Union Village furnace and heater dangers cited

January 22, 1995|By Donna E. Boller | Donna E. Boller,Sun Staff Writer

Water heaters and gas furnaces in the Union Village townhouses in Westminster were installed in violation of Carroll's mechanical code 13 years ago and may pose safety hazards, inspectors recently discovered.

The heaters and furnaces at the Union Street neighborhood are in tiny closets with inadequate air intakes, county permits and inspections staff members report. The landlord may be ordered to fix the water heater and furnace housings.

Officials said gas could build up and explode if the units malfunction, or that improperly installed exhaust pipes may allow carbon monoxide, a deadly colorless, odorless gas, to seep back into the townhouses.

The landlord, Housing Ownership Purchase Effort Inc. of Carroll County, said it doesn't see any safety threats and doesn't plan jTC any changes. The private, nonprofit corporation owns 20 townhouses on Union Street.

"Due to the expense involved, it is the intention of [HOPE] to not change . . . the furnace-water heater setup in the townhouses. . . . We do not feel that these items are a safety hazard or life threatening," HOPE President Bernard L. Jones Sr. said in a letter to Greg Keller, county minimum livability code coordinator.

Mr. Keller discovered the code violations when he inspected an apartment in response to a tenant's complaint.

Code requirements such as safety switches outside rather than inside the closets that house the heating units may sound like fine points.

But, "If you have a fire occur within the fan unit, you don't want to get close to the unit," Mr. Keller said. "A safety switch would shut it off." He gave HOPE a Jan. 1 deadline to:

* Have a technician certify that the furnace and hot water heater installation "is adequate and meets the intent of our code." Mr. Keller said if HOPE could produce an expert to allay the concerns, the county government might accept that certification lieu of renovations.


* Come up with a plan to resolve problems such as a single air intake. The code requires two so the gas will burn efficiently and keep the units from shutting off, as they should if there isn't enough oxygen.

Other problems include a safety switch inside the closet rather than remote from the heater and furnace as the code requires, no space for a repair worker to get into the closet to fix broken heaters or furnaces and the potential for carbon monoxide to leak from exhaust pipes back into the townhouses.

Mr. Jones said the county government inspected the townhouses and issued occupancy permits when they were built in 1982. The units are all of the same design.

"I just question the validity of the county saying now it's not approved," the HOPE board president said.

But county officials say they lack the personnel to inspect mechanical systems in all new dwellings.

"The builder is required to meet the mechanical code, but there is no enforcement of the code in Carroll County," said Ralph E. Green, county permits and inspections bureau chief.

The county doesn't have enough inspectors to check for mechanical code violations before issuing an occupancy permit, said. The code regulates how gas or oil burners are installed and fumes are carried outside.

Mr. Green said the county will do mechanical inspections, however, if a resident reports possible violations.

Mr. Green said that if the townhouses were designed without adequate clearance for the water heater and furnace and without adequate distance between exhaust pipes, the violations would not have shown up in the plans review. Builders are not required to submit mechanical plans for review.

If a county building inspector happens to spot a mechanical code violation while preparing an occupancy permit, Mr. Green said, "I'd go after the general contractor. I'd say, 'You're in violation of the building code because you don't meet the mechanical code.' "

Mr. Green now has to decide whether to compel HOPE to bring the water heater and furnace closets up to county code standards. He said he will research 1982 code requirements and review the case file before making a decision.

Options include ordering the landlord to make repairs or, if HOPE refuses, have the units vacated. Mr. Green said his goal is "to negotiate this out as a win-win situation, so [tenants] get a safe place to occupy."

County plans examiner Dick Owings said his two major concerns were lack of oxygen needed to make the units operate efficiently and the lack of adequate space for a repair or maintenance technician to work on them. He said exhaust pipes in one townhouse are too close together "so there is a possibility [gas] could leak back into the room. That can be serious because it's carbon monoxide."

Allen Ward, deputy chief fire marshal, said Maryland apparently doesn't require safety valves that shut off the flow of gas to hot water heaters and furnaces when the pilot light goes out. He said the fire marshal's office has no record of any calls to Union Village.

The Sun was unable to learn whether the Carrier brand furnaces in Union Village have safety shut-off valves.

However, the hot water heaters have safety valves that cut off gas when the pilot light goes out or when the water reaches a specific temperature, said Elmer Snow, assistant manager for customer service for Rheem Manufacturing Co., which made the unit.

The Farmers Home Administration, which subsidizes the units, has also been inspecting the townhouses and checking HOPE's records during the last three months in response to tenant complaints.

A Farmers Home inspector who checked units in October found them generally in satisfactory condition except for some leaking roof vents, missing shingles, storm doors that wouldn't close and units needing fresh paint and carpeting.

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