Seismic Bracing Requirements for Nonstructural Components

Have you ever been at home during an earthquake and the lights turned off due to a loss of power?  Imagine what it would be like to be in a hospital on an operating table during an earthquake or for a ceiling to fall on you while you are lying on your hospital bed.

One of the last things you want is to experience serious electrical, mechanical or plumbing failures during or after a seismic event. During the 1994 Northridge earthquake, 80%-90% of the damage to buildings was to nonstructural components. Ten key hospitals in the area were temporarily inoperable primarily because of water damage, broken glass, dangling light fixtures or lack of emergency power.

Complete loss of suspended ceilings and light fixtures in the 1994 Northridge Earthquake. (FEMA 74, 1994)
Complete loss of suspended ceilings and light fixtures in the 1994 Northridge Earthquake. (FEMA 74, 1994)
Broken sprinkler pipe at Olive View Hospital in Sylmar, California after the 1994 Northridggde, Earthquake. (FEMA 74, 1994)
Broken sprinkler pipe at Olive View Hospital in Sylmar, California after the 1994 Northridggde, Earthquake. (FEMA 74, 1994)

ASCE 7 has an entire chapter titled Seismic Design Requirement of Nonstructural Components (Chapter 13 of ASCE 7-10) that is devoted to provisions on seismic bracing of nonstructural components. Unfortunately, not a lot of Designers are aware of this part of the ASCE. This blog post will walk Designers through the ASCE 7 requirements.

Nonstructural components consist of architectural, mechanical, electrical and plumbing utilities. Chapter 13 of ASCE 7-10 establishes the minimum design criteria for nonstructural components permanently attached to structures. First, we need to introduce some of the terminology that is used in Chapter 13 of ASCE 7.

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  • Component – the mechanical equipment or utility.
  • Support – the method to transfer the loads from the component to the structure.
  • Attachment – the method of actual attachment to the structure.
  • Importance Factor (Ip) – identifies which components are required to be fully functioning during and after a seismic event. This factor also identifies components that may contain toxic chemicals, explosive substances, or hazardous material in excess of certain quantities. This is typically determined by the Designer.

Section 13.2.1 of ASCE 7 requires architectural, mechanical and electrical components to be designed and anchored per criteria listed in Table 13.2-1 below.

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Architectural components consist of furniture, interior partition walls, ceilings, lights, fans, exterior cladding, exterior walls, etc. This list may seem minor compared to structural components, but if these components are not properly secured, they can fall and hurt the occupants or prevent them from escaping a building during a seismic event. The risk of fire also increases during an earthquake, further endangering the occupants.

Failure of office partitions and ceilings during the Northridge 1994 Earthquake. (FEMA 74, 1994)
Failure of office partitions and ceilings during the Northridge 1994 Earthquake. (FEMA 74, 1994)
Damage to overloaded  storage racks during the 1994 Northridge Earthquake. (FEMA 74, 1994)
Damage to overloaded storage racks during the 1994 Northridge Earthquake. (FEMA 74, 1994)

Section 13.5 of ASCE 7-10 includes the necessary requirements for seismic bracing of architectural components. Table 13.5-1 provides various architectural components and the seismic coefficients required to determine the force level the attachments and supports are to be designed for.

Mechanical and electrical components consist of floor-mounted and suspended equipment. It also includes suspended distributed utilities such as ducts, pipes or conduits. These components are essential in providing the necessary functions of a building. In a hospital, these components are required to be fully functioning both during and after a seismic event. A disruption of these components can make an entire hospital building unusable. In order for hospitals to properly service the needs of the public after a seismic event, fully functioning equipment is essential.

Failed attachments to a chiller after the 1994 Northridge Earthquake. (FEMA 74, 1994)
Failed attachments to a chiller after the 1994 Northridge Earthquake. (FEMA 74, 1994)

Section 13.6 of ASCE 7-10 provides the requirements of seismic bracing for mechanical and electrical components. Table 13.6-1 provides a list of typical components and the coefficients required to determine the force level the attachments and supports are to be designed for.

Chapter 13 lists some typical requirements for which components are to be anchored and supported under specific conditions:

  1. Section 13.1.4 item 6c: Any component weighing more than 400 pounds.
  2. Section 13.1.4 item 6c: Any component where its center of gravity is more than 4 feet above the floor.
  3. Section 13.6.5.6 has specific electrical conduit size and weight requirements.
  4. Section 13.6.7 has specific size and weight requirements for suspended duct systems.
  5. Section 13.6.7 has specific size and weight requirements for suspended piping systems.

The chapter also has some general exceptions to the rules:

  1. 12 Inch Rule: When a distributed system such as conduit ducts or pipes are suspended from the structure with hangers less than 12 inches in length, seismic bracing is not required.
  2. If the support carrying multiple pipes or conduits weighs less than 10 pound/feet of lineal weight of the component, the seismic bracing of the support does not have to be considered.
Example of a support with multiple pipes and the hanger rod length. These exceptions do have limitations, which that are clearly listed in Ssections 13.6.5.6, 13.6.7 and 13.6.8.
Example of a support with multiple pipes and the hanger rod length.

These exceptions do have limitations that are clearly listed in Sections 13.6.5.6, 13.6.7 and 13.6.8.

These systems may not seem important in the structural systems of a building, but they are essential in allowing the building to function the way it was designed to serve the public. It is also important that occupants are able to escape a damaged building after a seismic event. Obstacles such as bookcases blocking exit doors or falling debris may prevent occupants from leaving a building after a seismic event.

It is important that Designers are aware of these code requirements and take the time to read and understand what is needed to provide a safe structure.