Home & Garden Columns

Ask Matt: On Water Heaters, Bay Windows

Friday May 04, 2007

Dear Mr. Cantor: I want to thank you for the very informative and interesting article in the Daily Planet about strapping water heaters. Moreover, I want to say that I am a devoted reader and always find your pieces interesting and informative. 

I have a question about fire concerns caused by the break in the gas line to the water heaters. I’m only a homeowner and have no expertise, but I wonder if, when a gas line breaks, it doesn’t automatically interrupt the gas flow to the pilot, thus extinguishing the flame or spark that might ignite the gas flowing from the broken line. Or does the gas rush out so fast that the pilot still ignites it?  

In short, what besides a fire coming from a neighbor, is the mostly likely source of the spark or combustion that ignites the free-flowing gas? Would a broken power line produce sparks? 

Thanks for whatever light you can cast on this for me. 

—Alvin Ludwig 


Dear Alvin,  

Great question. 

There are so many sources of ignition possible that it’s almost a fait accompli that when a large volume of gas is released during an earthquake that it will find a means of ignition. 

During an earthquake electrical components are being thrust about and these can spark, metal on metal or metal on concrete can generate sparks and yes, there may still be enough gas at one or more pilots to ignite gas. Keep in mind that most houses have pilots at water heaters, furnaces, stoves and some other kinds of devices. 

If the water heater line breaks before the furnace line. The furnace pilot can ignite the gas lots of ways and most important, this is what actually happens. Broken gas lines in earthquakes result in many fires and many explosions. Just go online and look at pictures of Northridge. 





Hello, Mr. Cantor: We would like to install a second-story bay window in the back bedroom on our El Cerrito house. The house is a standard mid-’40s split-level, with bedrooms above garage/utility area. 

When we bought the house nine years ago there was already a bay window installed in the front bedroom. It was a bank foreclosure sale, so we don’t know about the permitting or history of that installation. 

Due to insufficient previous research and a bad decision, we have had an unpleasant window company experience and so the un-installed bay window has been sitting in our garage for a few years. 

My questions: Is it necessary to obtain permits for such installations? 

Does the installer/contractor obtain the permit, or the homeowner? 

Is an added bay window likely to increase earthquake damage to the rest of the structure? 

How would one find an installer who could do this work? 

(Most people say to talk to others about their experiences, but we’ve never found anyone in an equivalent position.) 

Thank you very much for any suggestions you might have. 

—Annie Organ 


Dear Ms. Organ, 

I think the first thing to do is to find a general contractor that you feel good about and to have them help you through the rest of the process. That’s what G.C.’s are good at. They can help answer all of those questions as well as take a look at your bay window. 

My tendency in a case such as this is to recommend a G.C. over a window specialist. Most window folk are used to installing a window in an existing opening but not getting involved in a wider range of issues such as seismic strength or vulnerability. 

As a rule, the cites draw their permit line financially and I have no idea what the cost of your job may be but it sounds as though it would have been expensive enough originally to require a permit. I am less concerned about the permit process than I am about the savvy of the contractor. 

City inspectors can be very useful in protecting the client from being poorly served but this type of job will not be heavily inspected so the key is to make sure that the installer will know their stuff. Flashings (the parts that keep water out of the building at the edges of the window) are the most critical part of this job. 

I do not believe that there is a major seismic implication in installing this window unless you are removing a large portion of the wall or unless there is a lot of other window on this wall at the same floor level.  

That said, the contractor should have a look in advance of proceeding. If this is at basement level (doesn’t sound like it) it can become a seismic issue by supplanting vital shear-bearing walls with a weak opening. 

Lastly, in choosing a contractor, don’t let price be your primary factor. Be sure that you feel confident in giving this person the key to your house, your money and your trust. 

A personal referral from a happy past customer is one of the best ways to select a contractor. Choose someone smart, not someone burley (although some are both smart and burley). 

Best of luck, 

















Hi Matt:  

Enjoyed your excellent article on foundation capping. One thing that I sometimes mention to my clients is that the faulty grade problem may sometimes be solved by simply digging away the dirt and debris that has accumulated against the foundation. This of course is the most economical solution when a complete foundation replacement isn’t needed for structural reasons! Do you think this is an okay observation to make?  

—Betsy Thagard  

Real Estate Broker  


Absolutely Betsy,  

As I often say to folks who write me with valid point regarding the subject of the article, if I weren’t limited to about 1000 words, I’d probably have said just what you mentioned. 

Caps are often “technically” required by the Structural Pest Control Act but, in fact, silly and largely unnecessary. Soil has often built up on the outside (and sometimes on the inside due to later work such as basement development) and simply needs to be cut away. 

The trick is to first dig a pit next the foundation to see the total depth in one spot prior to digging out along a long stretch. As long as you’re not undermining the foundation and there are at least a few inches left, it’s fine to cut back the soil and create a two-four-inch gap. It’s also a good idea to make sure that client know not to mulch or plant right along this boundary and to keep it clear. 

Six-inches is code but not really required. Some very short footings (10 inches or so) are not good candidates for this technique but replacement of a good solid unrotated footing of solid concrete is usually unnecessary and capping does very little for any of us. All that said, a new inverted T is a nice improvement that adds value in several ways. 

You Harvard grads are so smart!