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Novick's safety valve idea is a gas, gas, gas

Preventing fires after quakes is the focus of proposed requirement


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Nick Perez of Earthquake Tech holds a California valve, which automatically stops the flow of natural gas during earthquakes.Not every Portland family can plunk down $4,000 to make their home safer during an earthquake, as city Commissioner Steve Novick and his fiancée did after purchasing their Multnomah Village home a year ago.

But Novick got another idea while talking to his seismic retrofit contractor in August. Why not get more homeowners to install valves that automatically cut off the natural gas flow during an earthquake?

“It’s about a $325 item,” Novick says, and it could save their home from catching fire.

In the devastating 1906 quake in San Francisco, “there was more damage done by fires after the earthquake than from the earthquake itself,” Novick says. A report issued on the centennial of the earthquake found there were more than 30 fires caused by ruptured natural gas mains, which destroyed about 25,000 buildings.

Times have changed, but there still were many fires traced to leaking natural gas lines after the Northridge earthquake of 1994 in Los Angeles. A report by the assistant Los Angeles fire chief found there were 158 structure fires in the first 27.5 hours after the quake, mostly near the epicenter in the Reseda community of L.A. There also were 126 reported incidents of leaking natural gas.

“Two thirds of the fires that are caused during an earthquake are caused from cracking gas lines,” says Steve Gemmell, owner/operator of Earthquake Tech, which did the work on Novick’s house.

Novick, now overseeing the city Bureau of Emergency Management, is working with the bureau on a proposed city ordinance that might require installation of automatic gas shutoff valves when a home is sold in Portland. He figures people selling a home will be in a position to afford it, and it might make the new mandate easier to sell.

His fellow city commissioners seem to like the idea, Novick says. The most common and expensive part of home seismic retrofits is bolting the foundation to the first floor, so the house might not jostle during a quake.

But buildings can survive a quake fine and still end up catching on fire, says Tim Cook, a structural consultant for Earthquake Tech.

A quake might occur while homeowners are away and unable to turn off their gas lines, Gemmell says. Or they don’t have the wherewithal during an earthquake to find a wrench and turn off the gas themselves.

Some Portlanders are likely more familiar with the San Andreas Fault that causes more quakes in California than the Cascadia subduction zone off the Northwest coast. But geologists warn that we are in earthquake country, too, and could face another quake rivaling the massive magnitude 9 event that rocked the Oregon Coast on Jan. 26, 1700.

Novick says he doesn’t want to see a repeat of what occurred after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when tens of thousands of New Orleans residents fled the city and never returned.

“They’re much more likely to come back if their homes are still there,” Novick says. “After the earthquake, we want the city to come back.”

The “California valve” installed by Earthquake Tech relies on a stainless steel ball that sits in a little cup, Cook says. It’s calibrated to drop automatically, shutting off the natural gas supply, when there’s an earthquake of roughly magnitude 5.4, the level when major building damage is likely.

Installing a valve usually takes one to three hours and costs $300 to $500, Cook says.

Devices worked

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Nick Perez of Earthquake Tech installs an automatic shutoff valve at a home in Southwest Portland. A report by Strand Earthquake Consultants investigated the performance of 479 automatic gas shutoff valves within 29 kilometers of the epicenter during the Northridge quake, and found all but one closed off the natural gas. The lone exception was 14 kilometers away.

NW Natural, the natural gas utility for the Portland area and elsewhere, wants to see Novick’s proposed city ordinance before deciding its position on the idea, says Gary Bauer, government affairs director.

The utility recommends that its residential customers consider automatic gas shutoff valves, says spokeswoman Dawn Johnson. Though the company stops short of recommending that customers get one, “there’s definitely benefits to them,” she says.

One of NW Natural’s concerns is that gas shutoff valves might activate from some other cause, such as a dump truck rumbling down the street. Then residents would be without heat, and the utility could get a flood of calls to fix a problem caused by someone else.

Pacific Seismic Products, which makes the California valve in Lancaster, Calif., does hear about such incidents. But “95 percent of the time it has to do with the installer” doing something wrong, says Giovanny Martinez, production manager. The company’s valves come with a 30-year warranty and require no maintenance, he says.

Carmen Merlo, the Bureau of Emergency Management director, has no such qualms about urging Portlanders to install automatic gas shutoff valves. “There’s no longer a risk of them being accidentally triggered,” Merlo says, because of improvements in the technology.

The year after the Northridge earthquake, Los Angeles passed an ordinance requiring automatic gas shutoff valves in all new buildings using natural gas or when commercial buildings

undergo remodels costing $10,000 or more. Later the ordinance was expanded to require the devices when homeowners complete at least $10,000 or more in remodels, and within one year after homes are sold. Berkeley and Alameda County, Calif., passed ordinances inspired by Los Angeles.

Merlo says she’d like to consider some of the additional requirements adopted by Los Angeles during upcoming discussions about a Portland ordinance.

Novick’s idea is “awesome,” Gemmell says, but he’d like to see an additional requirement when a home is sold: notification on whether the foundation has been bolted to the first floor. Sometimes brick or other materials obscure the foundation, so the buyer doesn’t know if the home is safer in an earthquake, he says.

But the biggest benefit of the proposed city ordinance, he says, may be in elevating the issue in peoples’ minds.

“The population really has no idea that we’re living on a fault line like we are.”