Learn to meet home disasters—both big and small—head-on without panic. Take effective action on burst pipes, flooded basements, kitchen fires, power outages, tornadoes, electrical storms and more.
Tornado image: Ryan McGinnis/Flickr/Getty Images
By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine
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Overview: Do you know what to do?
According to disaster experts, 9 out of 10 people either panic or freeze during an emergency; only one is able to jump into effective action. We have no doubt that TFH readers are part of the 10 percent who deliver—you’re hands-on kinds of folks. To make sure you’re ready for anything, here are common home emergencies and the steps you should take first to tackle these disasters head on.
Emergency 1: Wild animal invasion
Raccoons can chew up a lot of stuff fast.
A squirrel or raccoon in the house may not seem like an emergency, but those critters can do a lot of damage quickly. If all else fails, you may have to call in a wildlife removal service or your town’s animal control officer.
What to do first: Isolate the varmint by closing the doors to all the other rooms in the house. Then open a window. Leave the room and shut the door. The animal will eventually find its way out the window.
What not to do: Don’t try to chase the invader out. It’ll just panic and hide. If it crawls into a hidden spot and poops, has babies or dies…that’s a smelly set of different problems.
The worst thing to do: Don’t let your dog or cat help with the eviction. That could result in an expensive trip to the vet or a gory mess.
Emergency 2: Burst pipe
Turn off the water at the main valve quickly. Water damage can be expensive.
A gushing plumbing leak can dump several gallons per minute into your home. You have to act fast to stop the stream—and that’s just the beginning.
Stop the flow: Shutting off the main water valve is an obvious move. But there may still be a few gallons of water held in pipes above the leak. Turn on the lowest faucet in the house, which will let the water harmlessly drain out of the faucet instead of through the leaking pipe.
Don’t delay cleanup: The longer things stay wet, the more likely you’ll have permanent damage. Delay can even lead to mold problems inside walls, which can cost thousands to eradicate. So before you run off to buy plumbing parts, clean up the mess. Pronto.
Emergency 3: Flooded basement
Keep dry until you turn off electrical power.
Your first impulse will be to wade in and rescue your stuff. But that water might be dangerous, so put on your boots and take these precautions.
Don’t get fried: Any water in contact with electricity might be deadly. Even a shallow puddle could be electrified by a cord on the floor. Stay out of the water until you’ve turned off the power to your basement. If you can’t reach the circuit breaker box, call an electrician or your utility to cut the power to your home.
Don’t get sick: If the flooding is due to flash floods or your belongings are leaching toxins, the floodwaters may contain toxic chemicals and will almost certainly breed dangerous bacteria. Protect cuts and open sores from floodwaters and wear plastic gloves when handling your possessions.
Did You Know?
If the damage to your home isn’t covered by your homeowner’s insurance, don’t report it to your insurance company. The report may still go on your insurance record and look like a claim when you shop for new insurance in the future.
Emergency 4: Kitchen fire
A grease fire that spreads to nearby curtains is a common cause of kitchen fires.
More than any other emergency, fire makes people panic and do dumb things. But armed with a few basic rules, you’ll reduce the panic and respond effectively.
React fast: If it’s a toaster fire, unplug the cord and use an ABC (dry chemical) fire extinguisher or pour baking soda into the toaster (and then get a new toaster). If it’s a stove-top fire, turn off the burner and smother the flames by dousing them with baking soda or putting the lid on the pan.
Or do nothing: If it’s an oven fire, the most dangerous thing you can do is open the door. Just leave the oven door closed and turn off the heat to the oven. The fire will eventually smother itself.
Bad move: Don’t use water to put out a grease fire. It can splash the burning grease and cause burns.
Worse move: Never carry a burning pan outside. It can cause a full-scale house fire if flaming grease spills and ignites something else.
Get to Know Your Fire Extinguisher
Household fire extinguishers are for small fires and have a short “discharge time”(10 seconds is typical). That means you can’t learn as you go. So take a minute now to read the label. Check the expiration date and the pressure gauge to be sure the extinguisher will work when you need it.
There’s nothing complicated about basic fire extinguisher technique:
Stand a few feet from the fire, start blasting and move toward the fire. The instructions will tell you how far away to start.
Move the extinguisher’s stream in a sweeping motion.
Aim at the base of the fire, not at the flames.
But there are a few other things to know. First, fire extinguishers blast the area with chemicals and make a mess. So an extinguisher may not be the best tool for every small fire. In the case of a stovetop grease fire, for example, it’s usually best to smother the fire with a pot lid. Second, fires that seem to be out can reignite. So keep an eye on the area for a few minutes afterward.
Emergency 5: Bat in the house
Open a window or door; the bat wants out.
