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Valve Shuts Off Natural Gas in Strong Earthquake


Geologists predict that Los Angeles will be wracked by a major earthquake along the San Andreas fault within the next several decades, but this ominous forecast seems to evoke little reaction among Southern Californians.

Against this blase attitude, two Anaheim businessmen are battling to sell an earthquake-activated, automatic gas shut-off valve that they claim will prevent fires resulting from ruptured gas lines in an earthquake.

Edward Seay and David Ritchie founded Quakemaster Inc. to produce and market the Quakemaster valve, the only such automatic gas shut-off valve certified by the state of California.

So far, the small firm has sold only several hundred of the $250 valves, and consumers don't seem to be breaking down the company doors to get the product. But Seay remains optimistic that as word of the device spreads, the market will grow.

"Most people don't even know something like this exists," Seay says. "It's like a croissant--everybody knows what a croissant is, but five years ago only the French knew."

The Quakemaster valve is designed to be triggered when the earth moves at 5.0 to 5.5 on the Richter scale, which Seay says is strong enough to rupture gas lines.

The state certification of the Quakemaster means that it passed tests to ensure that it does not leak gas and that it will not be triggered by minor vibrations, such as passing trucks, according to Clarence Cullimore, senior architect in the California Office of State Architect.

The aluminum-alloy device shuts off gas flow when one of three internal balls resting on a circular race is sufficiently disturbed by an earth movement to pop over a hump on the race and drop into a socket.

(A plunger on the valve body reseats the ball on its race to restore gas flow. The user would then have to relight the pilots on any gas appliances or heaters.)

Although the product is promoted as safety device, not everybody enthusiastically endorses the concept of the valves, especially large gas utilities around the state.

"We recommend against it," says Richard Puz, a spokesman for the Southern California Gas Co. "The reason is that in our own experience, these things can be triggered by much less than an earthquake and needlessly shut off gas service. That will require a service call from us to restore gas service" and relight the pilots.

Puz also says that Southern California Gas believes "there is no conclusive evidence to support the claim by earthquake valve manufacturers" that ruptured gas lines are a cause of residential fires in earthquakes.

"Data gathered from previous California earthquakes show that no major fires or loss of life have resulted from customer-owned gas pipes rupturing during an earthquake," according to a statement by the company.

But Quakemaster disputes that assessment, citing an academic paper by Samuel Aroni, a professor of architecture at UCLA.

In the paper, Aroni reports that 26 structure fires were reported to the Los Angeles Fire Department within two hours after the Feb. 9, 1971, Simi Valley earthquake, and about a dozen fires due to gas leaks were reported in the Newhall-Saugus area. Many of these occurred when water heaters and furnaces tipped over. Among Aroni's recommendations was the installation in private homes of earthquake-activated gas shut-off valves.

The Quakemaster is sold through plumbing contractors or directly by the Anaheim-based company.

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