Pressure Leaks (exterior)
Water leaks outside are generally less serious from the standpoint of damage, although they too should be handled swiftly simply because water is a precious commodity. Most exterior water leaks are underground in nature and involve the cold water supply to the home or irrigation lines. It is very common for the main water supply to the house to develop leaks after many decades underground, especially if it galvanized steel.
Example: water is running down sidewalk or there is a small lake in the front yard
Action: If you have determined that it is a water service leak, call a plumber or your water utility provider to shut off the main water supply. Or you can do it yourself.
Result: cold and hot water will slow and eventually stop. This will stop the flow of water to all plumbing fixtures, irrigation and hose bibs.
To determine a main water service leak, go to the water meter and lift the cement cover, then flip up the meter cover to reveal a counter or series of dials. Most modern meters have a red triangle that readily spins when water is flowing through it. Is the triangle spinning? To verify that it is the underground portion of pipe and not something else such as a running faucet or toilet in the house, turn the main house gate valve clockwise, until fully closed or 1/4 turn if it a ball valve. You can verify that the water if off by opening an exterior hose bib; you will no longer have water pressure to it. You have therefore isolated the house piping from the underground water supply piping. If after shutting off the house valve the red triangle at the meter is still spinning, then indeed you have an underground water service leak between the meter and the house valve.
A special tool called a meter key is required to shut off the water supply at the meter. Your plumber or utility provider will have one. A kindly plumber will sometimes let you borrow one. (we have been known to do this). It can also be purchased at your local hardware or plumbing supplier.
If you have decided to shut down the complete water system; you might want to consider filling a bathtub full of water or gallon jugs of water for drinking and flushing of toilets prior to shutting down the system at the meter. Another water conserving strategy is to use the meter key to turn the water off for the evening, turn it on for a short while in the morning to prepare for work and then off again when no one will be home. This can buy you some time to get estimates for repair or replacement of the line, while minimizing usage and inconvenience.
By the way, most utility companies will be lenient in their assessment of fees if you let them know that you are intending to make the repairs in a timely fashion. This is especially important when the only indication of a leak is revealed through an extraordinarily high water bill.
In a future article I will discuss automating the process of leak detection and water shutdown with some pretty nifty electrically operated devices with battery back-ups. In the meantime, stay safe.