In most people, bats cause a visceral reaction (like screaming and covering your head). But keep in mind that a bat doesn’t want to tangle with you (or your hair) any more than you want to tangle with it.
Plan A: Open a window and get out of the way. There’s a good chance the bat will leave on its own.
Plan B: If the bat lands before it can exit, look for it in places it can hang, such as behind drapes or upholstered furniture. When you find the bat, throw a thick towel over it and carry it outside (just to warn you, the bat will complain loudly, but don’t drop it!). Shake out the towel so the bat can fly away.
Worst move: Don’t approach a bat with bare hands. Bats can carry rabies. Wear thick gloves to avoid bites.
Did You Know?
Each year, one out of every eight homes has a kitchen cooking fire.
Always keep a flashlight loaded with good batteries in a handy drawer.
Surprisingly enough, the worst trouble caused by power outages often occurs when the problem is resolved and the power comes back on.
Prepare for surges: Turn off and unplug all electrical equipment, including your tools, appliances and electronics, and turn your heating thermostat down (or cooling thermostat up) to prevent damage from surges when the power returns. (Major appliances can be turned off at the breaker box.) Leave one light on so you’ll know when the power is restored.
What not to do: Once the power is restored, don’t turn everything back on at once, which can create internal power surges. First restore the thermostat setting on the heating or cooling system and turn on your larger appliances. Give the electrical system a few minutes to stabilize before plugging in your remaining appliances and electronics.
Watch for more trouble: If your lights are noticeably dimmer or brighter after the power is restored, turn off all the power at the breaker or fuse box and call your electric utility.
Emergency 7: Electrical storm
Unplug sensitive electronics to protect them from power surges.
Lightning strikes can burn out circuit boards in appliances, computers and telephones, doing thousands of dollars in damage in less than a second. If you hear thunder, power surges are possible, even if you don’t see any lightning.
Protect your gadgets: Unplug computers and phone lines, and unplug corded telephones and sensitive electronics to prevent damage from power surges.
Don’t wait for flames: If your home gets hit, call the fire department immediately. Lightning strikes can cause small fires inside walls that smolder for hours before you notice anything.
Play it safe: Lightning may strike nearby electrical and phone lines and travel to your home. Avoid contact with electrical appliances and telephones (landlines).
Wacky but true: Lightning strikes can travel through metal plumbing pipes. Avoid sitting on the toilet and don’t shower or bathe during electrical storms.
Did You Know?
Lightning is the second-leading weather-related killer in the United States. More deadly than hurricanes or tornadoes, lightning strikes kill an average of 70 people and injure 300 others each year.
Emergency 8: Tornado or high winds
Twister in action
Straight-line winds cause as much damage as tornadoes, but they’re more unpredictable. So when a storm with high winds approaches your area, don’t wait for the sirens to sound before you take action.
Take cover: Move to a protected interior room on the lowest floor of the house, as far as possible from exterior walls and windows. Use pillows, cushions, blankets or mattresses to protect yourself from flying debris.
Ignore the myths: Don’t open windows to “equalize the pressure” no matter what your grandparents told you. This can cause even greater damage. And the southwest corner of the basement may not be the safest spot to hunker down, especially if it’s near an outside wall or window.
Did You Know?
About 1,000 tornadoes are recorded each year in the United States—over 10 times more than in any other country.
Emergency 9: Carbon monoxide alert
Carbon monoxide is the leading cause of accidental poisoning deaths in the United States. Take it seriously and make sure you have working CO detectors in your home. (When to Replace a Carbon Monoxide Detector for more information.)
Check for symptoms: The early symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning resemble those of the flu. If the alarm sounds and anyone is experiencing headaches, dizziness, fatigue or vomiting, get everyone out of the house and call 911.
Never ignore the alarm: Don’t assume all is well if no one feels ill. Open your doors and windows to thoroughly ventilate the house. Turn off all potential sources of CO—your oil or gas furnace, gas water heater, gas range and oven, gas dryer, gas or kerosene space heater, and any vehicle or small engine. Have a qualified technician inspect your fuel-burning appliances and chimneys to make sure they’re operating correctly and that there’s nothing blocking the vents that let fumes out of the house.
Emergency 10: Leaking roof
Big roof leak
Don’t climb on your roof to stop leaks until after the storm. Wet roofs can be slippery.
High winds that tear off shingles or send broken tree branches through your roof are usually accompanied by rain, so you have to act fast to minimize water damage.
Quick fix: For damage larger than a shingle or two, the fastest bandage is a plastic tarp. Secure a tarp over the damaged area with 2x4s or lath nailed to the roof. If possible, secure the tarp over the roof ridge; it’s difficult to make the tarp waterproof at the upper end.
