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Confusion About Water Heater Straps

May 30, 1999|BARRY STONE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Question: Why is there so much confusion about earthquake straps for water heaters? No one seems to agree on what's required. As Realtors, we need to comply with applicable laws while meeting the needs of our clients, but we get differing answers from plumbers, home inspectors and building departments.

Some say two straps are needed; others say one is sufficient. Some say plumber's tape is OK; others insist it's inadequate. Some say the straps should wrap all the way around the tank; others say this is not necessary. Some even maintain that electric water heaters need no straps at all.

How do we get to the bottom line on earthquake straps?

Answer: Since 1982, the Uniform Plumbing Code has mandated seismic safety straps for most water heaters. The purpose of this requirement is to prevent fire, explosion or water damage if a water heater should topple during an earthquake.

Originally, the code merely stated that water heaters "shall be anchored or strapped to resist horizontal displacement due to earthquake motion." But no installation standards were included with this code. Types of hardware and methods of attachment were left to the discretion of the installer.

In the 1990s, strapping requirements were upgraded. According to the newer code, "strapping shall be at points within the upper one-third and lower one-third" of the water heater. To date, this is all the plumbing code has to offer on the subject.

Two straps are required, but there are still no specifications as to techniques and materials to be employed.

However, the plumbing code, as it relates to water heater strapping, has been superseded by higher standards set forth by the California Health and Safety Code.

In 1989, the state Legislature established the following health and safety standards: (1) All water heaters sold in California shall be braced. (2) Manufacturers of water heaters must provide installation instructions for seismic straps with each fixture sold. (3) The office of the state architect must prepare generic installation instructions with standard details illustrating minimum standards for earthquake strapping.

The state architect's specifications, published in 1992, stand as the legal criteria for adequate strapping of water heaters in California.

Basically, the effective standards are these:

(1) All water heaters must be strapped, whether gas or electric.

(2) Two straps are needed, one in the upper one-third and one in the lower one-third of the fixture.

(3) Straps may consist of either plumber's tape (at least 24 gauge) or half-inch-diameter metal conduit.

(4) Straps should wrap all the way around the body of the water heater. (Many of the strapping kits available in hardware stores fail to comply with this requirement.)

(5) Straps should be secured to adjacent walls and from opposing directions.

(6) Straps should be secured to the wall studs using lag bolts that are a quarter inch in diameter by 3 inches long.

To obtain an illustrated copy of these standards, contact the State and Consumers Services Agency at (916) 653-3817. Ask for a copy of "Earthquake Bracing of Water Heaters for Residential Use."

Cigarette Smell Can Be Traced to Next Door Condo

Q: The condo I just purchased has been professionally inspected, and one of my main concerns has been the odor of cigarette smoke. The sellers didn't smoke, so the smell must be coming from the smoker who lives next door. My home inspector looked for openings in the walls but didn't seem to find any. Do you have any suggestions as to how the smoke is getting into my unit?

A: The common walls that separate condos are typically sealed and insulated for noise reduction. Therefore, the passage of air from one unit to another is most unusual. To determine the path by which your neighbor's exhaust is intruding into your air space, let's commence a simple process of elimination.

First, try sealing any possible openings that may exist in the common walls between your home and your neighbor's.

Install weather seals at all of the electric outlets and switches on the adjoining walls. These can be purchased, rather inexpensively, at most hardware stores.

Next, apply a seam of caulk where the baseboards meet the subfloor surfaces. To do this properly, you will need to roll back the carpet. If smoke persists after these preventive measures, your next step is to climb onto the roof.

An area of potential smoke entry could involve the chimney terminations above the building.

With many condos, fireplaces in adjoining living units are installed back to back, with the chimneys emerging at the roof in pairs. If the chimney tops are too close together, cigarette smoke in your neighbor's chimney could be blown down your chimney on windy days. A height extension of one or the other chimney could eliminate this possibility.

A third location of possible smoke transmission is the attic. Two construction defects commonly found in condos may jointly enable the transmission of smoke from one unit to another, via the attic.

First of these is the failure to install separation walls between the attic spaces of the respective living units.

Second is venting of bathroom exhaust fans into the attic, rather than to the exterior of the building.

When both defects occur in the same building, the attic becomes an avenue of air circulation between dwellings and could enable smoke from one home to penetrate into another.

If this condition exists in your building, the solution would be to install partition walls in the attic and to vent the exhaust fans through the roof, as required by code.

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Got a question about any aspect of the home inspection? Send it to Barry Stone, Los Angeles Times, 540 Atascadero Road, Morro Bay, CA 93442. Or visit Stone's Web site: http://www.housedetective.com. All questions will be considered for use but cannot be answered individually.

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