FIRST AID FOR
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All of us in the home service business know that there's no such thing as a non-emergency call. To a home owner with no heat in winter, no air conditioning in summer, a stopped-up toilet, broken pipes, no hot water or an unwanted wading pool in the basement, it is always an EMERGENCY!!! Especially when the breakdown occurs at exactly the wrong time. As it always does.
That's why progressive service contractors emphasize speed of service. It's our goal to get to every customer within one hour of receiving their call. Unfortunately, that's not always possible, and not every service firm even tries very hard to get there fast. So like soldiers on a battlefield, all home owners need to know some elementary first aid to stop the bleeding and stabilize the wounded until more thorough help can arrive. Here are some of the things you can do in case of...
- Furnace or boiler failure. Is there any experience more chilling than waking up in the middle of winter and seeing your breath? (Forgive the pun, please.) Besides being cold, it usually costs more to get a service technician out in the middle of the night. Also, repairs can often take a day or two, which puts your pipes in jeopardy of freezing.
There are a couple of things you can do that might forestall the need for a service call. First, check to see if the heating system's electrical switch is in the on position. This looks just like a light switch and can usually be found somewhere in the vicinity of the boiler or furnace. Next check the fuse or circuit breaker to the heating system's electrical line. If the fuse is blown, replace it, or else flick the circuit breaker back to the on position.
Once you're assured that the power is on, check the thermostat to make sure nobody turned the dial way down. If it's a programmable unit, make sure the thermostat is programmed correctly. Finally, take a look outside to make sure there's not a general power outage in your neighborhood.
If none of these electrical flukes bear out, you have a more serious problem. Then call a professional. If you're lucky, a service technician will be out there before too many hours pass. Sometimes, though, it may take a day or two to fix your system. Depending on how severe the weather is, you need to decide whether to seek other shelter or tough it out with extra blankets and space heaters. Whatever you do, don't try to generate heat by turning on your cooking stove. Appliances are not intended for space heating and are dangerous when used for that purpose.
- Frozen pipes. Water pipes can burst from a household accident, long-term corrosion or, most commonly, freezing. Most freezes occur in crawl spaces or areas such as exterior walls or basements, where cold air enters through cracks. Even though the room temperature might be well above freezing, a constant thin stream of cold air is all it takes to freeze a pipe.
The first damage control step you need to take is to turn off the water shutoff valve leading into the house. Usually this is located near a wall where the municipal water line enters your house.
Next time you use a plumber, ask him to hang tags on your household lines to identify water and gas shutoffs. Some progressive service firms do this without being asked, but most do not.
- Gas leaks . Water leaks are a nuisance. Gas leaks can be deadly. Here is where marked shutoff valves can be of critical importance.
A faint gas odor may indicate nothing more than a burned out pilot light to an appliance. Check the water heater or any other appliances in the vicinity to see if the pilot is out. (An absence of hot water is another big hint.)
A more powerful odor spells big danger. Turn off the shutoff valve by the gas meter to your house. Turn off all appliances, open windows and vacate the house before you call for service.
The most common cause of a major gas leak is knocking open a gas valve, or even damaging the pipe, while moving furniture. Be careful.
- Overflowing toilet. Naturally, you want to have a plunger handy to remove any clogs caused by toilet paper or other lightweight debris. If you can't stop the water from flowing, it probably indicates a stuck outlet valve. Lift the lid off the toilet tank and check to see why the tank ball or plug is not covering the round opening at the bottom of the tank. Push the ball or plug into the opening.
If the plug won't move, don't force it. Lifting the float arm will shut off the flow. Stretch a ruler or other long object across the top of the tank and position the lfoat arm across it to keep it up in place. Then call the plumber.
If none of this works, turn off the shutoff valve to the toilet. Its handle usually is located either behind the tank or underneath it.