How to Prepare Your Home for An Earthquake

Foundations
Additions and Remodels
Small Projects and Repairs
By Contractors.com Team May 26, 2021

If you’ve experienced an earthquake in your lifetime, chances are you’ll experience another one still. To prepare your home and keep your family safe in the event of one, read on for some of the most useful and potentially life-saving home safety tips below.

Earthquakes are an unavoidable part of life for many people in the United States. Nearly 160 million people, or around half the country live in "earthquake country". Earthquakes happen frequently throughout the contiguous United States, as well as in Alaska and Hawaii.  

Earthquakes in California alone numbered over 3,800 in 2020. A lot of these quakes were relatively small ranging from 2 to 3 on the Richter scale. Most of these tremors would be impossible for you to feel. But stronger earthquakes constantly loom large. It is predicted that a seismic event greater than magnitude 7, known as “the Big One”, will hit Southern California sometime in the next thirty years. 

Thankfully, scientists are getting better every year at predicting when the Big One will come. But while a good earthquake prediction could save your life, it won’t do much for your home safety. Americans that live in seismically active parts of the country risk significant property damage if a large quake happens. 

How to Best Avoid Earthquake Damage

How to Best Avoid Earthquake Damage

If you happen to be one of those 160 million, it is very important to read up on the home improvement options available for you to make your property “earthquake resistant”. There are many things you can do to earthquake-proof your home, ranging from simple DIY jobs to more technical professional retrofits. 

DIY Earthquake Preparation

Securing Home Belongings

DIY Earthquake Preparation

DIY Earthquake Preparation

There are a lot of useful DIY home improvement tips which can greatly increase home safety during an earthquake.

One of the main things you can do is to secure objects that fill your home. Namely, pieces of heavy furniture such as dressers, bookcases, and armchairs should be secured with wall anchors, cables, or straps so they cannot shift or topple over during an earthquake. Any rolling furniture or appliances should have their rollers locked or better yet removed, and large objects must be kept away from doorways and exits. 

Any tiny items or knick-knacks can be kept in place with museum putty or blue tac. You can install safety latches on cabinet doors so dishware and other items don’t fly out. It should always be a rule of thumb to store heavier items on low shelves to reduce the risk of these items causing damage or injury. You can secure your television by mounting it to a wall or attaching it to a TV stand. Other devices such as computers and kitchen appliances can also be secured to work surfaces using bungee cords and fasteners for extra safety. 

How to Prevent Earthquake Damage Inside Your House

How to Prevent Earthquake Damage Inside Your House

Removing Hazards

You also need to be careful that your belongings are not placed in areas where they may become especially hazardous during an earthquake. Flammable liquids should be stored in a low cabinet with a lock, preferably in a structure separate from your house. A great place to keep flammable or toxic liquids is a garage or a garden shed. 

Minimize Hazards During an Earthquake

Minimize Hazards During an Earthquake

If you have hanging plants or other hanging objects, ensure that you use closed-loop hooks so that your hanging plants cannot swing off and come tumbling down. Also, keep these hanging objects far enough away from windows so that they cannot swing and hit glass panes. To avoid glass shards and debris, do not place beds near windows and interior walls. Likewise, do not store or hang heavy items over beds.   

Secure Your Water Heater

If you have gas-powered appliances, use flexible connections to attach the gas lines, to reduce the chance of gas leaks. Teach yourself and your family how to turn off your home’s gas lines, electricity, and water mains if these are damaged in an earthquake. In this same vein, it is a good idea to make sure that your water heater is made earthquake-ready. To do this, you’ll need to make sure that your heater’s water and gas connections are flexible so that they don’t break free in an earthquake. 

Attaching your water heater to a wall will make it safer still. As explained in this helpful guide, securing your water heater with heavy-gauge metal straps will keep your water heater from coming loose in an earthquake. Experts recommend using two straps since your heavy water heater could still break loose with just one strap holding it. Avoid using plumber’s tape, as it may not be strong enough to hold your water heater. Water heaters secured with plumber’s tape have broken free in previous earthquakes. 

Securing your water heater is a good idea for several reasons: it reduces the risk of flooding or a gas leak, and it gives you an entire tank of fresh water, which is a great thing to have since an earthquake can easily disrupt your water supply. While you can always get a plumber to do this job for you, this can be a DIY project since big hardware stores sell a strapping kit that is purpose-made specifically for attaching a water heater. 

When it comes to the house itself, applying safety film to windows and glass doors will reduce the chance of shards from windows scattering through your home. 

Improve Structural Integrity

Is Your House Structurally Sound

Is Your House Structurally Sound

There are other ways to improve your home’s structure, but in most cases, you will need the help of a professional to complete these more technical projects. The biggest danger in an earthquake comes from falling debris. So, every part of your house must be built to withstand earthquakes.

