About the California Special Civil Engineering Exams: Seismic and Surveying

About the California Special Civil Seismic Exams: Seismic and Surveying


California requires civil PE candidates to pass two state-specific exams in addition to the national NCEES civil exam. These exams are called Seismic Principles and Engineering Surveying. They are given twice a year, in April and October, on the day after the NCEES civil exam is administered. Each exam is 2-1/2 hours long and consists of about 50 multiple-choice problems. The exams are independent, meaning that if you pass one and not the other, you need only retake the one you didn't pass.

Units: Both the Seismic Principles and the Engineering Surveying exams use U.S. customary units.

For More Info: For detailed information on these exams, please visit the California state board website.

Seismic Principles Exam

Seismic Principles is defined as the fundamental principles, tasks and knowledges underlying those activities involved in the California practice of seismic design, seismic analysis or seismic evaluation of new and existing civil engineering projects such as:

  • buildings
  • non-building structures
  • non-structural components, equipment and lifelines

Per the California State Board: the Seismic Principles exam utilizes the 2013 California Building Code (CBC), which is based on the 2012 International Building Code (IBC).

Problems on the Seismic Principles exam represent the following content areas:

Seismic Data and Design Criteria (8%)
Tasks required for the development of the project seismic design methodology considering the effects that the seismic environment has on the civil engineering project.

  1. Practice in accordance to laws, codes and standards governing seismic design
    • Laws regulating civil engineering/limits of practice
    • Applicable codes for civil engineering construction
  2. Identify design performance goals for a project
    • Seismic design philosophy of the applicable code
  3. Determine site related coefficients
    • Geologic seismic hazards and geotechnical data that affect design, including liquefaction
    • Site related seismic coefficients
    • Natural period of the structure and the expected period of the seismic ground motion
  4. Determine effects of site characteristics on a structure
    • Geologic seismic hazards and geotechnical data that affect design, including liquefaction
    • Site related seismic coefficients
    • Natural period of the structure and the expected period of the seismic ground motion
  5. Determine seismic design category
    • Seismic design categories
    • Building occupancy categories
    • Seismic importance factors

Seismic Characteristics of Engineered Systems (17%)
Tasks required selecting new seismic structural systems, to understand the methods of strengthening existing structural systems and to recognize seismic performance and damage vulnerability of structures.

  1. Select appropriate seismic resisting structural system for a new or existing structure
    • Different structural systems and their design parameters
    • Limitations of different structural systems
  2. Identify effects of structural characteristics on seismic design/performance
    • Requirements for structure having plan irregularities (e.g., torsional response, re-entrant corner, out-of-plane offset)
    • Requirements for a structure having vertical irregularities (e.g., vertical discontinuities, offsets, soft stories)
    • Drift and P-Delta to control deflections
    • Effects of ductility and damping on seismic performance
    • Effects of redundancy on seismic performance
  3. Evaluate vulnerability of structures with previous poor seismic performance
    • Anchorage and stability in unreinforced masonry (URM) bearing wall buildings
    • Buckling or brittle connections in steel-braced frames
    • Weak connections in precast concrete structures
    • Punching shear problems in flat slab concrete structures
    • Diaphragm to wall connection problems in tilt-up and masonry buildings
    • Welded connection problems in steel moment frames
    • Post-earthquake safety evaluation
  4. Determine methods for improving seismic performance of existing structures
    • Methods to improve seismic performance and the effects on the existing structure
    • Methods and effects of adding stiffness to protect brittle elements
    • Methods and effects of improving ductility of brittle elements
    • Methods and effects of strengthening connections in structural elements

Seismic Forces (35%)
Tasks required for the determination and distribution of seismic forces.

  1. Determine structural characteristics required to calculate seismic design forces
    • Mass and stiffness
    • Methods to determine the structure's fundamental period
    • Reliability, redundancy and other seismic factors
    • Choice and application of structural system seismic coefficients
  2. Determine seismic design forces for buildings
    • Static force procedures and formulas
    • Choice and application of seismic importance factors
    • Design base shear
    • Design lateral force formulas
  3. Perform vertical distribution of seismic forces for buildings
    • Vertical force distribution
  4. Determine seismic diaphragm forces
    • Design seismic forces on diaphragms
  5. Determine seismic forces for elements of structures
    • Design seismic forces on elements of structures
    • Out-of-plane seismic forces on elements of structures
    • Use of overstrength factor
  6. Determine seismic forces for non-building structures
    • Choice and application of non-building structural system seismic coefficients
    • Design seismic forces on non-building structures
  7. Determine seismic forces for non-structural building components and equipment
    • Choice and application of non-structural building component seismic coefficients
    • Design seismic forces on non-structural building components

Seismic Analysis Procedures (30%)
Tasks required for the analysis of engineered structures.

  1. Perform analysis of lateral force resisting systems
    • Applicable load combinations
    • Deflection and drift requirements
  2. Perform the distribution of seismic forces to structural elements
    • Distribution of internal and external forces
    • Methods used to calculate rigidities of structural elements
    • Distribution of seismic forces based on rigidity
    • Diaphragm chord forces, drag forces and diaphragm shear
    • Methods to distribute shear forces to structural elements
  3. Perform the seismic analysis of diaphragms (e.g., rigid and flexible)
    • Assumptions controlling the analysis for rigid diaphragms
    • Methods to determine centers of rigidity and mass
    • Methods to distribute shear forces to structural elements
    • Torsional moment requirements in rigid diaphragms
    • Assumptions controlling the analysis of flexible diaphragms
    • Sub-diaphragm analysis

Seismic Detailing and Construction Quality Control (10%)
Tasks required for the seismic detailing of structural elements and assemblies and for the quality control requirements necessary to assure seismic performance.

