Proper Seismic Bracing of a Water Heater

Excerpt from my regular column in the Santa Barbara News-Press.

Proper Seismic Bracing of a Water Heater

Question: I recently read an article about preparing your home for an earthquake and it mentioned that improperly braced water heaters are a leading cause of house fires that are started as a result of a major earthquake. Our water heater is in a closet inside our house and it doesn’t seem to have any sort of bracing at all. Can you explain what I can do to make our water heater more earth quake safe?

Your Handyman: The article that you read is correct and an un-braced or incorrectly braced water heater does pose a significant fire threat to your home in the event of a moderate to severe earthquake. Correctly bracing a water heater is actually a fairly simple thing to do but I regularly see water heaters that have been installed by both contractors and home owners that are not correctly braced.

If a water heater is knocked over during an earthquake, the natural gas supply line or the 220 volt electrical wiring could be ripped out of the wall by the weight of the falling tank, and a fire could possibly start if the gas or electrical service is not quickly shut off. If the gas and electrical connection lines are rigid and not flexible connections, then they may be cracked or damaged during an earthquake and even if the tank doesn’t tip over a fire hazard can occur from a gas leak.

Seismic bracing straps for a water heater can be purchased at most any hardware or plumbing store and detailed instructions will be included for a correct installation. The kit will have 2 pairs of heavy metal adjustable straps, and one strap needs to be located at the top 1/3 of the tank and the second strap needs to be at the bottom 1/3 of the tank. Each strap needs to have both ends lag screwed into the wall studs and then connected across the front of the tank with brackets that can be tightened together by turning a threaded bolt with a wrench. On a flat wall the water heater needs to be pressed firmly against the wall by tightening the straps and likewise if the water heater is situated in a corner it needs to be pressed into the corner by the straps. If there is some obstruction like plumbing preventing the tank from being in full contact with the wall, then wood blocking can be lag screwed horizontally to the wall studs and the tank can then be pressed against the wood blocking. A water heater with seismic straps placed correctly on the tank and fastened correctly to the wall studs, is still not correctly braced until the tank is firmly in contact with the wall. This is a very common oversight probably simply due to the installer not taking the time to read the installation instructions, but if the tank is not in firm contact with the wall then the straps will provide significantly less protection during an earthquake.

Damage to furniture and structures during an earthquake often occurs when the house starts to move out of synch with the contents and instead of moving together as a unit they strike together or collide as they move, and unsecured objects simply get knocked over after being hit by either the wall of the house or by another object of greater mass. Your water heater or a large bookcase that has a relatively large mass will have greater momentum while moving and will hit other objects with much greater force. A water heater or large piece of furniture that is securely braced will ideally shake and sway with the house rather than slamming against the walls and toppling over. If the water heater is not held firmly against the wall by the straps, then it will strike against the wall and the straps as the house shakes, and the shear weight of the tank may tear the straps off the walls and the tank may still fall.

The final step in preventing your water heater from starting a fire during an earthquake is being able to quickly shut off the gas supply to your house after a major earthquake. Know where your gas meter is located, make sure it is easily accessible and leave a wrench at the meter for emergency use in case you can not get access to your tools in an emergency.

Question: Our house is a typical Goleta tract home that was built in the 1960’s and my husband and I have owned it and lived here since 1975. We have done a little remodeling, we both really love the look of granite and want to get granite countertops for our 2 bathrooms. However the built in bathroom cabinets are in good shape and we don’t want to replace them. Can you tell us what all is involved with this project?

Your Handyman: The first step in any remodeling project is the most fun, which is shopping for materials. Granite is beautiful, very popular, and Santa Barbara has many tile, stone and counter top dealers who sell granite for counter tops in two basic ways. The first way that granite is sold is in a large slab that is then cut down into the sizes that are needed for your project. This is the usually the most expensive way to purchase granite in that you typically have to buy the entire slab and there may be quite a lot of extra material that you pay for but may not need. The second way is to purchase a pre cut granite countertop section that is already cut to the typical depth and width of a countertop, matching back splash is already cut, and a finished bull nose or ogee detail is already fabricated on the exposed edge. Many of these pre cut sections are being quarried and fabricated in China, are very affordable, and there will be a minimum of waste material left over.

After you have selected your countertop material, the next step is to have a contractor disconnect the plumbing on your old sinks and remove the old counter tops and sinks. If the sinks are in good condition you can reuse them if you would like to and just replace the faucets and drain assemblies. Some cabinets will require that a plywood top be fastened onto the top of the cabinets to help support the weight of the granite and your contractor can tell you if this is needed or not.

The shop that you purchased the granite from will be able to arrange for the cutting of the sink openings in the granite and also for the drilling of the holes needed for the faucets. Depending on the style of sink that you choose, there are a couple of different ways to install them and your counter fabricator will take care of this issue for you.

After the new granite is set in place, the installer will then set the backsplash, your contractor will connect the plumbing for the sinks, and your project is completed! Granite needs to be regularly sealed with a chemical sealer that is available at the shop where you purchased the granite, follow the manufacturer’s application instructions on the sealer bottle and your granite will look beautiful for years.

-Mark Baird
Owner, YourHandyman & Construction
CA License #935259

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