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Earthquake Safety Checklist: What Every Home Inspector Wishes You Knew


Earthquakes are among the most unpredictable and potentially devastating natural disasters. Earthquakes generate internal forces in a structure caused by inertia. Earthquake-resistant construction can resist these forces and the resulting distortions. 

The illustration below from the 2021 International Residential Code® (IRC®), Figure R301.2.2, shows how a building or home may move in relation to forces and inertia. The building is moving in the opposite direction of the earthquake force. 


Their sheer unpredictability and the significant damage that earthquakes can inflict upon structures underscore the critical need for homeowners and apartment renters to be prepared. One of the most effective preparations is to hire a certified home inspector to conduct a thorough home inspection that includes a check on earthquake readiness. This article delves into the primary reasons why hiring your local InterNACHI®-certified home inspector is an essential step in earthquake preparedness. 

Earthquake Inspection Checklist

Understanding Structural Integrity

One role of a certified home inspector in the context of earthquake preparedness is to inspect a home's structural systems and components. According to the Home Inspection Standards of Practice, the home inspector shall inspect the structural components of the building, including the foundation, basement, and crawlspace. The inspector will look for indications of possible foundation movement, such as cracks in the drywall, sheetrock, or plaster, cracking in the masonry units, such as at brick and concrete blocks, out-of-square door frames, and unlevel floors. 

Structural integrity refers to the ability of a building to withstand its intended load without experiencing failure due to the design, materials, and construction. In the event of an earthquake, structures that lack integrity are more likely to suffer significant damage or collapse, posing serious risks to occupants. Home inspectors have the knowledge and skill to observe a building and document potential structural defects and weaknesses in a building's design, construction, and maintenance that may lead to catastrophic failure during seismic activity. Inspectors can check the foundation, load-bearing walls, beams, columns, arches, and connections between these elements for signs of movement, damage, or withdrawal that may not be visible to the untrained eye.

InterNACHI® School, our tuition-free accredited college at internachi.edu, provides a free online course titled "Residential Structural Design for Home Inspectors." This course helps home inspectors learn how to perform inspections using fundamental structural principles and a comprehensive design approach to construction.  


Identifying Non-Structural Risks

Beyond the structural components, a full home inspection may also include, upon request, a safety check of non-structural elements that could pose risks during an earthquake. This includes furniture, appliances, water heaters, and other items that could move or fall, causing injury or blocking escape routes. Certified home inspectors can recommend securing these items and mitigating risks, such as anchoring large furniture to walls and ensuring that water heaters are strapped securely to prevent tipping and subsequent water damage or fire hazards.

Seismic Anchorage of Appliances

Water heaters can weigh several hundred pounds, and if not properly secured, the water, gas, and electrical connections may be damaged or severed, creating a hazardous situation. For example, a 50-gallon water heater tank could have a total weight of 577 pounds, which includes the weight of the empty heater plus the weight of the water (160 pounds + 50 x 8.333 pounds per gallon). 


The illustration above from the 2021 IRC®, Figure M1307.2, shows the adequate anchorage of a residential water heater. A home inspector can check the seismic strapping of a water heater tank.

Evaluating Systems for Earthquake Resilience

Home inspectors also inspect the condition of a home's critical systems, including the electrical, plumbing, and gas lines, and may check how those components could withstand an earthquake. Disruptions to these systems can not only cause immediate inconvenience and discomfort but also lead to long-term safety hazards, such as fires, gas leaks, or water damage. Inspectors can identify vulnerabilities, such as deteriorated piping materials or inadequately strapped or secured pipes, that could be mitigated to reduce the risk of system failures during and after an earthquake.

Fuel Gas Seismic Resistance

In the 2021 IRC®, Section G2404.8, Seismic Resistance, there are building code standards related to earthquake loads. According to the code, a building's supports must be designed and installed for seismic forces. In relation to fuel gas, the gas piping must be braced for earthquake loads. The failure of piping supports threatens health and safety in geographical areas where moderate- to high-magnitude earthquakes occur. 

Risk Mitigation Through Retrofitting

Perhaps one of the most valuable insights a certified home inspector can provide is in helping identify retrofitting opportunities to enhance a home's earthquake resilience. Retrofitting involves modifying existing structures to make them more resistant to seismic activity. This can include improvements like foundation bolting, which secures a house to its foundation, or the installation of shear walls to improve the lateral stability of a building. A qualified and trained inspector can offer custom advice on the most effective retrofitting strategies for a particular home, taking into account its design, construction, age, and seismic risks specific to the area. 

Enhancing Safety and Preparedness

Beyond the physical inspection and recommendations for structural improvements, certified home inspectors are crucial in educating homeowners and renters about earthquake safety and preparedness. This can include guidance on creating emergency plans, assembling emergency supply kits, and conducting household earthquake drills. Such education is invaluable in empowering residents to respond effectively in the critical moments during and after an earthquake, potentially saving lives. 

Emergency Preparedness

Learn some ways that InterNACHI® inspectors can help their clients both prepare for an emergency and assess any property damage upon their return home in this article titled "Emergency Preparedness: How Home Inspectors Can Help Their Clients."

Deck Lateral Load Connection

For homes and buildings with decks, home inspectors can check a lateral load connection of the deck to the main structure to ensure that the deck remains attached during an earthquake. The 2021 IRC's Section R507.9.2 describes the minimum requirements for deck connectors and fasteners that can withstand lateral forces. Attachment of the deck to only the band joist may not be sufficient for the lateral loads. Positive anchorage of the deck joist to the floor framing addresses this potential failure. A home inspector may check this connection. 

Insurance and Financial Considerations

An inspection report from a certified home inspector can also impact a homeowner’s or renter’s insurance. Many insurance companies offer reduced rates for homes that have been certified as earthquake-ready or that have undergone specific retrofitting improvements. Moreover, in the aftermath of an earthquake, a detailed inspection report can serve as a valuable document when filing insurance claims, providing a clear record of the home’s condition before the event. Contact your insurance company and ask about premium reductions after taking action based on the inspection report's recommendations.

Conclusion

Hiring a certified home inspector for earthquake preparedness is an investment in safety, security, and peace of mind.

It's important to note that not all home inspectors are trained on seismic risks, earthquake resistance, and risk mitigation. Home inspectors are not structural engineers. They are trained and certified to visually check a home's current condition according to the Home Inspection Standards of Practice. A home inspection is not technically exhaustive. Most, if not all, structural components may be hidden from view during a visual-only inspection. 

Certified home inspectors can educate their clients and provide information and recommendations necessary to help mitigate the risks associated with earthquakes. They can help people not only live in safer structures but also better prepare and protect themselves and their families if an earthquake strikes. In regions prone to seismic activity, the role of certified home inspectors is indispensable in fostering resilient communities that are better equipped to face the challenges posed by earthquakes.



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