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The Most Common Household Emergencies And What To Do

  • 10 min read

According to disaster experts, nine out of 10 people either panic or freeze during an emergency.  For most household emergencies, the quicker you respond the less damage to your home.

To make sure you’re ready for anything, Brights Hardware, a chain of family owned hardware stores in the Western Cape, gives the following guidance on the most common household emergencies and the steps you should take to tackle these disasters head on.

“When a home emergency hits, time is of the essence.  The faster you respond, hopefully the less damage to your home – with less cost to subsequently repair this damage,” says Orlando Luis, CEO of Brights, who also adds that household emergencies don’t always keep working hours. “Being prepared for what could happen – and knowing what to do initially can make a huge difference.”

Brights recommends that you keep a list of emergency contact numbers on the fridge door and maybe even procedures to follow in event of a household emergency.  “Examples of numbers to have here are the fire department, a local plumber, electrician, and handyman as well as your insurance company.  It’s also good to have the number of a certified gas technician and a glass repair service.”
Kitchen Fire

“More than any other emergency, fire makes people panic,” warns Luis. “But armed with a few basic rules, you’ll reduce the panic and respond effectively.

“If your toaster is burning, unplug the cord and use a fire extinguisher or pour baking soda into the toaster.  For a small grease fire, try smothering it with baking soda or salt, or sliding a metal lid over the pan and turning off the stove.   Don’t use water to put out a grease fire. It can splash the burning grease and cause burns and never carry a burning pan outside. It can cause a full-scale house fire if burning grease spills and sets something else on fire.  For an oven fire, keep the door closed and turn off the oven. If there is still a fire use a fire extinguisher to put it out.”

Some tips to keep safe include unplugging small appliances when not in use, skip hand-me-down and second hand appliances that may have faults due to age and make a point of inspecting wires and plugs to check that nothing is broken or frayed.

MUST-HAVE ITEMS:  A fire extinguisher that is easily accessible in the kitchen area.  Make sure you have your fire extinguisher serviced regularly. A 1m x 1m Fire Blanket with holder can also be mounted in the kitchen or workshop to wrap over someone that has flames on their body.

Power failure or tripping earth leakage

Being left in the dark can be more than annoying and it’s easy to trip and fall over something you can’t see. 

“If the earth leakage in your home is tripping then unplug all appliances and devices and see if the earth leakage stays up.  If so, start plugging in the appliances and devices one by one and wait a few seconds to see if they trip the earth leakage again.  Continue this procedure until you find the defective device that causes it to trip, then keep that device unplugged and send it in for repair.”

If you cannot identify what is causing the problem then call a qualified electrician immediately and never attempt to work on or repair electrical problems yourself!” warns Luis.

If a power failure is caused by something outside of your control, like extreme weather conditions or an ESKOM power cut, then there is little that you can do but wait it out.  “If possible opt for battery powered or solar LED lighting and don’t use candles as these pose a fire hazard should they be knocked over,” warns Luis. 

MUST-HAVE ITEMS:  Solar or battery powered LED emergency lighting; surge protector.

Blocked toilet, pipe, or drain

Luis says that if your kitchen or bathroom drains, or a toilet, become blocked then the first thing you can do to rectify the situation is to pull the materials causing the blockage out.  “A good old-fashioned wire coat hanger – the kind you get from the dry cleaners are ideal for this job.  If this does not work, then try using a drain plunger to force the blockage out.”

“A third option is to pour a caustic soda mixture down the drain. However, work carefully with caustic soda and follow the instructions on the packaging.  Always have work gloves available when working this these chemicals.”

“A blocked toilet often needs to be flushed with a large bucket of water poured straight into the bowl. There is also normally an inspection screw-off cap on the elbow behind the toilet pan that can be opened to remove obstructions.  If none of these yields results, then the best thing to do is to call a plumber to come and do the job for you.”

MUST HAVE ITEMS:  Toilet plunger, wire coat hanger and caustic soda.

Broken or burst geyser

A geyser has a limited lifespan and so the chances are that if yours is acting up, it might be time to get a new one.  Alternatively, it could just be the thermostat that needs replacing.  Even worse than a geyser playing up is one that bursts unexpectedly and pours water into your ceiling and possibly the room below.

“If you need a new geyser – whether in an emergency or planned – then the first call you make should be to your insurance company who will guide you on the procedures to follow and which approved plumber to contact,” advises Luis. “While you are waiting for their arrival, turn the water supply off at the mains outside the house. If the geyser has burst and water is running into your home, try and minimise damage by placing buckets and towels where possible to capture the overflow.”

