Handling Household Emergencies

Health, Home & Family
on May 3, 2009

We can't prevent emergencies, but preparation and a little know-how can keep a bad situation from becoming worse. Here's what to do in six common household emergencies.

Overflowing toilet. Turn the stop valve, located beneath the tank, clockwise to shut off the water supply. Bail out half of the water with a cup and bucket. Use a plunger to dislodge the clog.
Tip: Don't try to flush an overflowing toilet again. That will only make matters worse.

Clogged sink. Bail out water into a bucket. Pour a large pot of boiling water down the drain.
If this fails, position a plunger over the drain and push it down forcefully three times, repeating if necessary.
If the blockage is in the U-bend pipe beneath the sink, place a bucket underneath the bend and unscrew the U-bend. Carefully poke a piece of wire up the pipe until you free the clog.
Tip: Clean the drain once a month by pouring 1/2 cup of baking soda down the drain followed by a cup of vinegar. Let the mixture sit for a few minutes, then flush with hot water. This also deters sink odors.

Jammed garbage disposal. Often a disposal will automatically shut off if it senses an overload of power. Let it cool down for a few minutes, then push the reset button on the bottom of the unit. If it still doesn't work, turn off the power to the unit. Then, use a wooden spoon or broom handle to move the blades back and forth to dislodge the object. Never put your hand inside the unit.
Tip: Feed your disposal ice to sharpen the blades.

Grease or appliance fire. Never throw water on a grease fire or a burning appliance. For a grease fire, smothering the flames with a lid or a damp towel is the safest, fastest action. Baking soda also will douse flames. You also can use a fire extinguisher; make sure your extinguisher has an "ABC" rating, which means it is effective against most types of fires, including those involving wood, paper, fabric, flammable liquids and electrical equipment.

For an electrical fire, unplug the appliance, then use a fire extinguisher, or smother the appliance in a heavy blanket or rug.
Tip: Stand 6 feet from the flames when using a fire extinguisher.

Gas leak. If you smell a strong rotten-egg-like odor, get everyone out of the house immediately. Extinguish all fires, cigarettes and other open flames, and open as many windows as possible. Call the emergency service number of your utility company from a neighbor's house. If the odor is faint, check pilot lights to see if one has gone out. If so, wait for the gas smell to diminish, then relight. If you can't find the source of the odor, call for emergency service.
Tip: Make sure every gas appliance has an adequate supply of fresh air. Never use the space around a gas furnace or water heater for storage, because doing so can obstruct airflow.

Burst washing-machine hose. Turn off the water faucet connected to the hose behind the washing machine. Water conducts electricity, so if any appliance is standing in water, turn off electricity by flipping the main switch in your service box or pulling out the main fuse block. Or, have the power company turn off electricity coming into your home. Don't touch the wall or anything until the power is off. Move any furniture or rugs that could be damaged, then mop up the water or remove it with a wet-dry vacuum. If water has seeped into carpeted rooms, pull the carpet and pad back, then dry with a fan. Replace washing machine hose.
Tip: Prevent hoses from bending and kinking by placing your washing machine at least 4 inches from the wall.

Good preparation also includes posting a list of service phone numbers-electrician, plumber, utility companies-in an easy-to-find place. Include your street address and phone number so that anyone calling from your home can report important information in an emergency.