Angie's LIST Guide to
Home Water Supply
Finding the shut-off valve
If your home is supplied by municipal water, the water meter and main shutoff valve are often located in an underground metal hatch near the street or along an easement between properties, so walk along your property line and look for a metal lid (like a small manhole cover) marked "water meter" or just "water."
You can usually remove the water meter hatch cover by unscrewing a single bolt. Underneath, you'll find a rotating valve similar to an outdoor spigot, or a valve with a metal flange. The latter may require a pipe wrench to operate. In either case, turn the valve until it stops to shut down the water supply.
You may also find a primary water shutoff valve inside your house in the basement or crawlspace. This would be near the spot where the main water line enters your house.
Be careful about testing this, however. The water heater and some other water-using appliances might be adversely affected by an unexpected disruption in the water supply. When there's time to do so, it's usually best to first shut off the water intake valves of those appliances before shutting off the main valve. Check your owner manuals on these devices and take appropriate steps before testing your main shutoff valve.
Throughout your house, you'll find additional shutoff valves for many individual plumbing fixtures such as dishwashers, faucets, water heaters and toilets. Some are clearly visible like those near the base of a toilet or pedestal sink. Kitchen sinks, dishwashers and cabinet-mounted sinks may have their shutoff valves obscured behind cabinet doors.
Finally, shutoff valves to flush-mounted fixtures, such as those in a shower or bathtub, may be located behind drywall and/or access panels.
If you're supplied by municipal water and have trouble locating or operating your home's main water shutoff valve, your local water utility may be able to help. If you're on well water or have trouble with individual water shutoff valves, having a licensed local plumber may offer a solution.
Homeowners sometimes experience low pressure problems when they're using water in several ways simultaneously (like taking a shower while running the washing machine and watering the lawn). But when low pressure occurs without an apparent reason, the cause may be with the water supply itself.
Water pressure is measured in pounds per square inch (psi) and the normal range for household plumbing is between 50 and 80 psi. This is why water companies traditionally use water towers – because gravity is the simplest way to create water pressure.
Homes with low water pressure may exhibit signs such as low water flow in showers and faucets, as well as appliances such as dishwashers and/or water heaters taking excessive amounts of time to finish their cycles. Sources of low water pressure can originate at the main water line or within the home’s water supply plumbing itself.
Although low water pressure is a more common problem, it’s also important that the pressure not be too high. High pressure can damage appliances and even cause injuries. Tales of burst pipes and even "exploding toilets" often have their origins in high pressure problems.
Reading a water meter
Although the water meter at your house records the precise amount of water you used, your local water company may be estimating your usage, either because its staff of meter readers can't get to every house every month, or because the meter at your house is too difficult to access.
You may want to verify that your monthly water bill is accurately reflects your usage -- especially if you have recently implemented water-conserving appliances or devices in your home. The water company's estimate may be based on your past patterns, not your current usage.
Newer homes generally have either an “odometer” style (bottom) or digital meter, while older homes may have “multi-dial” (top) meter. For odometer-style and digital meters, the number displayed indicates the total number of cubic feet of water (about 7.5 gallons each) your home has received since it was first connected to city water.
The dial-style meter displays the same number, just differently. Add each dial's indicated total, from the highest multiplier to the lowest, to arrive at your home's total amount of water received.
Most utilities bill water users in 100-cubic-feet units, so round to that and calculate your usage by subtracting your last meter reading from the current readout. Do this for two months and compare to the usage amount cited your water bill. If your number is significantly lower you may be overpaying on your water bill.
Get an accurate water bill
If you think the water company's estimate is higher than your actual usage you can get a credit on a future bill. Here's what to do:
Contact your water company to determine why it was estimated. Ask for an actual reading the next month.
Is your meter obstructed or otherwise difficult to get to? If so, clear the way.
If you have a big or aggressive dog, keep it away from the path the meter reader needs to take.