at one time or another and for one reason or another, you will need to know how to shut off a utility meter and then turn it back on.