Don’t kill yourself: Trying to patch a slippery, wet roof during a storm is dangerous. Add in high winds or lightning and the situation is deadly. So think twice before you head up there.
First Aid for Roof Damage
Minor roof damage can lead to major water damage inside your home. But if you keep a few simple materials on hand, you can seal most roof injuries in just a few minutes.
A section of flashing is the perfect patch for smaller holes—often caused by blowndown tree branches (Photo 1). Don’t forget to caulk around the hole. Special roof sealant is best, but any type of caulk is better than nothing.
For larger areas, a tarp is the best bandage. But before you spread a tarp, screw plywood over large holes in the roof. Left unsupported, a tarp will sag into a hole, fill with rainwater and possibly leak. If shingles have blown off but there are no holes in the roof, you can lay the tarp directly over the roof sheathing. Stretch the tarp so it lies smoothly over the roof and batten down the entire perimeter (except the ridge). Just a few inches of loose tarp will allow strong winds to drive in rain or rip the tarp to shreds. Use screws and any type of lumber you have on hand to secure the tarp. Whenever possible, extend the tarp over the roof ridge (Photo 2) so water won’t flow down and under it. If there’s no way to run the tarp over the ridge, slip sections of flashing under shingles and over the upper edge of the tarp. Then drive nails through both the flashing and the tarp.
Emergency 11: After a hurricane
The period after is as dangerous as the storm itself.
High winds and storm surges cause a lot of property damage during a hurricane. But more people die in the aftermath of a hurricane than during the storm itself—primarily from carbon monoxide poisoning and electrocution.
Act wisely: Don’t use generators, charcoal grills or propane camping stoves indoors. And don’t clear debris from your home and yard without surveying the area carefully. Downed or damaged power lines can send electrical currents through tree branches and metal fences.
What not to do: Avoid an “every man for himself” mentality. Once officials have signaled the “all clear,” survey the damage to your home and reach out to your neighbors. It will be difficult to drive anywhere for supplies (if stores are even open), and you’ll conserve resources by pooling them. Assess your neighbors’ stocks of food, water and other resources. Eating meals collectively will reduce the amount of food that spoils (use fresh foods first) and will conserve cooking fuel.
Did You Know?
Hurricanes, tornadoes and winter storms are the top three causes of catastrophic home insurance losses.
Emergencies are dramatic, but far more people are injured in ordinary household accidents.
Emergency 12: Dead furnace
Check the simple things before calling for service help.
As the temperature drops inside your house, your first worry may be the budget-busting cost of an after-hours service call. But there are things you can troubleshoot before you pick up the phone.
Check the simple stuff first:
Is the filter filthy? A clogged filter can cause the furnace to shut down.
Is it getting power? There’s a switch (just like a standard light switch) near the furnace. Make sure it’s on. Check the circuit breaker or fuse box, too. A natural gas furnace won’t work without power either—the thermostat, fan motor and gas valve all need electricity to operate.
Is the gas valve on? The handle should be parallel to the gas pipe.
Is the exhaust pipe clear? Sometimes heavy snow can cover up the exhaust vent to the outside.
Does the thermostat need to be reset? Turn it down, then turn it back up.
Prepare for the worst: If the inside temperature continues to fall, take action to prevent burst pipes. Turn off the main water valve and drain the pipes by turning on the faucets to let out the remaining water. Use a plunger to drive water out of the toilets and drain traps.
Emergency 13: Sewage backup
Photo 1: Protect floor drains with a backwater valve
A “backwater” valve lets water flow into the drain but not out. To install the type shown above, drop the ball into the drain and screw in the threaded insert. When water rises, the ball seals against the insert. If you have a cast iron floor drain, the threads inside are probably corroded, so choose a version with a rubber float and compression seal instead (next photo).
Compression backwater valve
Use a compression backwater valve with a cast iron floor drain to prevent backups.
Photo 2: Block the main line with a test plug
The fastest, easiest way to stop sewage backflow to all drains is to place an inflatable test plug in the main sewer line. Inflate the plug with a bicycle pump.
The two types of test plugs
Test plugs are used when plumbing systems in new homes are pressure-tested. But they can also be used to block drains and stop sewage backflow. Screw-type plugs are inexpensive. Inflatable plugs are more versatile and cost a lot more. Home centers carry some test plugs; shop online for the best selection.