  1. Identify the detailing requirements that are critical for seismic performance (e.g., load path, wall anchorage, chord and collector)
    • Seismic detailing and inherent seismic performance characteristics for steel
    • Seismic detailing and inherent seismic performance characteristics for concrete
    • Seismic detailing and inherent seismic performance characteristics for masonry
    • Seismic detailing and inherent seismic performance characteristics for wood
    • Deformation compatibility requirements for structural and non-structural elements
    • Required building separation
    • Requirements for ties and continuity, collectors or drags
    • Requirements for anchorage of concrete and masonry walls
  2. Recognize need for construction quality control of the seismic design aspects of the project (e.g., testing, special inspection and observation requirements)
    • Testing requirements
    • Special inspection requirements
    • Structural observation requirements

Engineering Survey Exam

Engineering Surveying is defined as those activities involved in the practice and application of surveying principles for the location, design, construction and maintenance and operation of engineered projects.

Problems on the Engineering Surveying exam represent the following content areas:

Standards of Practice (6%)
Standards of Practice include knowledge of the laws regulating engineering surveying and the standards of care required.

  1. Practice in accordance to laws regulating engineering surveying and limits of practice
    • Characteristics and purposes of subdivision maps (Subdivision Map Act) as it applies to the Business and Professions Code 6731.1
    • Professional Engineer's (PE) Act

Equipment and Uses (8%)
Engineering surveying equipment and uses include the types of equipment used and their application for gathering and interpreting field data and for construction layout.

  1. Distinguish the purposes and procedures of different survey types
    • Control surveys (purpose and procedures)
    • Construction surveys (purpose and procedures)
    • Route surveys (purpose and procedures)
    • Topographic surveys (purpose and procedures)
  2. Identify the capabilities and limitations of survey instruments and equipment
    • Total Station
    • Leveling equipment
    • Global Positioning System (GPS)
    • Other surveying equipment (e.g., engineer's transit, survey prism, plumb bob, Electronic Distance Measurement (EDM)

Field Measurements (28%)
Engineering surveying field measurements include the methods and procedures for determining distances, angles and elevations.

  1. Perform construction surveying (e.g., construction staking)
    • Construction layout requirements
    • Horizontal and vertical curve layout
    • Horizontal and vertical control layout
    • Line and grade layout
    • Offset distance computations
    • Procedures for establishing points on a line
    • Procedures for locating a single point
    • Geometric properties and equations of a curve
    • Curve deflections
    • Procedures for calculating a horizontal curve (e.g., beginning of a curve, end of a curve, intersection)
    • Properties of compound and reversing curves
    • Procedures for calculating the intersection of a curve and a straight line
    • Procedures for calculating a vertical curve (e.g., stationing, highest/lowest point, rate of gradient)
    • Procedures for calculating profile grade (slope) and elevations on the tangents
  2. Perform the measurement of horizontal distances
    • Measuring horizontal distances
    • Measuring slope distances
  3. Perform the measurement of angles
    • Measuring horizontal angles
    • Measuring deflection angles
    • Relationships between azimuths, bearings, back bearings and angles
  4. Perform the measurement of elevations
    • Measuring vertical (profile) distances
    • Leveling methods (e.g., differential, profile, trigonometric, cross-section)

Calculations (33%)
Engineering surveying calculations are the analytical methods for applying the mathematical relationships between measured distances, angles and elevations.

  1. Perform leveling calculations from field data to determine elevations
    • Leveling calculations (e.g., error analysis, checking and creating notes, adjusting)
  2. Perform traverse survey calculations
    • General trigonometric and geometric formulas (triangles, angles and lines)
    • Leveling calculations (e.g., error analysis, checking and creating notes, adjusting)
    • Trigonometric relationships to determine the area of a polygon
    • Procedures for calculating distances from coordinates
    • Procedures for calculating bearings or azimuths from coordinates
    • Coordinate geometry relationships (curves, points and lines)
    • Procedures for calculating area
  3. Perform rectangular coordinate system calculations
    • Procedures for calculating distances from coordinates
    • Procedures for calculating bearings or azimuths from coordinates
    • Coordinate geometry relationships (curves, points and lines)
  4. Perform calculations to determine quantities of construction materials
  5. Methods and procedures for calculating volumes of materials (e.g., mass diagrams, average end, cross-sections)

Data Application Procedures (25%)
Engineering surveying data application procedures include the research and planning for field surveys and the conversion of field data to an engineering format.

  1. Perform processing of field data
    • Field notes formats
    • Plotting profiles
    • Plotting cross-sections
    • Plotting field points and data
    • Applications of stationing
    • Relationship between grade lines and cross-sections
  2. Obtain information from legal descriptions and easement data pertinent to engineering surveying projects
    • Formats and terminology of legal descriptions as it applies to the Business and Professions Code 6731.1
    • Different types of easement data
  3. Use of datums for horizontal and vertical control
    • Different types of horizontal datums
    • Different types of vertical datums (e.g., bench marks)
  4. Prepare topographic and planimetric maps
    • Contour intervals
    • Methods to plot contours from field information
    • Methods for interpolating elevations
    • Applications of Geographic Information Systems (GIS)
  5. Interpret maps
    • Map scales
    • Units of conversion
    • Exaggerated scales
    • Plan and profile as it applies to the Business and Professions Code 6731.1
    • Characteristics and purposes of underground mapping
    • Characteristics and purposes of topographic mapping
    • Characteristics and purposes of grading plans
    • Characteristics and purposes of improvement plans (e.g., street, traffic signal, storm drain, water)
    • Applications of Geographic Information Systems (GIS)

Exam review materials and references are available in the Seismic and the Surveying sections of our Web Catalog.

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