Improper inspection blamed for problems with school boiler; Carroll officials fault state, insurance company


Carroll County school officials have determined that an improper state inspection in September and the lack of an insurance company inspection are to blame for safety violations in a water heating system at Linton Springs Elementary School.

A misunderstanding of the inspection process by Carroll school officials contributed to the problem at the Eldersburg school, which opened in August, said Kathleen Sanner, director of support services for Carroll schools.

Minor boiler code violations were found at nine other county schools that had been identified as having safety concerns, but Sanner said that no serious problems were uncovered by school system or insurance company inspectors.

The safety of water heating systems in Carroll County schools became an issue this month when state inspectors found problems at Linton Springs.

Since then, school officials have been reviewing all work involved in the design and construction of the $8 million school to determine why the problems went undetected before it opened.

The most serious flaws at Linton Springs include the installation of the wrong pressure-relief valve -- which could cause the heating unit to explode -- and the absence of back-flow devices, which prevent hot water from entering the cold water system used in kitchens and bathroom plumbing.

"There was, on everyone's part, a misunderstanding about the role of our own insurance company and how they interacted with the state," Sanner said yesterday, after a week of meetings with insurance officials, state inspectors and engineers.

School officials have traced some of the Linton Springs problems to errors in the construction plans for the water heating system, prepared by RHL Engineering of Frederick.

But Sanner said those problems were not identified because subsequent inspections that should have picked them up were not performed or were not done correctly.

The first problem occurred when school officials failed to submit the Linton Springs construction documents to the school system's insurance company, which offered a "pre-engineering" review.

Carroll County Insurance Agency is the local carrier handling the policy.

"It was never made clear that that service was available to us," Sanner said.

Factory Mutual, the boiler inspection company hired by the insurance company, was to have inspected Linton Springs' water heating system before the school opened.

But the insurance company didn't notify Factory Mutual of the need for an inspection until December, Sanner said.

She said the first state inspector didn't arrive to inspect the water heating system at Linton Springs until September.

"He didn't have the report from the insurance company, and he just signed off," Sanner said. "The state said it was OK, and it really wasn't."

On Jan. 12, problems at Linton Springs were identified by a second state inspector.

Officials at the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation said that the failure of the first inspector to identify the problems stems from a lack of familiarity with regulations adopted by the state in 1993.

Over the past six months, agency officials said the state has been retraining inspectors in the 1993 code, which requires back-flow safety devices.

The state stepped up its training efforts in response to a 1996 accident in a Baltimore school that severely burned a first-grader when the child flushed a toilet at Hazelwood Elementary, releasing an eruption of scalding water and steam.

After the problems at Linton Springs were discovered, school officials immediately installed temporary water heaters.

They are working to repair the water heating system by the end of next month.

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

The safety violations at Linton Springs prompted school officials to inspect the eight other county schools built after 1993, when the codes requiring back-flow devices were adopted.

Insurance company inspectors and school system engineers inspected those schools last week, identifying minor code violations scheduled to be corrected in 30 days, Sanner said.

Pub Date: 1/29/99

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