School uncovers source of odor Faulty valve caused alcohol smell in water

March 12, 1996|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

The guessing games are over at Carroll Springs School: A plumber has found not only the source of the rubbing-alcohol odor in the school's water, but also the cause.

A valve that regulates the mixing of hot and cold water was leaking diethyl ether from a diaphragm that expands and contracts according to the water temperature. The valve was probably weakened by a hot water heater set too high, said Vernon Smith, director of support services for Carroll County schools.

"That was the source of the problem all along; it had nothing to do with the solar panels on top of the building," Mr. Smith said. The solar panels were the prime suspects when the odor was first noticed Jan. 23. The panels contained an antifreeze, and officials wondered whether that had leaked into the water system.

The valve regulates the flow of hot water, allowing it to mix with cold water before coming out of the tap. A school plumber found the faulty valve Wednesday and upon further investigation this week learned that the water heater was set at 180 degrees. The limit for the valves is listed at 160 degrees.

The diethyl ether would not have harmed anyone, because the strong odor makes its presence known before it could reach a toxic level, said Charles Zeleski, assistant director of environmental health at the Carroll County Health Department.

"The levels have to be so high to cause any health risks that the odor [from even a low concentration] prevents anyone from ingesting it -- drinking it or using it," Mr. Zeleski said.

Teachers first noticed the rubbing-alcohol odor Jan. 23 in the hot tap water from the sinks in Rooms 9 and 12.

The school stopped using its sinks and drinking fountains while health and school officials investigated. The staff used 50-gallon drums with spigots for the hand-washing that is an essential part of the care of handicapped students, many of whom use diapers or feeding tubes.

No specific health effects were noticed, and attendance did not change for students or teachers, said Peggy Kern Payne, a teacher in Room 9. But she and other teachers and parents were concerned enough to consult with their own doctors for testing and advice.

On March 4, the school resumed using its water except in Rooms 9 and 12, which still had a faint alcohol odor that officials believed might be residual. The school maintenance staff continued to flush the water system each day and did not reconnect the solar panels that used to heat the swimming pool.

But the the odor came back Wednesday -- in a different part of the building. That ruled out the solar panels, and plumbers began to investigate further, Mr. Smith said. That same afternoon, a plumber discovered the faulty valve.

The valve is a brass cylinder about 4 inches long encasing a diaphragm filled with diethyl ether that expands and contracts depending on the water temperature. It mixes the hot water coming from the school's hot water tank with cold water to temper what comes out of the tap.

"So we're going ahead and replacing all the diaphragms in these mixing valves -- about nine of them have been located throughout the building," Mr. Smith said. Also, the water heater has been turned down to between 140 and 160 degrees.

Pub Date: 3/12/96

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