Bad sprinklers soak folks

Recall: Frequently installed Omega sprinklers are being recalled because they fail in fires. Replacement isn't cheap.

July 11, 1999|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

A decade ago, the state passed a law requiring builders to install sprinklers in new townhouses, apartments and condominiums to reduce the risk of fire. Today, many owners of those homes feel burned.

A recall of one of the most popular sprinkler brands has been ordered and homeowners may have to pay hundreds of dollars to correct the problem.

Those homeowners' opportunity to be reimbursed for the installation of new sprinklers expires Aug. 1, the last day homeowners have to place a claim in a class-action settlement.

For months, builders, property managers and the state fire marshal's office have been trying to let homeowners know about the recall and advise them how to take part in the settlement.

The recall affects all Omega sprinklers, which are made by Central Sprinkler Co. of Lansdale, Pa. While no one knows how many Omega sprinklers were installed in Maryland, the manufacturer estimates that 8.5 million were sold throughout the country from 1983 to 1998.

"We had to replace over 17,000 heads," said Louise J. Hood, president of Residential Realty Group, which manages 75 condominiums and apartments in the Baltimore metropolitan area.

"This is going to cost thousands and thousands of dollars."

Hood said she started hearing in 1997 that the Omega sprinklers -- the most popular choice for townhouse and condominium builders -- might not work properly in a fire.

When insurance companies threatened to cancel the condominium associations' insurance policies unless the sprinklers were replaced, Hood said, action was necessary. While the homeowners technically owned the sprinklers, the management company took charge of coordinating the replacement in each of the units.

Replacement of the sprinklers began in March and will take until September, Hood said. With replacement costs ranging from $10 to $24 per sprinkler, some condominium owners face the prospect of special assessments of up to $200 to pay for the job, Hood said.

The sprinkler troubles date to the mid-1990s, when the Consumer Product Safety Commission investigated reports of Omega sprinklers failing. One such failure was noted during a fire in June 1997 at the Kent Manor Inn in Stevensville, resulting in $8,000 in damage.

Central Sprinkler Co., the nation's second-largest maker of fire sprinklers, manufactured the Omega sprinklers between 1983 and 1998. The Consumer Product Safety Commission found that 30 percent to 40 percent of the Omega sprinklers failed when subjected to high temperatures.

All sprinkler systems have networks of water pipes that lead to multiple sprinkler heads. Various devices hold the water in or send it shooting out as a pressurized spray when heat sets them off.

But the Omega sprinklers hold water in with a plunger, which is sealed with a rubber "O" ring that keeps water from leaking from the head. Investigators found that heat can cause the ring to swell and grip the plunger so tightly that the water cannot be released.

In 1998, the commission and Central Sprinkler agreed to a recall of all Omega sprinklers -- about 8.5 million in 20 models that had been installed in condominiums, apartments, townhouses and public buildings. "It's a public health issue; we decided the safest thing was to recall them," said Central Sprinkler spokeswoman Anne Buchanan.

"That was the most popular head used," said Rick DeFlavis, administrative captain for the Baltimore County Fire Marshal's Office. He said Omega sprinklers have been found in more than 350 townhouse developments, apartment complexes and public buildings in the county.

New heads at no cost

The fire marshal's office has been contacting the owners of public buildings, apartments and condominiums about the recall. Although the state has the authority to require that the sprinkler heads be changed, DeFlavis said, management companies are voluntarily replacing the sprinklers. "It's not to anyone's benefit to ignore it," he said.

As part of a settlement, Central Sprinkler agreed to furnish replacement sprinkler heads at no cost or to pay $5 per sprinkler to customers who opt to buy other sprinkler heads. The company also agreed to set up a trust of at least $8.8 million to help defray the cost of installing the new heads.

Homeowners who apply for compensation by Aug. 1 are eligible to participate in the settlement, although the amount that will be refunded depends on how many property owners apply. The first payments are expected to come after Dec. 1, but few people expect all replacement costs to be covered. In exchange for accepting any payment, homeowners must sign forms releasing Central Sprinkler's distributors, builders and installers from liability for the sale or choice of Omega sprinklers.

Central Sprinkler has received requests to replace several million sprinklers, Buchanan said. "We still need to make sure people take action," she said. "There are still some out there."

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