Floodwater doesn’t just fill streets and basements. It can also fill sewer or septic systems, causing sewage to “backflow” through drains and into homes. Sewage is a nasty, toxic soup—more damaging, dangerous and disgusting than ordinary floodwater. The lower the drain, the greater the risk—so homes with basements and homes in low-lying areas are the most vulnerable. To find out if this is a likely danger in your home, talk to your neighbors. If they’ve ever had sewage backflow during a flood, your house is probably at risk too. Don’t wait to plan and prepare; home centers sometimes run out of backflow-stopping gear just before a flood.
In some situations, blocking off individual drains is a good approach. In a basement with only a floor drain and a laundry tub, for example, you can stick a test plug in the tub drain and install a “backwater” valve in the floor drain (Photo 1). But other types of drains are more difficult: The best way to block a toilet drain, for example, is to remove the toilet and plug the pipe. The most reliable way to block a bath or kitchen sink is to remove the trap and cap the drain stub-out pipe. That’s a lot of work.
So instead of fussing with individual drains, consider blocking the main drain line at the cleanout (Photo 2). Most homes have a cleanout near the point where the main line exits the house. Unscrew the cleanout plug, insert a test plug and inflate it with a bicycle pump. This single solution protects your whole house, but has three drawbacks: First, you have to do it immediately when flooding begins and the flow is weak. Strong backflow will make it impossible. Second, any water that seeps into your home (through basement walls, for example) can’t flow out through floor drains. And finally, since your entire drain system is blocked, you can’t use toilets, sinks or tubs. To prevent accidental use, it’s a good idea to shut off the water supply.
The ultimate solution is a whole-house backwater valve (not shown) installed in the main line. Prices start at about $50 online. Once installed, it protects all your drains without any effort or inconvenience. Installation isn’t tricky but usually requires breaking up the floor—a big, messy job.
Emergency Shutoff Tips
The stainless steel ball almost always rotates smoothly to shut off the water. But just to be sure, give the handle a quarter turn. Then turn on a faucet to see if the water is off.
The gate is prone to getting stuck open, closed or somewhere in between—especially after years without use.
Photo 1: Close a stubborn gate valve
If the handle won’t turn, loosen the packing nut. But be sure to hold the handle in position while you turn the nut. If the handle turns as you unscrew the nut, you risk breaking the valve.
Photo 2: Reopen a gate valve
If the valve is hard to open, tap the underside of the valve with a hammer as you turn it.
Your main shutoff valve is one of the most important disaster-stoppers in your home. When a pipe leaks or bursts, this valve lets you shut off water flow to your entire home. But there’s a good chance your main valve will fail when you need it. So take a few minutes now to make sure you can close it.
Ball valves rarely fail, and testing is easy. But if you have a gate valve, you might need a little patience and know-how. Turn the handle clockwise to close it. If you can’t turn the handle, loosen the packing nut just a little (Photo 1). A shot of lubricant or penetrating oil may also help. Then try again. Don’t worry about cranking too hard. There’s a small chance that you’ll damage the valve, but a valve that won’t close is useless anyway and needs to be replaced. For help with that project, see How to Replace the Main Shutoff Valve.
Reopening a stubborn gate valve is more risky than closing it; you’re more likely to break internal parts and could end up without running water. If the valve is stuck closed, tap it with a hammer (Photo 2). When the valve opens a little, stop for a few minutes. That allows water pressure on both sides of the valve to equalize, instead of pressing against one side and locking the valve in place.
Emergency shutoff tips
If a toilet or faucet is leaking, try the shutoff valves below them first. If they won’t close, head for the main valve.
If you’re able to close your main valve most of the way but it’s still allowing a trickle of water through, simply open the lowest faucet in your house. Water will trickle out of that faucet, but it won’t flow to the higher pipes in the house.
If your home has a water meter, you have two valves—one on each side of the meter. If one won’t close, try the other. Closing either of them will stop the flow.
If you have a hot water leak, you can stop the flow by turning off the valve at the water heater.
Emergency Tips From Our Field Editors
Backup water supply If your water supply shuts down, remember that your water heater holds enough drinking and cooking water to last several days. Let the water cool for a few hours before you open the drain valve at the bottom of the tank. —Tim Hossfeld, St. Charles, MO
Emergency drain If your basement is flooding, remove the basement toilet to create an instant, high-capacity floor drain. That will also let in nasty sewer gases, so don’t leave the drain unplugged any longer than necessary. —Jeramy Rath, Parker, CO
Bucket flush You don’t have to live without a toilet just because the water supply is off. If you have a pool or other water source, you can flush with a bucket. Pour about 3 gallons into the bowl (not the tank) to get a fine flush. —Dan Noar, Santa Rosa, CA
Don’t get locked in Garage door openers lock up when the power goes off. Make sure everyone in your home knows about the cord that releases the door from the opener. That way, they can lift the door open and get the car out in an emergency. —Mark Hinton, Clarion, IA