Catastrophic earthquakes can strike at virtually any time. Communities along fault lines – like those in California – are especially vulnerable to the trembling of the Earth, but seismic activity can inflict serious damage almost anywhere. Regardless of where you live, it’s smart to educate yourself on the potential impact an earthquake might have on your home.
Two main types of waves occur during seismic events: body waves, which travel deep in the ground, and surface waves, which travel along the Earth’s surface. The latter type is responsible for a large majority of damages to homes. These waves assume different characteristics based on their distance from the epicenter of the earthquake. The closer a property is to the epicenter, the more intense the damage will be.
When the ground begins to shift violently, perimeter concrete foundations may begin to crumble. Brick chimneys may tumble down. The force from the earthquake can cause unbraced walls to fall and floors to collapse. If a home isn’t adequately tethered to its foundation, the entire structure may slip off.
While you might expect brick structures to withstand earthquake damage better than wood-frame homes, the opposite is true; shifts in the ground easily crumble brick foundations and walls. This often leaves the upper part of the home without structure, quickly leading to the collapse of the entire building. Wood homes may be slightly better off than brick homes, but they are still vulnerable and can collapse if situated on unstable or sloping ground.
PEX plumbing pipes are actually tubing, so they are flexible and built to withstand earthquake-levels of force. Unfortunately, this technology is fairly new, and most older homes are still equipped with the more traditional PVC, copper, or galvanized steel pipes for their plumbing. These standard pipes are all rigid, so they’re incredibly vulnerable to seismic activity, especially at ground level. Should a water supply line break or the water heater tip over, the resulting flood of water only adds to the chaos.
Even if your home sustained no apparent signs of damage from an earthquake, there still may be cause for concern. If your main water supply line is damaged, for instance, the quality of water flowing from your faucets may be compromised and the water main could be leaking and wasting valuable water into surrounding underground soil. In the aftermath, it’s important to keep a close eye on the color and smell of your home’s tap water. Discoloration and bad odors can indicate problems.
Carbon monoxide poisoning is an oft-overlooked side effect of seismic activity. When pipes become dislodged, bent, or otherwise damaged, they may leak carbon monoxide or natural gas into the home. Since carbon monoxide is colorless and odorless, its impact may not be detected. That’s why it’s so crucial to check vent pipes for leaks in the aftermath of an earthquake.
The highly combustible natural gas can be fatal if inhaled in large amounts. Those experiencing carbon monoxide poisoning may suffer headaches, nausea, and dizziness. Since these symptoms are frequently confused for the common cold, carbon monoxide poisoning can be especially insidious. It’s crucial to have a professional inspect your home after an earthquake, even if you think your property hasn’t sustained any damage.
Preparing Your Plumbing
Homeowners can save themselves a lot of time and money by preparing their home for earthquakes. To ensure minimal damage to the plumbing system of your home, educate yourself on where all the shut-off valves are located on the property. Shutting off the water to your home is important for two reasons: preventing contaminated water from entering your taps and keeping pressure and gravity from draining water out of the supply lines and drainpipes, respectively. The gas line should also be turned off for similar reasons.
Stay on top of leaky pipes. In the event of an earthquake, minor leaks may quickly turn into major floods. Fix leaks as soon as you notice an issue, and you may be able to avoid the worst types of water damage.
After the Tremors Settle
Once the earthquake and aftershocks are over, homeowners must do their due diligence and inspect the property for damage. Earthquake shockwaves can reverberate through the ground and cause serious damage to pipes. Look for damp spots indoors. If you see water seeping across the kitchen floor or wet spots in the bathroom, you may have sustained severe damage to your pipes.
Fluctuating water pressure is also an indicator that there may be a problem. You might notice gurgling toilets, bubbling faucets, or dripping sounds behind the walls. With that in mind, keep an eye on your water meter in the days and weeks following an earthquake. If you spot unexplained spikes in water usage, the property may have suffered plumbing damage.
After an earthquake, it’s also smart to do a thorough inspection of your yard. Pay close attention to any wet spots, puddles or even sink holes – they could be signs of underground pipe leaks. Foul odors are also cause for concern; they can indicate leakage in your main sewer line and attract rodents. It’s worth keeping an eye on plant life, too. If grassy areas and shrubs suddenly burst to life and sprout unexpectedly, you may have underground seepage.
Call on the Experts
When in doubt, it’s best to call upon plumbing experts for all your post-earthquake piping and plumbing concerns. Diagnostic service appointments can help identify any water line or sewer main issues and mitigate any possible damage caused by seismic activity. While nothing can stop an earthquake from occurring, an experienced plumbing professional can ensure the health and safety of your entire plumbing system.
About the Author
Jim Fisher is a Master Plumber with Roto-Rooter LA. Passionate about all things plumbing, Jim has seen his fair share of seismic activity while living and working in Southern California. Schedule your appointment with Jim and his team now by dialing 661-257-9200.
Environmental Protection Agency: Earthquake Resilience Guide
IntechOpen: Earthquakes and Structural Damages
United States Geological Survey: What Can I Expect in My House When an Earthquake Occurs? How Do I Identify It? What Can be Done?
Oregon State University: Living with Earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest