“It defies logic and probability that a normally very reliable pump motor would just spontaneously fail and burn while a technician was inspecting the system”

Photo by PoPville flickr user Beau Finley

“Dear PoPville,

I’m on the Condo Board for a small multi-unit building in DC – and we’re having a crisis with our fire suppression (sprinkler) system and the contractor who conducts the routine inspections of that system that are required by the DC Fire Code. I was wondering if any other readers have had similar experiences and/or could offer any advice.

Earlier this week, one of the contractor’s technicians was in the room housing the sprinkler system (fire) pump motor while conducting the quarterly inspection of our sprinkler system. Somehow, the pump motor caught on fire and was irreparably damaged. The technician claims that the motor spontaneously caught fire while his back was turned – and that he did nothing to precipitate the fire. Now, we have to purchase a new motor (at great expense) and while we’re waiting for delivery/installation (6+ days) – we have to pay over $2000 a day to another contractor to provide multiple 24/7 “fire watch” personnel for our building (as required by the DC Fire Code).

It defies logic and probability that a normally very reliable pump motor would just spontaneously fail and burn while a technician was inspecting the system AND that the technician did nothing to cause the fire. Another contractor took a quick look at the damaged motor and they were not able to determine an obvious cause of the fire. This incident is going to devastate our Condo Association’s budget; we need to figure out how to pass these costs to the responsible party. We have insurance (obviously) but we’re still left with the significant fire watch costs and a steep deductible.

Any ideas?”

15 Comment

  • I’m guessing it’s time to lawyer up, and prepare to sue the crap out of that inspector.

  • thebear

    Unfortunately, little you can do, unless you have video showing the guy doing something to cause the failure. My building is having a sprinkler system put in and had a pump overheat, fill the garage with smoke, and trip the alarm. Twice in 1 week.

    You should definitely reach out to the manufacturer of the failed pump. See if there is any applicable warranty or known-issue that could provide you with a free or reduced-cost replacement. If you are paying full price for the replacement, look into getting a warranty extension, or annual maintenance plan for it. Paying for that will undoubtedly be cheaper than what you’re going through now.

    As for costs, these are things that most condo boards don’t factor into their fees. Your board needs to do a hard assessment of the things that can go wrong that will likely cost a lot to fix/clean up after. Building plumbing & electrical. Fire protection. Window & door replacement. HVAC replacement. Sleuth their expected useful lifetimes and the costs to repair/replace. That’s a ballpark of how much extra you must build into your reserves. Yeah, it’s going to hurt, but it seems that your fees have been too low to actually support the building.

  • Pablo Raw

    An idea would be to contact the manufacturer of the pump, or check online for similar incidents with that specific model of pump. Something that comes to mind is that sometimes (I’ve heard) when sprinkler systems are not checked periodically, could be that they actually don’t have any water on them (I think it was possible in older designs but not now, there is an extra valve in older systems if I remember correctly) and maybe the contractor run the pump and the system didn’t have any water, overheated, got on fire.
    It wouldn’t hurt to contact your maintenance company and see how often the sprinkler system has been checked and when was the last time it was checked and working fine. Just an idea.

  • This reminds me that I haven’t had my sprinkler system inspected in several years. Does anyone have a good company to recommend? (And can we know this one to avoid?)

  • I get what you’re saying here though. What are the chances of this inspector being in the room at the exact time that it malfunctions? I’d say little to none. I have no answers better than what they’ve given above but I feel for you. This is someone not taking responsibility for their actions. I hope you are able to find a way to be compensated. Any chance this inspector has a connection to the company you’re paying to watch the building for 6 days?

  • I wouldn’t exactly put this on the inspector so quickly. Think about it: he is there to ensure that the sprinkler system is operating properly, and part of that inspection includes running the various components of the system to ensure they are OK. Components that sit idle at all other times, unless your building has a lot of fires and the sprinklers are always turning on. If the pump had gone bad due to age, rust, whatever in between inspections (the only time it is likely EVER turned on) then it stands to reason it would go kaput when the inspector was down there inspecting. Would you rather have it happen then or when the building was on fire? Get it replaced, and contact the manufacturer or original installer to complain if you think it failed prematurely.

  • You didn’t check out the contractor did you? It’s an old scam, he messes the system up then gets commission from the new one.

    These guys are pro’s and you cannot prove a thing. even if you prove the fire was started on purpose and point the finger at him, he can say the same about you.

    If you have expensive equipment you should install camera’s. and. check. contractor. references. from. reliable. sources.

  • this sounds like a scene with Bruce Dern in Nebraska

  • Wonder if the old electrical connections were cruddy, you may have had low voltage and caused it to overheat and catch fire?

  • If you can get no other recourse then please name and shame. 525,600 minutes a year and the thing catches on fire during the 5 minutes a contractor is in there? Surely a competent contractor knows how to test the pieces of a system without lighting it on fire. Also what a racket that fire watch protection is $2000 a day. Surely it doesn’t cost nearly $100 an hour to pay someone who can tell whether or not a building is on fire.

  • It is not necessarily at all unlikely or illogical that this would occur during an inspection.

    Does the condo have engineering staff who do a weekly fire pump churn test and regular preventive maintenance on the pump? Electrical connections need to be checked regularly and tightened as necessary. The pump and motor bearings need occasional lubrication and in most cases the cooling system for the pump bearings (water drip) will fail if it is not exercised.

    If you do not have personnel doing this, then the pump only runs during the quarterly churn tests and the annual flow test (4 times a year vs the typically recommended 52). If there was an underlying fault, it would only arise on these occasions. Any overlooked maintenance would only make it more likely to occur that this time.

  • It’s possible, but the odds are really small.

    I think it’s worth contacting your association insurance company and the pump manufacturer. Both have a financial interest in making sure it was working properly. Most manufacturers will have a local field rep who can come out and check the pump. Make sure you save it.

    Depending on you association deductible and fine print, they may have some financial responsibility.

    If either one thinks the circumstances are suspicious, they may send an engineer to check the pump. A PE (professional engineer) may come to a different conclusion than the service company. If a PE comes to a different conclusion, the responsibility would fall on the liability insurance of the service company.

    I have personally had building components fail during an inspection that we were not even inspecting at the time.

  • Its quite possible that this technician was responsible for this.He had a valve closed,the term is called dead head. This happens when a motor is pumping against a closed valve with the water having no place to go.Two things can happen the pipe can rupture meaning burst or split or you burn your motor up.Motors have very long lives up to 20 years.I work for the Army Corps of Engineers and work with pumps and motors frequently

  • Is the burnt out pump still available, or did he take the evidence with him? Seems likely a forensic inspection of the unit might reveal what caused it to go bad.

  • Your insurance company may be interested in making an investigation.

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