Major boiler repairs needed City schools to spend $2 million to replace or fix unsafe equipment; 42 systems unapproved; At least two schools require new boilers, Schmoke says


Recent city and state inspections of boilers in Baltimore schools have revealed widespread code violations and safety problems that will require about $2 million in repairs and replacements this fall.

When the inspections began last month, city officials did not anticipate purchasing large equipment and predicted that the majority of repairs required would be small jobs, such as installing safety valves.

Now, the evaluation provides the city its first broad look at the effect of putting off boiler maintenance for years. Inspectors have been in 179 buildings and have identified dozens of boilers that are unsafe to operate.

Awaiting repairs or replacement equipment yesterday were 10 schools that are without hot water and 42 schools that have no boiler approved for operation. At the inspectors' urging, the city must purchase new boilers for "at least two schools," Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said yesterday.

The inspections and repairs this fall came after articles in The Sun described a school water heater accident that severely burned a 7-year-old student, and a state audit that found boiler maintenance and safety problems in dozens of other schools.

Seven-year-old Ashley Moore was burned with scalding water and steam that spewed from a toilet at Hazelwood Elementary-Middle School. The incident was caused when safety features on a water heating system failed, sending hot water into the school's cold water lines. That water heater had never been inspected, and some of its safety features were defective, state boiler inspectors alleged.

Schmoke responded by ordering a school-by-school review, which state inspectors later agreed to perform with city maintenance employees. Their work was nearly complete this week.

Meanwhile, inspectors from the city's insurer, Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Co., also have been inspecting the boilers, which they have been responsible for monitoring.

"It is hoped now that all of the short-term problems will be taken care of within the next few weeks," Schmoke said yesterday at his weekly news conference.

Citywide, the inspectors have found school boilers that passed previous inspections by the private company, but that cannot now be operated because they need repairs or are unsafe.

The cost of immediate repairs -- $1.5 million to $2 million -- has risen to four times what his staff previously announced, but still is "a conservative estimate," said Superintendent Walter G. Amprey.

Amprey confirmed that two schools will need new boilers, which can cost as much as $100,000 plus labor, depending on the model needed. The boilers have been ordered, but won't arrive for a couple of weeks. Public officials have not identified the two schools.

Ileana C. O'Brien, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, said state inspectors were pleased with the mayor's plan inspection and repair plans.

"We're very happy the mayor has pulled together the group he's pulled together," she said. "We have already seen an increased commitment to quality repairs." A priority list of immediate and long-term maintenance problems is emerging from the nearly complete inspections, the mayor said. State inspectors have focused on making at least one boiler per school ready to provide hot water and heat as cold weather approaches.

Elias Dorsey, the city's deputy health commissioner, said his staff also has been inspecting the school, fearful that students' and workers' health might be jeopardized by the lack of hot water in kitchens and bathrooms.

At most schools hot water was off for only a few days or hours.

But at others, including the Baltimore School for the Arts, the boilers were so old or decrepit that simple repairs would not make them safe.

The art school's two boilers, which warmed classrooms and heat water for showers and sinks, are original to the 1920s building, a former hotel. Both were tagged unsafe and unusable by inspectors more than two weeks ago -- even though the insurer had previously allowed them to pass muster.

Yesterday, after students had gone without for two weeks, hot water was restored when a water heater was installed -- but that does not solve the problem of lack of heat.

"Some mornings it has been chilly, but there isn't anything we can do about that. Until we get this repaired, the students will just have to sit in drafty classrooms," said Stanley Romanstein, principal of the school.

Maintenance officials have given age-old advice to the students and staff: "Wear a sweater."

Other schools lacking hot water will get water heaters or repairs within the next week, said Wilbur Giles, school facilities director.

Baltimore does not have the resources to replace all the boilers that could be updated, but will deal with those considered safety priorities at this time, Schmoke said yesterday.

About six years ago, preparing for a state commission on school spending, city officials said almost 60 boilers should be replaced or overhauled, at a cost of nearly $27 million. Few have actually been replaced due to the cost. This estimate will be updated when the final report from recent inspections is compiled, Amprey said.

"What we're going to do is just continue to work with the state inspectors and try to get this problem solved, and then worry about the finance issues afterward," Schmoke said.

Steps have been taken to ensure that for the future, boiler maintenance, safety and inspections are improved, he said.

"We're going to figure out ways in which we can work with the unions in the future on an inspection program that might augment what we currently have," Schmoke said, "and then work with the state officials so we can avoid having this problem again."

Training will be improved for the workers who maintain school buildings daily, he said.

"They gave me an example of some of the janitors going by these boilers and seeing them drip -- so they will put a bucket under the drip and maybe they'll call somebody, and maybe they won't," Schmoke said. "They actually need the knowledge to know whether this is a serious problem, whether there's some system failure."

Amprey said the school system would use city apprenticeship programs and work with the unions to educate the custodians better. Also, he wants to involve high school vocational programs to improve the supply of trained boiler maintenance workers.

"We recognize that our own people are woefully trained and we're working now on correcting our internal training program," the superintendent said.

Decades ago, the schools had licensed engineers or trained maintenance workers to monitor and adjust boilers.

Pub Date: 10/11/96

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad