“Help, how do I turn off the electricity or water?” I’m here to help your household understand how your home systems work. I will look at 10 critical elements towards a safer home experience. Included is a free emergency management Home Systems Checklist! Add your experiences and tips in the comments section below!
This article will look at understanding your:
- Electrical System
- Water System
- Heating System
- Cooling Systems and Air Conditioning
- Flammable Gases such as Natural Gas or Propane
- Landline Phone
- Internet Connectivity
- Fire Safety: Smoke and CO2 Detectors, and Sprinklers and Fire Suppression
- Security: Alarm Systems, Measures, Monitoring and Locks
- Anything Else That Applies to You
Let’s Face It, Our Homes Are Complicated
Two hundred years ago, no home had electricity, piped clean water, automated heating and cooling, a world-wide communication framework, and so many other elements we now take for granted. We live our lives often assuming all those elements are there and will still be running when we come home from a jog, work, school, or trips.
What Is Critical Infrastructure?
In the field of emergency management, the concept of “critical infrastructure” refers to the infrastructures and systems around us that help us live a safe and quality life. It also applies to the proper functioning of so many systems around us that keep our government and state, industry, transport, employment, food availability, healthcare, sanitation, and so on… running.
A major natural disaster that shuts down indefinitely our water, electricity, communications, infrastructure, …, shocks most people into realising how many critical infrastructure systems we rely on and that help sustain our lives as we know it. Think of any major earthquake or catastrophic storm, or even just the actions/inactions of a few people that result in a collapsed water system, electrical grid or lethal contamination of our food system. The quality of life as we know it is in fact quite fragile.
The same applies for our home and this applies regardless of living in a house, an apartment, or other living set-up. Our home is packed with systems that we rely on and we assume will also be working for us. Here’s the thing, sometimes there is a failure or a stoppage. That brief or total stoppage can cause a minor and temporary inconvenience, a ripple effect contributing to other failures, a major financial burden, or a life-threatening or life-taking situation.
Who Should Be Involved?
Better Preparedness is about being proactive and this article is about learning how all our systems work. You want to put your life in the best standing possible. Beware of what I call “spousal knowledge imbalance” whereby some of the home’s systems are only known by one person. This is so common! It’s also the potential source of many problems lasting longer, occurring more frequently, and having a greater and more serious impact on us. I’m here to help correct that imbalance!
I strongly urge you to sit down with your partner, older children, and anyone who helps look after your house. Perhaps there are some trusted family members or close friends that you can work with so as to be able to help out each other.
Being proactive means identifying how all your home’s systems work, doing any research and information required, and sharing that knowledge so that you can prevent many crises, identify many developing crises, plan for certain crises, tackle crises swiftly, recover, and return hopefully to your state of normal as quickly as possible.
Let Me Give You Some Examples
1. The Impact of a Burst Water Pipe
Many of us around the world are fortunate to have water pipes throughout our house. We open the tap and glorious water flows out and we turn it off. (Yes, my decade in international development makes me very aware of how many billions of people do not have access to safe water.)
What happens if there is a breakage in a pipe, valve or tap, and masses of water starts cascading out potentially causing huge and costly impacts? The more quickly one can stop the flow the less the damage.
Years ago, I was biking home from work in Canada and biked by a house with its garage door open. Inside were two people frantically trying to stop the water gushing out from the ceiling above them. I stopped and offered to assist. They were friends of the owners and staying in the house for a week. A pipe had frozen from the cold weather and the ruptured pipe was gushing water everywhere. There was about 2-5cm of water in all the basement rooms. Every minute that we couldn’t find the house’s main water shut-off valve was causing more and more water to gush out and cause major damage to the house and personal effects.
They had been searching for that valve for twenty minutes. We searched and searched finally found it behind a miscellaneous wall panel but that thirty minutes of water flow likely caused tens of thousands of dollars in repairs, future mold, and destroyed personal effects. The thing is, what if they’d been advised where the main valve was and that there was something to indicate where the main water valve was located, and they had managed to quickly shut off that water? The whole thing might just have been a minor water spill to mop up with a few towels.
Free-flowing pipes can happen for so many reasons such as a broken tap, a faulty dishwasher, etc… Perhaps you just want to isolate one leaky tap until the plumber arrives, so all you’d need to know is where the shut-off valve for the tap particular tap is located.
The key is knowing how to stop those crises ahead of needing to know!
