Real Estate

Better safe than sorry

10 steps to a safer home

How safe is your home? Are your stairs a danger? Did you know that not all smoke alarms are equal?

Dozens of emergency calls could be avoided each year with a couple of quick fixes around the home:

1. Install a photoelectric smoke alarm. Photoelectric smoke alarms cost only $5 more than ionization alarms, which tend to detect only half of all smoldering fires, Palo Alto Fire Marshall Gordon Simpkinson said. Smoldering fires produce bigger particles than most fires, and ionization alarms can only detect smaller particles.

Photoelectric alarms can detect a greater range of particles, and can tell when there's enough smoke to be a serious fire. They are already the most common type of alarm in China and Europe, and four U.S. states have ordinances that require them.

2. Install carbon-monoxide alarms. The toxic compound carbon monoxide, produced from incomplete combustion in water heaters and furnaces, is colorless and odorless, and can kill with little warning. City requirements effective Jan. 1, 2011, will mandate carbon-monoxide alarms in all houses sold or rented.

3. Install ground fault interruption (GFI) outlets anywhere near water -- such as in kitchens, bathrooms, laundry areas, garages and around pools and hot tubs. Ground fault interruption outlets automatically disconnect when they detect an imbalance in the electric current -- sometimes caused by a person touching the live side of the circuit and water or pipes.

4. Install handrails and non-skid strips on stairs. Falling-related accidents are a leading cause of injury among the elderly. Even with no grandparents in the house, homeowners are liable if a guest or tenant falls.

5. Have a licensed contractor bolt your house to the foundation and strap water heaters to the wall. This will reduce damage in the event of an earthquake. In the past, many contractors secured water heaters with only one strap, but Palo Alto Office of Emergency Services Coordinator Suzan Minshall now recommends two straps. One strap should be two feet from the floor, and one strap should be two feet from the top of the water heater.

6. Bolt bookshelves, entertainment centers and other tall and heavy furniture to the wall. Deliberately consider where to hang objects and how they're hung -- nothing should be over the bed or couch. Consider using museum wax to affix heavy items to bookshelves.

7. Use flexible plastic connectors for all gas-related appliances, such as water heaters, dryers and stoves. In the event of an earthquake, rigid metal connectors can snap and leak gas, Minshall said. If your home has gas piping under its foundation, hire a professional contractor to evaluate the pipe for corrosion and bypass if needed. If you ever smell gas, call 911 from outside your home.

8. Prepare emergency kits for your home and car. Include items such as drinking water, food, cash, first-aid supplies, flashlights and batteries, a battery-operated radio, blankets, important documents such as insurance-policy and bank-account information. Minshall also recommends that people store a pair of shoes and a flashlight in a bag near their bed to allow a safe exit if there's broken glass and no power.

Keep in mind any special needs of household members, particularly young children and the elderly. Store camping supplies such as sleeping bags and warm clothes in an easily accessible location, such as a shed or garage.

9. Replace external window guards that aren't quick release from the inside. Non-quick-release window guards can trap residents inside a burning home.

10. Teach friends and family to "drop, cover and hold on" in the event of an earthquake. Designate a safe location outside the home as an emergency gathering place.

For those interested in learning more, there are two local opportunities in the next month for emergency-preparedness education. To learn home-safety tips from fire and emergency personnel, Lowe's Home Improvements is holding a Safety Saturday Sept. 25 in San Jose. To learn more about home fire safety, Home Depot is hosting a clinic in East Palo Alto Oct. 3.

For earthquake safety information, visit U.S. Geological Society.

For general emergency information, visit Federal Emergency Management Agency.

What: Family Fire Safety Clinic

When: Sunday, Oct. 3, 2 to 3 p.m.

Where: Home Depot, 1781 East Bayshore Road, East Palo Alto

Cost: Free

Info: 650-462-6800

What: Safety Saturday

When: Saturday, Sept. 25, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Where: Lowe's, 775 Ridder Park Drive, San Jose

Cost: Free

Info: 408-518-4165

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Like this comment
Posted by Mike Angus
a resident of another community
on Sep 15, 2010 at 6:26 am

Item #7 should read "Use flexible metal connectors for all gas-related appliances...." instead of "Use flexible plastic connectors...". The National and International Fuel Gas Codes do NOT permit the use of non-metallic connectors for indoor gas appliance installations. A flexible metal connector MUST be approved and listed to the product standard ANSI Z21.24 by a certified agency such as CSA or UL. An example of an approved and listed ANSI Z21.24 gas connector can be found at

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 15, 2010 at 7:36 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Another risk, too complex to address in a letter, is backflow prevention. Backflow, or back siphoning is when, during a period of low water pressure, an irrigation system, a dishwasher connection or a shower spray allows unclean water to be sucked back into the home water pipes. Wiki has a nice article on this.
As for GFI receptacles, you can't go wrong replacing any defective receptacle with a GFI receptacle, except for modern bedrooms where an AFCI receptacle must be replaced with the same type.

Like this comment
Posted by Gordon Simpkinson
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 17, 2010 at 11:06 am

Quick correction for Item #2. The requirement for Carbon Monoxide alarms is Statewide, effective Jan. 1, 2011. This requirement applies to all residential rental properties and at transfer of title in private dwellings.

Properties with no attached garage, or gas furnaces and water heaters or appliances are exempt.

Gordon Simpkinson
Acting Fire Marshal
Palo Alto Fire Department

Like this comment
Posted by gfi question
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 9, 2010 at 6:52 pm

What about houses with wiring so old it has no ground wires going back to the power distribution panel? Will a gfi receptacle be 1) ok to use and 2) as safe or safer than a non-gfi receptacle?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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