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Is Your Home Earthquake Proof?

Now you can get peace of mind at relatively little cost.

Posted: February 23, 2008 4:20 a.m.
Updated: April 25, 2008 5:02 a.m.

Below a secured hutch, Kristin Morris sets the table for, left to right, Michelle Stavich, Abbie Smith and Connor Morris.

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It's been years since we've experienced a major earthquake in the Santa Clarita Valley, and most of us have, thankfully, developed a sense of amnesia regarding the awful carnage, both physical and psychological, that such an event can bring.

However, the recent quakes in Mexico and Indonesia remind us that earthquakes are also a fact of life in Southern California, and the next Big One could strike at any time - which is why experts advise homeowners to make earthquake-proofing their homes as routine a part of home maintenance as sweeping their pool or shampooing their carpet.

According to Kevin Bartholomew, an earthquake loss-prevention professional, it pays to be prepared. By taking some simple, inexpensive steps to protect property and furniture from damage, homeowners can save a bundle of money in repair costs down the road.

"The replacement costs are thousands compared to the cost of securing an item, which is just pennies on the dollar," Bartholomew said.

Bartholomew's Company, Secure-It Fastening Services, is one of several that offer consulting services and products such as furniture brackets, glass guards, and sticky putty that help the average homeowner safeguard themselves and their valuables.

Flying glass and furniture are two of the biggest threats posed by earthquakes, which can unleash tremendous G-forces and cause even huge, weighty items such as refrigerators and china cabinets to jump across rooms.

"The larger it is, the more of an impact it will have," Bartholomew cautions. His company sells and installs specialty fasteners that securely and discreetly bind such items to walls, in order to keep them out of harm's way.

Maybe Not DIY
Though retail outlets such as Home Depot or Lowe's offer a selection of earthquake-protection products that homeowners can buy and install themselves, Bartholomew cautions that there can be a downside to the "do-it-yourself" mentality.

"Most people just get a handyman or go to a home improvement store and buy things that don't really work that well," he said. "Often the products aren't strong enough to withstand the G-forces that earthquakes can cause, and homeowners sometimes don't install them properly."

Bartholomew described how using incorrect restraints can actually harm, not help your furniture.

"Often the weak link is the way a product is attached to furniture using the wrong hardware, or attached in the wrong place, or in the wrong combination," he said. "I've seen people who have a 500-pound strap fastened to a piece of furniture with a cheap plastic buckle," he said. "Not only is that not good aesthetically, but it can rip apart furniture in the event of an earthquake. You want to avoid L-brackets, plastic, picture wire, and Velcro."

Instead of plastic, which will break at 68 pounds of pressure and can pull the finish off furniture, Bartholomew recommends two metal brackets attached to each item, both secured to a separate stud in the wall with an adjustable, detachable furniture strap that absorbs the stress between house and furniture.

"You need a 3 to 1 safety factor," he said. "If your furniture weights 200 pounds, we recommend a restraint that withstands 600 pounds of force. If you install it correctly, the furniture would have to dismantle itself to come down."

In fact, Bartholomew said he has one customer who recently experienced flooding in her house, which caused a lot of structural damage. However, the items he had secured for her stayed put, and even prevented further damage.

"When the fire department came out they said that some of the mirrors and artwork were so well hung that they helped the walls stay up, when everything else including the drywall crumbled," he said.

Attach the Armoire
Lynda Smith, another homeowner, recently decided to earthquake-proof her Saugus home after years of contemplating it. She said that keeping herself and her visiting grandkids safe was her number one motivation.

"I wanted to do it but kept putting it off and putting it off," Smith said. "Then I finally did it. The thing that scared me the most is if an earthquake happens at night, and the armoire tips over when the kids are on the bed."

In addition to having her armoires secured by Secure-It, she had her grandfather clock, china cabinet, and several other items fastened to the walls in the first part of a multi-phase project to improve the safety of her house.

"The things I did first are the big things, the things that are life-threatening," Smith said. "If stuff falls out of the kitchen cabinets, that's OK, it's not gonna kill you. You can buy new ones. But if an armoire falls on you it can kill you."

In future she plans to add other protections to her house, such as installing safety film on her glass windows, and putting latches on cabinet doors.

Protection from glass is an extremely vital component to earthquake-proofing a house, because flying glass is the number one cause of fatalities in earthquakes, according to the Red Cross. Bartholomew said that debris from glass windows and knick-knacks can also cause serious injuries and make it difficult to evacuate a house.

