Matt Springer has been giving presentations around San Francisco about home earthquake preparedness since 2008 (for more information about the presentation, go to his earthquake preparedness website). This blog is devoted to posts ranging from technical "how-to" articles to more philosophical "should-you" topics. New articles will be posted at most about once a month, so people who subscribe won't be subjected to lots of e-mail.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

The earthquake precaution step nobody told you about: tell visitors about your preparations or else you could have problems!

(Note for e-mail subscribers; rather than read this in the e-mail message, please click on the title and go to the actual blog article so that the embedded videos will work; they may be large blank spaces in your e-mail message.  Depending on your browser, you might see one or two versions of the videos.)

Congratulations!  You have braced your bookcase to the wall, installed earthquake-proof cabinet latches, installed emergency power failure lights, stuck down various objects, and done a host of other sensible and wise things to make your home as quake-resistant as possible.  You are done, right?  Actually, there’s one more very important step, and I am probably one of the few people to remember to advise you of this:

You have to tell your visitors, cleaning services, “handypeople,” etc., about some of these measures, or else they or your home could suffer.

Of course, I like to tell visitors about some of my earthquake precautions as part of my earthquake safety evangelism, if the topic arises, but there are more practical reasons to do this: if they aren’t expecting things to be stuck and fastened, they might try to move them... with some potentially destructive consequences that I know can happen, because they have happened to me!  So please learn from my rueful experiences.  Here are some real-life stories:

Bracing of bookcases to the wall:

I practice what I preach and have all of my tall furniture like bookcases braced to the wall with furniture straps.  A year or two ago, I had a company install a new ceiling fan in my den, where there was no pre-existing electrical box in the ceiling.  This involved different teams cutting drywall, running electrical wires, patching and painting the wall, and installing the fan.  A tall bookcase was near the region where they would be working, attached to wall studs of course.  I was concerned that this might get in their way and I asked them about it, but they told me they could easily work around it.  I mentioned that it was fastened to the wall, just in case they needed to know that, and they told me it was no problem.

They finished the job and it looked great, and I was moving some things around on the floor after the last workers left when I noticed a little indentation a few millimeters wide in the rug next to the bottom of the bookcase.  I realized that the bookcase must have been moved a little since the original location was still pressed down in the rug.  I looked up at the straps, and sure enough, one of the two straps attaching it to the wall had been disturbed and the metal washer holding the bolt through the strap into the wall stud anchor was bent out of shape.  Clearly, somebody did not get the message and had tried their hardest to move the bookcase, impressively bending a thick metal washer in the process but also confirming that this bookcase was not going to leave the wall despite the best efforts of a major earthquake or an amazingly strong human.  No harm done; I moved the book case back in place and replaced the washer.  Still, this was still pretty frustrating, because I HAD told them about the bracing and it STILL failed to prevent this problem.  Just goes to show you that this is a real concern!

Push latch cabinets with the original pull handles in place:

I first started using push latches to prevent my kitchen cabinet doors from opening in the apartment where I lived in Palo Alto in the 1990s.  The cabinets were old and full of little nail holes, and the wood stain was dark and not in great shape.  I installed the latches, and then decided it was pointless to keep the original cabinet door knobs there because I didn’t need to pull on anything, so I unscrewed the knobs (keeping them and their threaded bolts in storage so that I could replace them when I ultimately moved).  I non-permanently filled those knob holes with dark wood filler (waxy, like a crayon) that roughly matched the color of the wood stain.  I did the same thing in my next apartment in San Francisco.  It did not look bad--no worse than it already looked--and since there was nothing to pull, visitors would instinctively push on the cabinet door to disengage it, as in the video that below (you should be able to see at least one of the two versions or click here).


However, when moving into my subsequent apartment and then into my current home, I found that the cabinets were light enough in both cases that even color-matched wood filler looked terrible in those holes; so for aesthetic purposes, I left the original cabinet door handles in place.  It was no problem if one was already familiar with the set-up, because it was still very easy to push the door and then as it sprung open, to finish opening the door from the handle.  It involved no extra thought or effort whatsoever; see video below or click here.


But guess what, when a visitor tries to open a door that contains a door handle, the visitor tries to pull it open.  I’ve had a few occasions where a visitor would complain that they couldn’t open the door, prompting me to quickly explain.  However, one visitor (I forget who) was helping me to take things out of a cabinet or put them back in, and told me that the door had been very hard to open but she had managed to pull it open anyway.  That was distressing, because I figured that either the latch had failed, or the visitor had broken the door!  Fortunately, it turns out that if you really pull hard on these latches (kids, don’t try this at home), they give; but it involves a pulling force with leverage much harder than a simple shaking motion that would result from even a massive quake.

Lesson learned, if you have push latches and leave the handles on the doors, you’d better head off any visitors before they create the very kinds of damage you were theoretically trying to avoid.

Push latches, Part II:

A very simple extra consideration is that if you have push latches, even if the visitors know to push rather than pull, you may still have to remind them to push the door to re-engage the latch when they close it.  Also, sometimes the springy action of the latches results in it opening again as you push it in, not very often, but people should know to ensure that they leave the door in the latched position rather than slightly ajar.

Make sure they don’t turn the emergency lights off:

I’ve mentioned this in another article about power failure back-up lights already, but it bears repeating here.  Many back-up lights have a night-light, or an indicator that they are on and charging.  Sometimes, even this light is bright to look at in a dark room.  Many years ago, someone was sleeping in a sleeping bag or air mattress or something, on the floor of my living room. Unbeknownst to me, the night light was preventing them from sleeping, so they flipped the switch to the off position.  Months later, I finally noticed that the indicator light was not on, and realized that it had been turned off, and figured it out.  But that means that during those months, the light would not have turned on if the power cut out during an emergency.

Objects stuck down with quake putty:

Well this one takes very little imagination to predict... if an object is stuck to a surface, and someone attempts to pick up the object to get a better look, or to clean around it, they at best will just not be able to move it.  Worse scenarios are that they do move it and either damage or completely break it in the process, or with larger objects, perhaps the visitor gets a hernia while trying.  (You know, this might be the secret behind King Arthur and the Sword in the Stone...)  Or perhaps they pick up a large vase stuck to a pedestal or stereo speaker on the floor, and that supporting object gets picked up with the vase only to come crashing down on the visitor’s toe.  The possibilities are endless!

So telling your visitors about your quake bracing precautions can be a wise idea.  You can presumably stave off some damage to property or person (which was kind of the whole idea of making these preparations anyway, wasn’t it?), and perhaps even plant a seed in their head that might blossom into their own precautions later on.

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