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Tips for Controlling Plumbing Emergencies

This Old House plumbing and heating expert Richard Trethewey explains some of the most common plumbing emergencies and how homeowners can handle them.

Kevin O’Connor meets plumbing and heating expert Richard Trethewey for a run-down on common plumbing emergencies and how homeowners can control them. Richard explains some of the important valves, as well as some techniques for emergency water stoppages. He then shows Kevin a basic kit of fittings that most homeowners should consider putting together for emergency leaks.

What to Do During a Plumbing Emergency

Shut Down the Water Supply

Homeowners might start to panic if a serious leak occurs, but there’s a simple solution for stopping the water flow: the main shut-off valve. This valve is typically near the front of the house by the water meter or where the well pump supply line enters the home. If the homeowner shuts this valve, all of the water in the home will stop flowing, allowing them to get the leak under temporary (but immediate) control.

Leaking Fixtures

If a fixture like a toilet, faucet, or dishwasher is leaking, the best course of action is to shut down the fixture’s water supply. Toilet supply valves are typically near the floor behind the toilet. Faucet and dishwasher supply valves are generally under the sink. With these valves shut off, turning the home’s supply back on may be okay.

Broken Pipes

Pipes can break, and they can be a bit more difficult to isolate than a fixture. Rather than soldering a cap onto the pipe (which can be impossible with flowing water), homeowners may be able to crimp or bend the pipe like a hose to prevent water flow.

But, there are better tools for the job, such as compression fittings and push-to-connect fittings. These control valves can be installed while the water is flowing, allowing the homeowner to shut the valve down right after installation.

Leaking Water Heaters

If a water heater starts to leak, there are a few remedies. If it’s the drain, installing a hose cap and tightening it over the drain may stop the leak for long enough to call a plumber without losing hot water. For other leaks, shut the valve on the cold water supply line, as well as shutting off the gas supply or electricity.

Note: Do not plug or cap the relief valve. This valve exists to prevent over-pressurization. Plugging it can turn the water heater into a pressure bomb.

Assemble an Emergency Kit

Homeowners should consider putting together a leak emergency kit, and they’re relatively easy to create. Since almost all pipes in residential buildings are either ½-inch or ¾-inch, collect a few of the following fittings in those sizes and place them in an easily-accessible toolbox or kit:


Richard explains the ways homeowners can get emergency plumbing situations under control until a plumber arrives.

All materials used can be found at local home centers.