"You can't have people running through glass to get to their kids when they're in a panic," he said. "The number one thing is to make sure exits are clear."

Glass and Cabinets
Though new windows are required to be tempered, which means they may crack but not shatter in a quake, homeowners with older un-tempered windows can have them retro-fitted with protective film. John Cipres, whose company, Andrea's Fault, provides this service, advises that property owners take the extra step of installing it, because it could be a lifesaver.

"Sliding glass patio doors and oversize picture windows carry the most potential danger," he said. "The benefits from being ready and prepared are obvious. Don't wait - get it done now. It's cheap insurance, and it's only a one-time thing." Cipres said that the cost of coating a window usually ranges from $149 to $179, depending on the size.

Cipres added that older shower doors are also a liability in a quake. However, instead of covering them with film, they should be replaced with new tempered ones either by a professional, or by the homeowner, if he or she is comfortable with DIY projects.

To prevent breakable items from falling out of cabinets, homeowners should use latches specifically designed for earthquake protection. Bartholomew recommends latches made specifically for earthquake protection, and not child-proof latches, which are different. "With earthquake latches you don't have to deal with the whole unfastening routine," he said. "And the customer can control the tension."

Another step is to secure items on shelves and inside cabinets using waxes and adhesives. Bartholomew said that wax or putty is appropriate for smaller items like vases and picture frames, while adhesives can attach things like flat-screen TVs to a shelf or wall.

For wall-hung art, installing safety hooks attached to a stud can keep it from jumping off the wall and possibly injuring you when a quake hits. The hooks have a special S-shaped design that prevents the picture wire from dislodging from the hook.

However, he cautions people to choose their products wisely. "There are a ton of imitations, but you want to stay with manufacturers who know what they're doing, like 3M for adhesives," he said. "Go high-quality and do it right."

Bartholomew also urges homeowners not to forget to protect areas such as home offices and garages.

"In a garage, you should try to put things in bins or plastic boxes, then secure them with a net or bar," he said, noting that his company can make custom versions of these items for clients. For computer equipment, he suggested braces and fasteners that cost as little as $20, which is nothing compared to replacement costs, which could run into the thousands. Not to mention to hassle and inconvenience of losing photos, documents and financial data that many people store on their PCs and laptops.

Though experienced DIY-ers may be able to install such items themselves, Bartholomew says there is really no downside to hiring an expert like himself.

"You can install items yourself, but you risk making mistakes like hitting plumbing or wiring when you drill into a wall," he said. "It's kinda dangerous to do that. Companies like mine are not more expensive than going to Home Depot."

Water Heaters/Gas Lines
Another area where it's best to bring in an expert is for making more technical modifications to your home, such as bracing your water heater or installing an automatic seismic shut-off valve on your gas line.

Though homes in the SCV are only required to be retrofitted with gas shut-off valves if they are being sold or are undergoing permitted remodeling, Cipres highly recommends that people voluntarily install them. He has seen first-hand the destruction caused by fires resulting from broken gas lines, and knows that it provides peace of mind.

"Lots of properties burned in Santa Clarita after the 1994 quake because they didn't have them," he said. "They make sense because they take the guesswork out of 'should I shut it off or shouldn't I shut it off.' The old gas company valves are very hard to turn, and sometimes haven't been turned in years. If there's a quake, you don't want to have to run around and try to find a wrench in the dark."

The device, which automatically shuts off the gas in the event of magnitude 5.4 quake or higher, takes about 45 minutes to install and costs around $300. It can only be installed by a licensed professional.

Water heater bracing is also voluntary, but is recommended for the same reasons, according to Cipres. The tremendous weight of a water heater laden with 40-50 gallons of water poses great danger during a quake, because it could tear away from the wall and cause the gas line or the water line to break, or both.

Proper bracing costs about $95 and involves installing a high and a low strap, with a nut and bolt in front that allows the braces to be re-used even if the water heater is replaced.

Cipres said that although there is a small cost involved in upgrading your home to make it earthquake-proof, the peace of mind you gain is priceless.

"Once you get it done, you can rest assured that everything inside is safe and it's handled," he said.
For more information call Secure-It Fastening Services at (888) 679-7233 or visit www.secureitconsultants.com. You can call Andrea's Fault at (800) 794-0396 or visit www.andreasfault.net.

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