Avoid Water Damage by Learning How to Locate Your Home Water Shut-Off Valve

C.E. Larusso
Written by C.E. Larusso
Updated December 16, 2021
white kitchen sink and countertop
Photo: Dariusz Jarzabek / Adobe Stock

Highlights

  • A leak can quickly destroy a home, so knowing how to operate the water shut-off valve can help avert a worst-case scenario.

  • The valve may be inside or outside the house, near the perimeter closest to the sidewalk.

  • You may need to open the water meter box.

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If your pipes burst due to freezing, sewage backup, or some other kind of rupture, large volumes of water may flow through your home, resulting in towering bills and the loss of irreplaceable valuables. The causes behind most leaks aren’t always in your control, but one step you can take is to ensure everyone in your household is familiar with the location and operation of your home’s main water shut-off valve. By doing so, you’ll be prepared to halt the supply of water to your home, stopping the leak before you’ve identified and repaired the immediate cause, and averting costly damage. 

It’s also a good idea to leave the valve closed if you’ll be away from your home for an extended period of time, so leaks don’t occur and worsen with no one there to stop them. 

Why It’s Important to Know How to Turn Off the Water Supply

Your home’s plumbing system features a series of different shut-off valves allowing you to stop water flow to the whole property, the interior of the house, or to particular appliances. The precise number and location of these valves vary from home to home, depending on factors like when the house was built, the impositions of local geography and building codes, and the building type. 

Suppose you've ever performed even minor DIY repairs to your sink or toilet. In that case, you're likely familiar with the isolation valves located on pipes in immediate proximity to an appliance, typically beneath it. These valves come in handy if the problem is localized to a specific appliance since they control the water flow, but they will not help you if the leak affects other parts of your plumbing. 

When the running water isn’t isolated to a particular area, you’re going to need to identify the main shut-off valve to stop the flow and buy yourself time to fix the underlying problem. 

How to Locate the Main Shut-Off Valve

Take a few minutes to make sure you know the location of the water shut-off valve so you don't have to search for it frantically amid an emergency. 

Property Inspection Report

If you have the property inspection report from when you bought the house, you can determine where the main shut-off valve is without physically searching for it. Open the report and navigate to the section concerning plumbing. There, you should find both a written description and a photograph of the main shut-off valve—a standard feature of inspection reports even when the inspector hasn’t identified any plumbing problems. 

Inside the House

Your home's main water shut-off valve may be located indoors, especially if you live in a colder climate. Assuming you're receiving water from a municipal supply rather than a well, the valve will be located near the house perimeter, on the side closest to the street. Usually installed 3 to 5 feet from where the pipe enters the house, the valve will be even with the grade. So look upwards if you're searching in the basement, or look down if you're at ground level. 

If you have a basement or a crawl space, these underground quarters are the first place to look. Shut-off valves are often located near a water heater, whether in the basement or on the ground floor, particularly in slab homes that don't feature the former. If it's not there, it may be in the garage behind an access panel or underneath a ground-floor sink. In homes that feature PEX pipes, the manifold will feature a shut-off valve. 

If the search is fruitless, another approach is to locate your curbside water meter and try to identify the shortest possible straight line between it and the perimeter of your house. The pipe should enter close to that point, with the shut-off valve nearby. 

Outside the House

In warmer climates, the shut-off valve is sometimes located on the water company’s pipe, close to an exterior wall of the house where it enters your home.

In many cases, though, if you don’t have an indoor shut-off valve, you’re going to have to go straight to the meter box. Look on the sidewalk or close to the property line for a metal lid on a cement box, often labeled “water.” Opening it may require a meter key, which you can purchase at a local home improvement store.

How to Operate the Shut-Off Valve

Your main water shut-off valve will be one of two types.

Ball Valve

If you see a straight handle sitting parallel to the pipe, it’s a ball valve. To switch it off, turn the valve clockwise until it’s fully perpendicular to the pipe. Whichever position you leave it in, make sure it’s fully open or closed since allowing water to drip through a partially open valve can corrode the metal. 

Gate Valve

If you see a round handle resembling the faucet on a spigot, it’s a gate valve. Turn the handle all the way clockwise to close the valve. Over time, gate valves can become tight and difficult to operate by hand if they’re not used. You may want to regularly check in to confirm the handle works so you don’t discover it’s stuck in the middle of a major leak. 

No matter what type of valve attaches to your pipes, it may be difficult to operate by hand. Try adding some spray oil or lubricant, but if that doesn’t do the trick, call in a pro sooner rather than later since it may be corroded and at risk of breaking. 

Once you have closed the shut-off valve, open up the hot and cold water lines in a sink to confirm the supply has indeed been cut off, as well as to release pressure from the system.

How to Operate a Meter Box Shut-Off Valve

water meter box outside home
Photo: Michael / Adobe Stock

To access the shut-off valve within the curbside water meter box, insert the meter key into the hole and turn it counterclockwise. If yours features a ball valve, turn that counterclockwise until it loosens. Once unlocked, use the key as a lever, tilting it toward the outer edge to lift up the lid. Watch out for any insects or rodents that may have taken up residence inside the box. 

If you live somewhere that routinely faces freezing temperatures, you may need to clear away dirt or sand to access the valve. However, don't remove it completely since this material protects the pipes from freezing. Once you clear away any dirt and debris, you should see the meter covered in glass with valves on each side. You can read the meter to confirm you've got a leak. 

The valve on the street side is the city’s shut-off valve. Don’t touch it. There are criminal penalties for tampering with a city water meter. If you’re unsure which valve is which, call a local plumber or your utility company to send someone out to help you.

The ball valve closer to your property line is the one you’re looking for. As in your home, if the handle is turned parallel to the pipe, it’s open. Use the meter key to turn it clockwise until the handle is fully perpendicular to the pipe closest to it. 

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