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Engineers to Conduct Seismic Tests on Fire, Medical Systems

Seismic test building (U.C. San Diego)

Seismic test building (U.C. San Diego)

Structural engineers at University of California in San Diego will begin two weeks of tests on a full-size building to gauge the impact of severe earthquakes on non-structural components, such as fire and elevator systems, as well as on medical facilities. The tests will involve a five-story building (pictured left) constructed on what the university says is the world’s largest shake table, a seismic testing facility. The project is funded by the National Science Foundation, private foundations, and industry partners.

The tests, scheduled to begin on 16 April, are expected to run for two weeks and monitor the building with more than 500 motion and GPS sensors, and some 80 cameras to record the movement of key elements and components inside the building. The simulated tremors will be on a scale similar to the 1994 Northridge quake (6.7) in California, 2002 Denali quake in Alaska (7.9), and the 2010 earthquakes in Chile (8.8) and Peru (8.0).

Elements in the building being monitored include non-structural components, such as fire sprinklers, a working elevator, heating and air conditioning, computer servers, and a range of medical equipment. The 80-foot-tall building also has a large water tower and an air conditioning and heating unit on its roof. Inside, the building’s top two floors will have a surgery suite and intensive care unit, while the third floor will have computer servers.

The university says this test is the first in the U.S. to focus on a broad range of non-structural systems and equipment that can malfunction during an earthquake. Non-structural elements make up an estimated 80 percent of the investment in buildings and thus account for a majority of the losses when an earthquake strikes.

The test is also believed to be the first in the U.S. to test a full-scale base isolation system. That system has large cylindrical rubber bearings that isolate the building from most of the lateral motion it would normally experience during a tremor. Base isolation is widely used in Japan and in new construction in the U.S.

The university engineers will partner with colleagues from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts to study the performance of fire protection systems for insights into damage caused by earthquakes. In May, engineers will conduct fire tests in the building, tracking temperatures and the movement of smoke to help gauge the potential for fire spread in an earthquake-damaged building.

“What we are doing is the equivalent of giving a building an EKG to see how it performs after an earthquake and a post-earthquake fire,” says engineering professor Tara Hutchinson, the project’s lead principal investigator. “The tests will have a significant impact on how engineers model the non-structural components of a building and how they calculate what forces they need to withstand during an earthquake.”

Read more: New PhD Grad, Professor Form Building Technology Company

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