2. Electrical Fires
An electrical fire can be one whereby you have a traditional fire that is either only ignited and/or is also kept burning because of electricity.
Imagine a small fire involving a kitchen appliance such as an electrical stove that is be kept burning because of electricity. That trusty hand-held red fire extinguisher just outside your kitchen may not work or may be dangerous to operate if there is still electricity involved in the fire. What if you know exactly how to safely and swiftly turn off the electricity to the whole house or that part of the house? Congrats, you’ve stopped the electricity and your fire extinguisher can now do its thing!!! That crisis was a minor kitchen fire rather than one that burned down half or all of your house.
3. What About Those Minor Inconvenience Crises?
I can give you countless examples of disaster or major impact crises but what about those minor inconvenience crises that still cause stress, problems and financial costs in our lives?
That minor crisis can cascade into more serious crises or multiple crises. It can cause you to miss submitting by the deadline that project you have been working on. Your unnecessarily long power outage might cause you to lose all the food in your freezer or make it not possible to open your garage door or who knows, recharge your electric car.
A minor crisis does not have to become a major one!
My Qualifications for This Topic?
I bring a few angles to this topic since I’m a dad, a husband, a home-owner, an emergency management practitioner, and a former volunteer fire fighter. Additionally, I’ve lived in many environments around the world and have witnessed how different things can be.
You take full responsibility including for your decisions, your planning, any information you log, and how you act or do not act. As always, I highly suggest you validate your findings with experts, that you keep up to date, that you protect any information that relates to you, that you understand any implications of your actions/inactions, and that you take any training required.
Let’s Get Started!
Below are common systems found in a home and I want you to add any that are missing or unique to your living environment. I have included questions to answer for yourself and for your household to know.
For each of these, think through:
- How does that system work and where is it located?
- Are there multiple ways to turn off or turn on that system and where are they? How does one do it correctly? Put up signs or labels in your home and draw diagrams.
- What is the service provider and how can they be reached?
- Do you have the account numbers accessible elsewhere and safe? (Always be mindful of identity theft!)
- Who has or needs the authority to make requests and enquiries on those accounts?
- What is the point of entry to your home for that system?
- Who can service that system and how will you reach them?
- Are all those contact numbers easily accessible to you and whomever tasked to help?
- If you are the one to help a friend or family member at their home, do you understand the above for their home?
This article is aimed to be a conversation starter and to spur you into being proactive. It is not be an in-depth technical instruction to each of your systems. Every home is different and there are countless different set-ups and local laws for each system.
I’m hoping to help your household figure out what you do not know. Bring in experts who can help you, answer questions, and train you to turn on or off a system. I want you to feel more confident that if X happens, you feel knowledgeable and capable of taking action.
1. Electrical System
First is your electrical system. Your electrical system can seem very complicated but once you understand how it works, it’s not that daunting. Bring in an electrician or knowledgeable friend. When you have an electrician visit to do some work, ask them to run you through how your home’s system works or even pay them an extra half hour to do so. Take notes and label things. Maybe in the process the electrician will identify some lurking electrical issue, a fire-risk, or something not up to your local building codes.
The electricity usually comes into your home via one main electrical panel and there is usually a master shut-off switch. The power may then run through multiple electrical panels in your home and other structures such as a garage.
Each panel will have breakers or fuses for the electricity connected to that circuit. Work with an electrician to label those circuits and what is on each circuit. That way you can quickly turn off the kitchen wall plugs if there was an appliance smoking, for example. Sometimes you don’t need to plunge the house into darkness or also shut down the fridge by turning off the entire home when all you needed to do was to stop one circuit or part of the house.
We need to know how we turn things off and on safely, so you don’t risk damaging other systems.
2. Water System
As with your electrical system, assuming you receive your water from your city’s water system, it will usually arrive into your house or apartment via one main pipe and valve. You need to know where that valve is located and how you can turn it on or off.
The water is generally piped to other parts of your home and likely a hot water heater. You will likely have dedicated pipes for hot or cold water. You usually have numerous valves throughout your home to stop the water to that bathroom, kitchen, tap, sprinkler, or machine such as a laundry or dishwashing machine. Learn where those valves are located and ensure you are able to turn them off and on. Write them down and even draw a diagram to help you.
It’s important to know how to drain your water system, especially if you live in a multi-floor home. Even after turning off the main valve, you will still have plenty of water within your home’s pipes so knowing how to drain your system will help you empty that water.
