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VALLEY PERSPECTIVE

Homeowners Need to Take Own Quake Safety Measures

Council approval of gas shut-off valves sets good example

March 09, 1997

In the first confusing minutes after a big earthquake, homeowners head almost instinctively to shut off gas lines and reduce the risk of fire. But what if, unlike the early morning Northridge earthquake, a temblor hits when no one is home? Late last month, the Los Angeles City Council approved a common sense law requiring home buyers to install valves that automatically seal gas pipes during heavy shaking.

Although no single measure can stamp out the risk of quake-induced fires, the gas valve requirement provides a good start to improving overall safety in a city where occasional shaking is a fact of life. The law, which was introduced by Councilman Hal Bernson and still must receive final approval from the council and Mayor Richard Riordan, requires home buyers to install the valves within a year after escrow closes. The law also requires the shut-off valves to be installed in apartment and condominium complexes with more than five units.

Real estate agents argued that the cost of the valves--about $350 installed--would burden purchasers and slow home sales. And some members of the City Council complained about the impact the requirement might have on low- and moderate-income home buyers. Although we dispute that such a small cost with such big potential savings will have any effect at all on home sales, the City Council nonetheless approved waiving $47 permit fees and agreed to support state and federal legislation that would provide tax breaks to homeowners who install the valves.

City officials estimate the requirement will affect about 10,000 buildings a year. At that rate, it would take decades to outfit the entire city. Even so, the City Council is reluctant to make the valves mandatory on all homes out of fear that owners would object. Regardless of whether they are required, the valves make sense as part of a larger plan to protect the largest investment most people have.

Many of the valves on the market now can be reset with a screwdriver or coin. And, unlike earlier models, newer valves shut off gas flow only during the kind of violent shaking that accompanies a magnitude 5 or greater quake.

Seismic safety experts agree that the valves can help prevent the kind of devastating fires that swept through Kobe, Japan, after that city's 1995 earthquake. One study suggests that a Southern California earthquake during high winds could have disastrous results, with fire losses alone reaching as high as $70 billion. Compare that to the $25 billion in total damage caused by the Northridge quake. True, only about half of the 51 gas-related fires after that quake would have been prevented by shut-off valves. The rest were caused by movement of unstrapped water heaters rupturing connections.

That's where careful, individual planning comes in. A sensible home safety plan never hinges on a single element. But a combination of simple precautions can better prepare homes for inevitable quakes. For instance, strap down water heaters. Secure foundations. Brace masonry. And even if they are not required, gas shut-off valves should be part of any smart safety plan.

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