Connecticut had experienced unseasonably warm weather for the months of November, December and January, with days reaching into the sixties, but by February, winter had returned with a vengeance with nighttime temperatures declining into the minus six degrees range.
On the night of February 20th, as I was just finishing an evening walk, my cell phone rang. It was Brian Donovan, my supervisor and the building official for the town of Stratford. He asked if I were on the couch keeping my feet warm. When I replied that I was not, he requested that I respond to a call he had just received from fire dispatch regarding a broken pipe. Water from the pipe was flowing from a first floor apartment into electrical equipment that was installed in the basement. As part of our duties as town inspectors, Brian and I are on-call 24/7. We alternate responding to emergencies that are related to structures and/or equipment that is damaged and regulated by the code, such as structural failures, fires, automobiles hitting buildings, storms and wave damage, natural gas leaks, water damaged electrical equipment, etc.
Photo 1. The author posts a notice alerting anyone entering the basement area of the potential shock and fire hazard due to water-soaked electrical equipment and conductors.
Photo 2. The lampholder and switch were outside the entrance to the basement apartment; notice that there are no boxes for either. Conductor is a lamp cord, with cord and terminal exposed to contact and physical damage. Both are attached to the door trim
When I reached the site, a fire truck, with its lights flashing, was parked in front of a two-story house. Hanging from a pole in the front yard was a real estate sign that read, “Multi-family Residence FOR SALE.” As I approached the fire truck, the driver behind the wheel recognized me and said that the lieutenant was “around back.” At the back door was the real estate agent who had called the fire department after discovering the broken pipe, as well as the lieutenant and two additional firefighters.
The lieutenant explained that the agent had come by to check on the house because the owner was on vacation in Brazil. Apparently, before leaving the country, the owner had lowered the thermostats in three apartments. The first floor heating pipes had “let go,” and the water had covered most of that level before leaking into the basement. The pipe had probably broken during the extremely cold weather last night or earlier in the week. Now that the weather had warmed up, any pipes that had frozen and broken during the cold spell, would start running water. That is what occurred here.
Photo 3. This luminaire (lampholder) is installed in a clothes closet [NEC 314.17(A) & (B), 410.8(C)
As I followed the lieutenant down the stairway to the basement, he warned me to watch my head, since the headroom was about five feet, five inches and one of his men had already hit his head.
The water main had already been turned off. There were three electrical panels in the basement. Since the lieutenant could not isolate the particular circuits to the affected areas, the main breakers had been opened to avert a potential fire and shock hazard.
I followed the flow of water that was dripping from the ceiling into the light fixtures and down the wall and into the electrical wiring and outlets. From there the water went into a sump pump that had kept the basement from filling up with water. Without a sump pump, it is common for a cellar to fill up with water when a broken pipe goes undetected
Opening a door at the bottom of the stairs, we entered a kitchen via a corridor, which connected to a bathroom and three bedrooms. There was no other means of egress! All the windows in the bedrooms where six feet above the floor and very tiny—about twelve inches high by twenty inches wide. I thought to myself that in an emergency, if the one exit were blocked, no one would be able to escape though these windows. Without a second means of egress, a person’s chances of getting out of the basement were slim.
No smoke detectors, sprinklers or fire alarm systems where installed. I mentally noted that without an early warning system, the possibility of survival in a fire became very doubtful. There were also signs indicating that this basement apartment had recently been constructed. By now, I began to suspect that it was highly unlikely that any inspections, permits, or certificate of occupancy had been issued. This property was an illegal multi- family dwelling.
Photo 4. Only one of the three basement kitchen counter-top receptacles is installed in a box; note the length of Romex in box. Coming out from underneath the cover was a lamp cord that fed the downstream receptacle and attached to the top of the back spl
I questioned the agent about the number of apartments, and whether they were occupied at this time. The agent stated that the vacationing owner lived in the first-floor apartment. Because the house was for sale, the second-floor and basement apartments were empty. A female tenant, who was not at home at this time, occupied the third-floor apartment. I explained to the agent that unsafe conditions existed due to the lack of exits, as well as the fact that the electricity and water had been turned off. I stated that the building is currently in violation of the Connecticut General Statutes and would remain so until the following occurred: (1) She needed to contact the owner, or some other person authorized to hire a plumber and electrician, both for emergency repairs and to abate the unsafe conditions and violations; (2) the necessary permits and inspections would also have to be obtained and a certificate of occupancy issued. Since it was getting late and the house was extremely cold, I decided to return in the morning when there was more light.
