Fire sprinkler recall may leave owners in a jam

Replacements available, but other costs remain

June 17, 1999|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

Liz Chantry bought a townhouse in Russett four years ago, thinking she'd surely be safe in a brand new home.

But she and other owners of new townhouses and condominiums in the west Anne Arundel neighborhood have discovered that the sprinkler heads installed in their homes are the subject of a nationwide recall that has affected millions.

Omega brand sprinkler heads have failed to turn on during fires, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, because of a faulty internal device. The manufacturer will send replacement sprinkler heads, but homeowners are liable for hundreds of dollars in installation costs -- and risk having their homeowner's insurance policies canceled.

"Some of our owners have been here less than a year," Chantry said. "We've been told maybe we can't resell our homes without having the sprinklers replaced. Why didn't our [county] inspectors catch this?"

The CPSC sued Central Sprinkler Corp. of Lansdale, Pa., last year to force the company to remove the Omega sprinkler heads from the market. As part of the settlement, reached last fall, the company agreed to replace the heads at no cost, and to reimburse some owners part of the cost of installation. The CPSC could not force the company to cover all the costs because it would have bankrupted the business. Only those who use sprinkler contractors can be reimbursed, according to the agreement.

Aug. 1 deadline

The amount each owner receives depends on the number of owners who file a claim before Aug. 1. According to one area fire services company, homeowners can expect to pay from $150 to $700 to have the sprinkler heads replaced by a contractor, depending on the number of sprinkler heads, ceiling height and the amount of labor required.

Additionally, each of the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan counties is handling the recall differently. Replacing sprinkler heads is a change to a home fire protection system, which may require permits.

In Anne Arundel, the fire department and permit office agreed to waive the permits and fees if the heads are replaced with ones sent from Central Sprinkler Co. In Baltimore County, permits are needed for sprinkler replacements in apartments or condominiums, but not in homes. No one knows how many homes are affected.

"It just snowballs" in cost and hassle, said Harry Bradley, an engineer with the state fire marshal's office. "It makes a bad situation worse."

In Maryland, homeowners who do not get the devices replaced risk losing their homeowner's insurance or seeing their premiums go up, according to Dennis Carroll, deputy insurance commissioner with the Maryland Insurance Administration. Without sprinkler heads, a home is at a greater risk of fire damage. Whether it is still insurable depends on the underwriting criteria of the policy. Carroll suggested homeowners check their policies.

Nationwide recall

The Omega recall has affected homeowners and institutions throughout the country. Officials say 8.4 million Omega sprinkler heads were installed from 1992 until last year in nursing homes, apartments, prisons, dormitories, hospitals and federal buildings, as well as in homes. The Smithsonian museums, the U.S. Capitol and the White House had to have the heads replaced after the October recall.

According to the CPSC, between 30 percent and 40 percent of Omegas removed from various locations across the country for testing failed to activate properly. Nationwide, Omega sprinklers were defective in 17 fires from 1990 to the present, according to the CPSC. At least four people were injured, suffering from burns and smoke inhalation. More than $4.3 million in property damage has been reported, according to the CPSC.

The problem

The flaw lies in a rubber O-ring that secures a plunger meant to keep water from leaking when there is no fire.

Heat is supposed to melt a plug of solder below the plunger, after which water pressure forces the plunger down and away from the O-ring and spray comes out to douse flames.

In the faulty sprinkler heads, the rubber ring swells and grips the plunger too tightly, requiring higher water pressure to force it open.

Central Sprinkler switched from rubber to silicone O-rings in June 1996. In Maryland, the state fire marshal issued an order against the sprinkler heads with a rubber O-ring in April 1997. The CPSC sued Central Sprinkler last year but settled when the company agreed to the recall.

Russett residents are meeting at 7 p.m. June 23 at the community pool, 3502 Russett Common, to organize, discuss the issue and pass out reimbursement forms. They say they hope their builders will cover the sprinkler replacement under their homeowner warranty.

Details for consumers

The Consumer Product Safety Council announcement on the Omega fire sprinkler recall says:

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