Officials begin review of design, construction of Carroll school with faulty water system

State inspectors had OK'd plumbing work in building

January 19, 1999|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

As parents raised concerns about how the flawed water-heating system at Linton Springs Elementary passed inspection in the fall, school officials said they've begun a thorough review of design and construction of the new school.

"How in the heck could these problems not get caught when the building was inspected during construction?" asked Steve Brooks, who has three children at the $8 million school, which opened in August. "It just smells, it reeks -- of somebody not doing their job or of somebody looking the other way."

Serious flaws were found in the system last Tuesday, and it was immediately shut down. As an interim measure, three 180-gallon commercial hot-water heaters were installed at the school until corrections can be made.

School officials say no danger to children exists.

The flaws involve the installation of the wrong pressure-relief valve on the water-heating system and the absence of back-flow devices, which ensure that hot water is not pushed into the school's cold-water faucets and toilets.

A similar problem at a Baltimore elementary school in 1996 resulted in an accident that severely burned a first-grader.

Kathleen Sanner, Carroll's director of support service, said school officials are trying to determine how the problems went undetected, after at least two inspections of the system.

"We're still doing a lot of trying to figure out who dropped the ball," Sanner said.

Hot water for hand-washing was available at Linton Springs through the interim system last week, but water temperatures weren't high enough for kitchen purposes. Health department inspectors are scheduled to visit the kitchen today to determine if it could resume operations. In the meantime, students have been eating lunches prepared at South Carroll High School.

Edwin Beane, president of the Linton Springs PTA, said school officials informed PTA officers last Tuesday of the problems. Beane said he's confident they have taken the appropriate steps to ensure pupils' safety.

He is concerned the problems were overlooked by inspectors.

"This is something more than a normal [construction] punch-list type of matter," Beane said. "This is a facility-shutdown type of problem."

It will be two weeks before school officials have an idea of the extra costs associated with the problems at Linton Springs.

Vernon F. Smith, Carroll's assistant superintendent of administration, said school officials have begun a thorough review of design and construction documents for Linton Springs.

"We have to determine if the system was installed according to specifications, all the way back to design and engineering," Smith said. "As a project unfolds, at various stages inspectors are called in to look at critical points."

Sanner said the prepackaged water-heating system was the first used by county schools. School design consultants, RHL of Frederick, had recommended the system, she said.

Officials with the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation discovered inadequacies with Linton Springs' hot-water system during an inspection last week. The system was approved by the same department's inspection unit before the school opened.

In a worst-case scenario, in which all backup systems failed, the problems found at Linton Springs could cause an explosion of the water-heating unit or the release of hot water into the cold-water piping system, Sanner said.

Problems that require design changes were also uncovered at Cranberry Station Elementary School, which is under construction in Westminster.

Last week, Karen Napolitano, the Labor, Licensing and Regulation Department's director of public information, said the state had tightened its hot-water system and boiler inspection process in the past six months. All inspectors have not been trained in the new procedures, which require them to look specifically for back-flow devices. Regulations requiring the devices were adopted in 1993.

Brooks, who's in the residential construction business, said these types of problems should not be difficult to spot.

"This isn't rocket science," he said. "It's common sense application and construction."

Sanner said state inspectors and reviewers from the school board's insurance carrier must approve a school's water-heating system before the building can be occupied.

Local inspectors must make sure a school meets county plumbing codes, Smith said. However, the ultimate authority lies with state inspectors.

He said state boiler inspectors will conduct inspections at other county schools built after 1993, to ensure the systems meet safety codes. School engineers have begun their own safety checks at the five schools.

Carroll schools have 45 days to bring their water-heating systems into compliance with state regulations.

School board member Susan Krebs said she was impressed by school officials' response to the problem.

"Parents are just glad that they've looked into it and took care of it quickly," she said.

Pub Date: 1/19/99

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