Chimneys

Chimneys are especially prone to collapsing during an earthquake, causing bricks and debris to damage the house, hit cars, and potentially cause severe injury. This is especially true for tall, skinny chimneys. 

It is therefore important to have a chimney inspection done to ensure that it is built correctly. You can try to do this yourself by checking that your chimney is structurally reinforced and attached to the house with metal ties. But the most surefire way to find out if your chimney is earthquake-ready is to hire a structural engineer or licensed contractor to check it out for you. 

If your chimney is not strong enough to resist an earthquake, you have several options. One option is that the chimney can be torn down and replaced with a reinforced one or even a metal stack which can fare better against earthquakes. Chimney reinforcement is also a great precaution to take if your existing chimney isn’t in critical condition. For extra security roof reinforcement with plywood will prevent chimney bricks from coming through. 

The State of Your Chimney and Earthquake Preparedness

The State of Your Chimney and Earthquake Preparedness

A complete chimney retrofit can cost tens of thousands of dollars. If you don’t want the functionality offered by a chimney, removing the chimney, or simply filling it with a steel tube and some concrete, can be a more affordable and practical option. 

Foundation work however is definitely worth the money, as it comes with several great benefits. 

Foundation Retrofits

A structural engineer will help you to find out if your home is bolted to its foundation for a mean fee of around $700. Older homes might not have a bolted foundation, but getting this done to your house is a relatively cheap project. A foundation contractor will charge between three to seven thousand dollars for foundation retrofit depending on how big your house is, and can usually complete foundation bolting within a week. 

You can also request grants from organizations like Earthquake Brace + Bolt to bring the cost down. Once your house has its foundation bolted, the chance of it getting damaged in an earthquake becomes significantly lower. 

Another benefit of getting foundation repairs for your home is that they can bring down your monthly insurance premiums. If you’re planning on getting insurance, note that these investments can reduce your premiums, in some cases, by as much as 25%. Foundation contractors also offer “green” retrofits, which will make your house more energy-efficient as well as structurally stronger. This is done by increasing your home’s thermal efficiency, which can lower your utility bills by 30% on average. To top it off, foundation work will improve the resale value of your home, and save you tens of thousands of dollars in property damage in the event of a severe earthquake.  

Why You Might Benefit from a Foundation Retrofit

Why You Might Benefit from a Foundation Retrofit

If your house was built before 1980, it could be a cripple-wall house. If so, this means that your house has short wood-framed walls between its foundation and the first floor. One possible clue that you have cripple walls is that you have a crawl space under your house. Cripple walls are a structural weakness in earthquakes but can be retrofitted with the help of a licensed contractor. In most cases, a contractor can retrofit your cripple-wall house by attaching plywood bracing sheathes to the cripple walls. 

However, things get a bit more complicated if your house is on a slope. If this is the case for you, you should consult a structural engineer. They can help to draft a retrofit design tailored to your home’s specific configuration. 

Driveways

One overlooked detail in earthquake-proofing projects is concrete driveways. While they are cheaper to build, concrete driveways can easily crack during severe earthquakes. If this happens, vehicles might not be able to use the driveway, and it will likely have to be rebuilt completely. A tilled driveway made from cobblestones or paving stones is a more resilient option, as it is cheaper to repair, and less likely to become cut off to cars if damaged. 

Post Earthquake Damage that's Important to Address

Post Earthquake Damage that's Important to Address

At $12 per square foot, concrete tends to be more cost-effective than pavers, which can be up to $24 per square foot. Nevertheless, pavers are worth thinking about as a long-term investment. After all, if your driveway remains mostly intact after an earthquake, that means that emergency vehicles can get to your house, and you can drive away if needed. 

It may not be possible to avoid earthquakes, but it is always possible to prepare for them and to reduce the potential damage they bring with them. With diligent planning and foresight, many of the hazards caused by earthquakes can be mitigated, making recovery faster and easier. 

In pursuit of an earthquake-proof house, be sure to take advantage of the wealth of online resources provided by non-governmental organizations, state governments, and U.S. government agencies.    

Bonus Tips

1. Prepare an emergency kit. An emergency kit should include essentials such as food, water, and other necessities like batteries. You can learn more about what to include in an emergency kit here.

2. Buy earthquake insurance. Most home insurance policies do not cover natural disasters such as earthquakes, so this insurance must be bought separately. Despite the extra cost, it is still very much worth it since property damage from earthquakes can be very expensive. 

3. Keep a home fire extinguisher. Make sure it is serviced and replaced as needed. It should also be both easy to get to when needed and well secured. 

4. Check out the Earthquake Country Alliance website. This is a great resource with lots of information on how to prepare, survive, and recover in the event of an earthquake. It also has guides on how to secure specific things in your house.

Written by
Contractors.com Team

Written by Contractors.com Team

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