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Sales of Gas Shut-Off Valve Get Seismic Boost : Quakemaster of Fullerton says demand for its product doubled after Jan. 17 temblor.

When last month’s earthquake rattled his San Juan Capistrano home, Donald Nicolaides jumped out of bed, scrambled for a doorway and contemplated profit margins.

“Within 60 seconds of the quake, I was thinking about business,” he said. “I can’t help it. The two are so intertwined.”

Nicolaides owns Quakemaster, a Fullerton company that makes a seismic gas shut-off valve. It’s not an easy product to sell.

“You can’t take it out and show it off to the neighbors,” he said. “You can’t drive it to the market. People hesitate to spend $300 on something they don’t look at and use every day.”

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That is, until there’s a major earthquake. Whenever Californians are reminded of the fragile ground beneath their feet, they rush to buy first-aid kits, flashlights, bottled water and--as Nicolaides can testify--gas shut-off valves.

“Our sales during the month after the earthquake are more than double the previous month’s sales,” he said.

One of the greatest dangers in an earthquake is a fire caused by ruptured gas lines. When subjected to violent shaking, a shut-off valve automatically blocks the flow of natural gas into a building.

Quakemaster valves have been installed in about 5,000 homes and 1,000 commercial structures--including Dodger Stadium, the city of Orange’s civic buildings and facilities on the UCLA campus.

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Until last fall, Nicolaides’ involvement in 10-year-old Quakemaster was limited. His manufacturing firm, Western Machining Co., made parts for the valves, while Quakemaster--originally based in Anaheim--assembled and marketed the product. When Quakemaster could no longer pay its bills to Western Machining, its founders agreed to sell Nicolaides their patent.

“Obviously, this is a product I have a lot of faith in,” said Nicolaides, 66. “It just hasn’t been marketed well enough.”

Western Machining, which manufactures parts for everything from aircraft to tractors to bicycles, now makes the Quakemaster valves from start to finish. Nicolaides hired a sales manager to promote the valve, which he expects to bring in about $500,000 this year.

Quakemaster competes with half a dozen other gas shut-off valve makers in California.

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Southern California Gas Co., however, gives such valves a lukewarm recommendation.

“If a shut-off valve provides you a greater sense of comfort, we’re all for it,” said Vicki Estrada, a spokeswoman for the gas company. She warned, however, that the valves can stop gas unnecessarily.

“Once gas is shut off, service needs to be restored by the gas company or a qualified heating and plumbing contractor,” Estrada said. “It may take days after an earthquake before we can get to a house to check the appliances and restore service.”

She said that gas should be turned off after a quake only if a leak is heard or smelled. After the Northridge earthquake on Jan. 17, she said, “we restored gas to 120,000 customers, and 90% of those customers shut off their gas unnecessarily.

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“A lot of people were inconvenienced--they found themselves without gas for several days,” she said.

But Nicolaides said that Quakemaster will shut off gas only in a tremor that shakes a building violently enough to damage gas lines. It reacts to quakes of magnitude 5.5 or larger, he said, and takes into account ground type and distance from the epicenter.

The valve’s design is rather simple. Three steel balls sit in the rim of a funnel, which connects the outside gas line to the line going into a building. In a strong earthquake, the balls drop into the throat of the funnel and obstruct the flow of gas.

After the Northridge quake, customers called, concerned that their valves were faulty because their gas did not shut off, Nicolaides said.

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“A computer company in El Segundo asked me to come check their shut-off valves because they hadn’t gone off,” he said. “But the valves were fine, and the company’s maintenance crew checked the gas lines and there were no leaks. The company was just too far away from the action for the valves to be triggered.”

But the valve did shut off gas in an Encino home where gas lines were not damaged, he conceded. Said Nicolaides: “What we offer is peace of mind.”

If your Orange County company has annual sales of less than $10 million, we would like to consider it for a future column. Call O.C. Enterprise at (714) 966-7871.


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