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HOME SAFETY : Basics Completed in Quake-Proofing Project

Third in a Series. This is the third of three stories about preparing a home to better ride out an earthquake. The first part, deciding what needed to be done, was published Feb. 26. The second part, detailing how to do a variety of tasks and what each cost, was published March 12. The Times' March 13 Real Estate section examined in detail the process of fastening a house to its foundation.


If the aftershock that rocked the San Fernando Valley last Sunday had made itself felt around my house, I'd have learned right away how successful my efforts have been to make it quake-safe.

As it was, when I read about the 5.3 magnitude quake on Monday morning, I almost felt left out.

For the past few weekends I've been working to make our house better able to ride out a shaker. While Sunday's aftershock to the Jan. 17 Northridge earthquake didn't give me a chance to see how well I've done--for which I'm actually quite thankful--it did reinforce my doing it.

The earth will keep moving in Southern California, and sooner or later it will move enough to rock and roll Orange County.

After years of feeling somehow above it all, I decided it would be better to be safe than lying under a toppled bookcase wondering why I hadn't bothered to bolt the silly thing down when I had the chance.

Earlier I wrote about the things I'd done--securing knickknacks, adding latches to cabinets, securing boxes on shelves, attaching a tall cabinet to the wall, protecting the china and securing the refrigerator and home computer.

I have a few long-range jobs still to get to, but I finished the basic battening down last week, trimming tree branches away from phone lines to reduce the chance of losing telephone service, securing the water heater and double-checking that other safety preparations were up-to-date.

Reviewing my list of projects, I find that it hasn't been that difficult, or expensive, to increase the chances that our household will weather a big temblor without injury to the people inside or damage to some of the more significant of our possessions.

Here's how things went on my most recent efforts:

Job: Fastening Water Heater

Fastening the water heater took about an hour, $8.46 worth of material and involved several skinned knuckles and a scorched forearm.

I installed steel strapping that encircles the water heater to keep it from toppling. I used straps at the top and bottom of the heater, cut from 10-foot lengths of 22-gauge strap that is typically found in the lumber section of home improvement stores (Simpson Strong Tie is the brand most lumber yards and home stores carry). Each strap is made of two pieces fastened together with bolts and wing nuts at the front of the heater. That makes it possible to unfasten each strap and remove the water heater without unbolting the straps from the wall.

You'll need a pair of tin snips to cut steel strap, a power drill and assorted bits for pilot holes for the screws that fasten the straps to the wall and the appropriate screwdrivers or screwdriver bits for the power drill.

The benefit, in addition to keeping the heater from spilling 30 or 40 gallons of hot water, is that it helps protect against the gas line ripping loose and igniting a fire.

The drawback is that unfastening the straps is one more thing you've got to do when the heater goes bad and needs to be replaced.

If your heater is in a tight space, you might want to mark the position of the straps where they will be fastened to the wall studs, then remove the heater, install the straps to the wall and replace the heater; otherwise it's difficult working around the heater.

Don't anchor the straps to drywall or plaster with hollow wall fasteners--there's not enough strength to hold several hundred pounds of bouncing water heater. Always screw directly into the studs. If they aren't conveniently located (and they weren't in my cabinet), attach a 2-by-3 or larger board horizontally across the wall studs in the heater cabinet wall and then fasten the straps to it in order to have a solid platform to anchor them to.

And remember, the hot water line leading out of the heater is hot enough to raise blisters on unprotected knuckles and forearms.

Job: Tree Trimming

The tree trimming was relatively easy--a tall pruning pole with a saw blade attachment allowed me to stand firmly on the ground under our front yard shade tree and remove several offending branches that had grown into the path of the phone lines. I cleared a path through the head of the tree so the lines won't be in danger of being torn down by branches whipping back and forth in the shock of a quake.

Job: Attach Foundation

The big chore remaining is to fasten the 68-year-old house to its foundation. My house has about 180 linear feet of mudsill to secure to the raised foundation--a job that would entail renting a powerful masonry drill and spending an uncomfortable day or two flat on my back in the three-foot crawl space under the house. I'm estimating the do-it-myself cost at $400. It will probably zoom to $2,000 or so if I hire a contractor to do the work.

Building codes since the 1933 Long Beach earthquake have required houses to be bolted down, so unless your abode predates that shaker, and not that many in Orange County do, this isn't a job you will have to worry about.

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