In the event your inside main water valve fails, there’s one final backstop you can operate to shut off water to the house: the main water valve on the street. The picture below shows a typical water meter cover found in cities and counties across the U.S. With the cover off, you can see the water meter and the county’s cutoff valve (to the left).
Note that water meters and cutoff valves vary by district, but they all follow this basic setup. In general, you are responsible for plumbing on your house’s side of the mater, and the city is responsible for the meter and everything before it. The further north you are located, the deeper the well will be that houses this water cut-off valve. This is because plumbing has to be buried deeper in northern climates to avoid freezing in the winter. You may need a wrench with a long extension to follow the instructions below if you’re in this situation.
You should only use the street water cutoff for three reasons:
- Your inside water main valve fails and you have a water emergency (burst pipe).
- You have a leak / burst pipe before the main inside valve (between the street and the inside valve).
- You are replacing the main water valve.
How to Turn off Water at the Street
- Locate the outside water meter cover. The meter is usually close to the street or alley so that it can be easily read by public works’ employees.
- If this isn’t an emergency, contact public works in your jurisdiction to ensure they allow owners to operate their cutoff valve. Most districts will allow an owner or licensed plumber to operate the valve as long as they aren’t behind on payments.
- This particular meter cover has a pentagonal nut holding it down (apparently an attempt to let the average Joe know he shouldn’t be going in here). Remove the nut using the requisite pentagonal wrench. If you don’t have the special wrench, a pair of channel locks will work just fine.
- Locate the valve inside the chamber and turn the valve clockwise to close it (detail shown in the picture to the right). A pair of channel locks will help you grasp the valve.
Warnings and Tips
If the valve at the street has not been operated in a long time, it could be locked up. Whatever you do, DO NOT FORCE THE VALVE. If it will not turn with a reasonable amount of pressure, call a plumber and/or public works. If you attempt to force the valve, it is conceivable that it will break and quickly flood the access point. In order to fix it, the county will have to turn off the water at the next stop, and it could be some time before they get there. You could end up in a situation where you are flooding your neighbors’ basements or your own. So be careful.
If you find the valve is broken, it is the jurisdiction’s responsibility to replace it (since it sits on the city’s side of the water meter).
Never turn on a water meter that has been turned off by the city due to non-payment or for safety reasons. This can be a misdemeanor or felony depending on the circumstances. If you are having trouble paying your utility bills, you should contact the utility/public works and learn your options for obtaining payment assistance.