MUST HAVE ITEMS:  Ensure that you have an overflow or drip tray installed under your geyser which helps to channel away a lot of the water from a burst or leaking geyser.  Geysers also have temperature and pressure safety valves that have outlets that should also be relayed into the drip tray as they can also damage the ceiling when they detect a problem in the geyser.

“Homeowners should check their gutters to make sure they are not blocked with leaves and sand,” says Luis.  “Guttering systems can generally degrade and perish in our harsh African sun and it is a good idea to get yours checked out before the rainy season arrives.”

Damaged roof, gutter, or downpipe

“When the winter storms hit, high winds can cause damage to your roof and because these winds are usually accompanied by rain, you have to act fast to minimize water damage.  For larger damage, the fastest solution is a sheet of plastic which can be secured over the damaged area until the storm passes and you can repair the roof.”

According to Luis, most roof leaks can be repaired quickly and inexpensively depending on the source of the problem and how much you want to spend – nearly every leak can be plugged or patched in a matter of minutes. 

MUST HAVE ITEMS:  For quick repairs of gutters have Powermatic available at home.  For quick roof repairs have a 5litre Duram Fibretech handy that is the same colour as your roof – you just paint it over cracks and leaks and it has the properties to seal it.
A ladder to access the roof and gutters is also essential.  “However it must be noted that falling off a ladder is one of the most common DIY-related reasons for emergency room visits so please be careful!” says Luis.

Broken glass in a door or window

If you have a broken door or windowpane then you need to get it fixed ASAP for obvious reasons.  Luis advises that one solution for the DIY adept is to measure the broken windowpane and order a piece of replacement glass which you can then fit yourself

“Alternatively, one can call a glass fitting professional to come and replace the broken glass as quickly as possible.”

MUST HAVE ITEMS: “Keep a piece of hardboard or plywood with some panel pins in the garage for this type of emergency, which you can use to temporarily cover the affected area while you await for the replacement glass to be ordered and inserted. The board can be easily cut to size to close the opening if it is raining till you get the glass panel replaced,” says Luis.  “If you’re replacing the glass yourself remember to wear suitable safety gloves to protect your hands from cuts when taking out the broken glass.”

Gas leak

More and more South Africans are using gas ovens, stoves, geysers, and heaters. However, gas leaks can be dangerous.

If you smell gas or suspect there is a gas leak, make sure you do the following:

  • Don’t smoke or light any matches
  • Don’t turn anything electrical on or off
  • Open all the doors and windows to air out the room
  • Turn off the gas supply at the bottle
  • Contact a licensed gas fitter to come and detect and repair the leak urgently.

MUST HAVE ITEMS:  A gas leak detector can be installed in the home.  This device   notifies you if there are any hazardous gas leaks, oxygen depletion or other emissions in the area.

“You can also install gas safety gauges that are connected in line to your gas cylinder and which shut off the gas if they detect a leak. It you are still unsure that it is sealed properly then take some dishwashing liquid mixed with water in a cup and brush the soapy liquid over the gas connections and you will notice the bubbles if there are gas leaks.”

Water leak

“Water leaks in household pipes can cause a huge amount of damage if not repaired speedily. If you find or suspect a water leak, the first thing to do is turn off the water at the outside mains to minimise the damage to your home while you repair the leak.”

“If you are lucky, the leak will be in an exposed pipe and an easy repair,” says Luis.  “Worst case scenario the leak may be inside a wall or under the floor, which then obviously requires far more technical expertise to find and repair, and you may need to bring in a professional plumber.”

MUST-HAVE ITEMS:  A moisture meter can detect moisture in a wall or floor.  Luis says that the handiest product to have at home is the standard Pratley Putty or Alcolin Aquamen epoxy that can even set under water. Other important products for emergency repairs around the home would be good quality Nitto insulation tape or self valcanizing tape that bonds to itself, duct tape and teflon thread tape.

Leaking tap or shower head

“If there’s a fountain of water coming out of your tap or showerhead, turn the water off at the mains before going any further,” says Luis.

“Some people may feel adept enough to try replacing the shower head or tap themselves but if you are unsure then rather call a plumber to come and do it for you.”

MUST HAVE ITEMS:  Plumbers thread tape, a good quality adjustable spanner, water pump pliers, a shifting spanner and a hacksaw with a 24 tooth blade.

“All of our Brights Hardware stores have on-site experts that can provide you with advice and guidance on what you need in the face of any of these household emergencies.  We have stores in Boston, Blackheath, Langebaan, Mitchells Plain, Montague Park, Plattekloof, Uitzicht and Brackengate,” concludes Luis.