Construction plans may be culprit

Officials seek to pinpoint Linton Springs school's water-heating problems

January 20, 1999|By Brenda J. Buote and Jackie Powder | Brenda J. Buote and Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

Serious problems with the water-heating system at Linton Springs Elementary may have been caused by an error in the construction plans prepared by a Frederick contractor, school officials said yesterday.

"There's no doubt there are things missing from the design that should have been included," Kathleen Sanner, director of support services for Carroll schools, said in reference to critical safety devices missing from the Eldersburg school's system.

Unless instructed by design consultants, Sanner said, manufacturers do not equip the systems with back-flow devices -- safety features that prevent hot water from entering the cold-water system used for hand-washing, kitchen operations and bathroom plumbing. Maryland and Delaware are the only states to have adopted regulations requiring the devices, she said.

"We really haven't ferreted out who's to blame yet; we're fact-finding," said Raymond Prokop, supervisor of Carroll County school construction.

School officials are reviewing the work of everyone involved in the design and construction of Linton Springs Elementary to determine who is responsible for problems with the school's water-heating system.

Problem in Baltimore

The construction plans for the system were prepared by RHL Engineering. The system's flaws include the installation of the wrong pressure-relief valve and the absence of back-flow devices. A similar problem at a Baltimore elementary school resulted in an accident in 1996 that severely burned a first-grader.

The review of Linton Springs is expected to take at least two weeks, school officials said.

Indications are that the mechanical contractor, Glenn E. Waltz Plumbing and Heating of Frederick, installed the water-heating system according to construction plans prepared by RHL.

But Richard H. Lawson, president of RHL, said his firm is not the source of the hot-water system's problems, and that blame may rest with the manufacturer, Weben Jarco of Dallas, Texas.

Specific project

"We apply a piece of equipment to a specific project based on the manufacturer's recommendations," he said. "I think the factory construction and physical heater is the main point."

However, school officials said yesterday that it was unclear whether RHL's construction plans were written to include back-flow devices.

Similar water-heating systems have been installed in Frederick, Washington and Allegany counties, Lawson said. Their schools have not had problems with the prepackaged system, he added.

This was the first time Carroll school officials approved installation of a prepackaged Weben Jarco water heating system. Their approval was based on a recommendation by Lawson, Sanner said.

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

Cafeteria reopens today

The cafeteria at Linton Springs will resume food preparation today. Student lunches have been made at South Carroll High School because the water temperatures of Linton Springs' interim system were not high enough to meet health code requirements.

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

School officials plan to meet tomorrow with insurance company inspectors to schedule checks of the 11 schools built in Carroll after 1993, when codes requiring back-flow devices were adopted.

"Of those 11 facilities, we have one facility in question -- Elmer Wolfe [Elementary School]," Sanner said. "There is a question as to whether or not they have a state certificate" approving the new school's water-heating system. Elmer Wolfe opened in Union Bridge in August.

State and county officials are also trying to determine which agency is responsible for detecting problems with school water-heating systems.

State agency

According to officials at the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, state inspectors are required to check the pressure-relief valve, but county building inspectors -- not state workers -- must check back-flow devices when they examine the plumbing system.

County officials are examining the local plumbing code "to see whether our code requires us to check back flow at that particular location," said Ralph E. Green, bureau chief of permits and inspections for Carroll County.

"If the back-flow devices are missing, you can spot that easily," said a former employee of the state boiler inspection unit, who asked to remain anonymous because he still conducts business with the state. "And as far as the safety relief valve, it is common industry practice in every state to check the valve to make sure it is sized properly; to check the valve for pressure and relieving capacity."

Over the past six months, the DLLR has been routinely inspecting back-flow devices in public buildings, but only because they are "a safety feature that interfaces with the boilers," Napolitano said.

Health of children

"We feel [the inspection] is important in protecting the health and well-being of children in the schools or people in any public facility, not just Carroll County," Napolitano said. "Our experience with Baltimore City schools was a key factor in us becoming more aggressive in pushing this."

In 1996, a first-grader was severely burned when she flushed a toilet at Hazelwood Elementary School, releasing an eruption of scalding water and steam. Had it not been for the girl's trip to the restroom, some state officials said, there could have been an explosion similar to one that killed six children and a teacher at an elementary school in Spencer, Okla., in 1982.

Pub Date: 1/20/99

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