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Defective sprinkler heads must be replaced

Sat., July 14, 2007

OLYMPIA – Roughly half a million potentially defective fire sprinkler heads are in homes, apartments and other buildings across Washington, the state Fire Marshal’s Office said Tuesday, urging people to sign up for a massive free replacement program before an Aug. 31 deadline.

“We’re certainly concerned. This is a fire- and life-safety issue,” said Assistant State Fire Marshal Anjela Foster.

And because of July 1 changes in state fire codes, replacing recalled sprinkler heads is mandatory. Unless property owners sign up quickly for the manufacturer-sponsored replacement program, Foster said, they “will pay big bucks to do the work themselves.”

Under the new law, property owners must replace any fire protection system subject to a recall and must notify fire officials in writing that the work has been done. Replacing the heads costs $50 to $75 apiece.

Most of the remaining dangerous sprinklers are likely in residences, fire officials believe.

“We probably still have a few that are still in businesses, but we’ve done a pretty thorough job of getting information out to businesses,” Foster said.

Six years ago, Central Sprinkler Co, an affiliate of Tyco Fire Products, launched a voluntary program to replace more than 35 million “O-ring” style heads nationwide. Under an agreement between Tyco and the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the sign-up period ends this summer. The recall also covers thousands of models sold by Gem Sprinkler Co. and Star Sprinkler Inc. The company says the recall includes models manufactured between the mid-1970s and 2001.

A Central representative couldn’t be reached for comment, but a company Web site set up for the program – – says that Central “strongly encourages” building owners to have their sprinkler heads checked and to sign up for replacements.

Records provided by the company to state fire officials indicate that 1.3 million of the potentially defective heads were installed in Washington schools, hotels, apartments, homes and businesses. Fire officials initially targeted “high-risk occupancies” like hospitals, schools, nursing homes and boarding homes, making sure they signed up for the replacement program. But about 500,000 of the sprinkler heads are apparently still in use.

“We found 3,400 of them last month alone in one of the major chain hotels in Seattle,” said Deputy State Fire Marshal Ken Dellsite.

The sprinkler heads have failed in at least two Washington fires. One sprinkler head didn’t go off until three hours after a recent apartment fire in Renton, according to the Fire Marshal’s Office. And several years ago, three failed at the Puyallup fairgrounds when linseed oil caught fire during a sportsmen’s show.

Most sprinklers are triggered by a bulb or link that shatters or melts when exposed to the heat of flames. The head then pops open, spraying water.

“It’s not like what you see on TV, where all the sprinklers go off,” said Foster. “It’s just the one over the fire.”

In this case, however, the sprinkler problem is a rubber O-ring seal inside the head. Over time, Foster said, it degrades, preventing the head from popping open as designed. Tests by fire officials in Washington found that about a quarter of the sprinklers failed, she said.

It’s difficult for a layman to determine whether a sprinkler is one of the recalled units, Dellsite said. For a visit by a fire official who can spot the problem heads and help with the sign-up process, contact the state Fire Marshal’s Office at (866) 977-7366. Central Sprinkler Co.’s customer service hotline – (866) 505-8553 – can also help building owners figure this out.


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