3. Heating System
In most parts of the world you will have a heating system and it may be a combination of different types of heating systems, so learn how each of them works. This could be electric, natural gas, propane, heating oil, wood, coal, a heat pump, etc… If your sole or combination of heating ceases to work, you need to understand how you get it restarted or operate it, and whom to call to fix it.
Stoppage may be an inconvenience or cause major damage to your home and belongings. In Canada when the winters can easily drop to -20C or -30C, if your heating system stops working, you are going to have a bunch of what we call “cascading effects” whereby that problem will lead to other problems. The home’s water pipes could freeze causing the expanding water to rupture the water pipes deep inside your walls. Having witnessed that before, trust me, you want to avoid it.
4. Cooling System: Air Conditioning
Depending on where you live, a cooling system may be a nice touch or a necessity. As with your heating system, you want to understand how it works, likely issues you’ll encounter, and whom to call in the event of a stoppage.
5. Flammable Gases such Natural Gas or Propane
Does your home use any flammable gases such as natural gas or propane? If so, understand where they are used, how they are supplied, where any storage tanks are located, and how you safely turn off and on any shut-off valves.
6. Phone Lines
Thirty years ago, we relied entirely on a landline phone network to communicate and call for help such as a 9-1-1 emergency phone number in North America. Nowadays mobile phones and VOIP services (internet-based phones) provide either an alternative or a complimentary way of communicating and calling for help.
Regardless of your set-up, you rely on your set-up for daily life and for calling the emergency services. If your set-up goes down, you need to know how to troubleshoot, whom and what number to call, the account information and permissions, etc…
A stoppage to your phone line can cascade into other issues such as your internet connection or your home’s security and fire monitoring service.
7. Internet Connectivity
Similar to your phone system, a stoppage to your internet connection can cause a range of problems and inconveniences. If your set-up goes down, you need to know how to troubleshoot, whom and what number to call, the account information and permissions, etc…
8. Fire Safety: Smoke and CO2 Detectors, and Sprinklers and Fire Suppression
Fire safety is a broad topic and can include well beyond elements such as smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, fire extinguishers, and perhaps a sprinkler system.
You need to know how your fire safety components work, where they are located, and any servicing required. A smoke alarm battery can be an easy repair if you have extra batteries and know how to do it.
Routinely re-check your detector batteries and replace any expired detectors.
Also check the charge (if there is a gauge) and the expiry date of your fire extinguishers. Does everyone know where to find the extinguishers?
A fault element in your fire safety system can cascade into all kinds of dangerous situations. A delay in you knowing of a smouldering fire in your home could decrease or eliminate the opportunity to exit the structure or perhaps extinguish the issue if safe to do so. Lives and entire structures can be lost.
While you are at it, review and map out your emergency exit strategy. Do your children and any guests know how to exit? Do you all know where to convene after exiting?
If you have a fire monitoring service, find out how it works and when fire services will be deployed.
While you are it, check out 10 Easy Steps to Building your Ideal First Aid Kits
9. Security: Alarm Systems, Monitoring and Locks
Crime concerns can mean that our homes have multiple layers of security. Depending where one lives, the risk, and crime rates, security features can include special locks, metal bars, reinforced doors, camera systems, remote monitoring, special fences, and motion detection.
Does everyone know how these systems work, how to respond, whom to call in an emergency or whom to call if a system is not working properly? Review who has account privileges for any monitoring services.
Also remember that security features to prevent intruders from gaining access can have the impact of making it more difficult to exit your home and property, and for fire and ambulance services to access your home. Therefore it is important to look at your security features alongside your fire emergency exit plans.
10. Other Systems?
Number 10, well, this is anything not covered in the first 9 at these points. What is unique to your home or country? Identify those additional systems and ensure everyone understands how they work. Do you know how to operate, troubleshoot, repair or call for repair assistance for those additional systems?
It can be a simple thing such as garage door, for example, and knowing how to manually open the door in case of a power failure or garage door opener failure.
Does your home have solar heating or solar power? Is your water drawn from a well or through a filtering system? Perhaps your sewage goes to a septic system?
You Have an Opportunity, Take It!
Why wait until a crisis to figure out your systems, or miss the opportunity to practice and improve your home’s systems, and pay the consequences of lost time?
Remember to review and update your information periodically.