Just as we were preparing to leave, the third-floor tenant drove up. The agent tried to explain to the young woman what had happened and why she could not currently live in her apartment. The tenant told us she was from Brazil and understood very little English, due to being in this country for only a short time. She comprehended the basics, however, and told us that she had been visiting with relatives and could stay with them for a few nights. When she asked if it would be OK to get some clothes from upstairs, I used my flashlight and accompanied her to the third floor apartment, via the rear stairs. This apartment, which had sloping ceilings, consisted of a kitchen–living room combination, a bathroom, and two bedrooms. There were no emergency and/or rescue-size windows, nor a second exit.
Photo 5. Receptacle (installed in sheet rock) terminal is touching the insulation paper that reads, “warning this paper will burn. [NEC 110.3 (B), 110.8, 110.18, 240.5, 250.4, 300.15, 314.16, 314.17(A), 400.8, 402.11
The next morning arrived with bright sunshine and warmer temperatures. I searched through the building department files, looking for any permit for the address. As I expected, none had been issued. I contacted Deputy Fire Marshall, Brian Lampart, and the real estate agent. We all agreed to meet at 10:30 a.m. to continue my inspection. In addition, because this was a four-family dwelling, the fire marshall had jurisdiction. Before leaving the office, I contacted Ron O’Malley from the engineering department and asked if he were available during lunchtime to join us with his camera to take some pictures of the electrical violations. I knew that without visual proof, the violations would not be believable. In keeping with the saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” this article will be thousands of words shorter because of pictures.
As our group made our way though the rooms in the basement and then the third floor taking photos, documenting violations, and discussing the conditions, Brian and I knew we had a long afternoon ahead of us writing the applicable notices and reports.
In Connecticut, Section 115 of the code requires that if an unsafe condition is found, the building official shall serve on the owner/agent of the person in control of the structure, a written notice which includes the following: (1) a description of the conditions deemed unsafe; (2) a specification of the required repairs or improvements to be made to abate the unsafe conditions; and (3) a statement of the requirement that an unsafe structure is to be demolished within a stipulated time. Section 113 states in part that “it shall be unlawful for any person, firm or corporation to erect, construct, alter, extend, repair, move, remove, demolish or occupy any building, structure or equipment regulated by this code, or cause same to be done, in conflict with, or in violation of, any of the provisions of this code. Such order shall direct the discontinuance of the illegal action or condition and abatement of the violation.” After completing the notice of unsafe conditions and violations, I mailed the owner a certified original with return receipt, filed the copies, and returned to my assigned tasks.
Three weeks passed before the owner came into my office. He had the orders in hand and a proposal that would abate the illegal four-family dwelling to its original two-family residence status, with the addition of a habitable attic that would communicate with the second floor apartment. The basement would be converted back to its original storage use. After reviewing the plans, I issued the appropriate permits.
I am happy to report that an inspection was performed yesterday, and the work is proceeding as planned. The necessary repairs to abate the documented violations and unsafe conditions are very close to being completed. After finishing the inspection, the owner and I walked outside, discussing a few additional alterations he had been planning. He thanked me for taking the time to explain the ways to make his plans code-compliant. The owner then commented that being an inspector seemed like a thankless job, and asked me, with my experience and knowledge in the building industry, why I would choose being a building inspector as a profession.
In a flashback, I remembered that I had pondered this question many times when first starting as a building official in another town. I especially remembered one of these occasions. I had just performed a certificate of occupancy inspection on a two-story addition, with a couple of bedrooms for a growing family. The contractor had neglected to install a smoke detector in one of the bedrooms. When I informed the homeowner that she was required to have a smoke detector installed in all the bedrooms before I could issue the certificate of occupancy, she became very agitated, giving me “the look” of total disgust, that is so familiar to all inspectors. She wanted to know why an additional smoke detector was required when there were smoke detectors in all other parts of the house. I explained to her that, according to Connecticut code, when a new bedroom is added, smoke detectors are required in each bedroom. When leaving, I asked myself if this job were worth the aggravation.
Then, a few days after the New Year, I responded to a house fire that claimed the lives of two small children and a father. One child who died was not a family member but had been sleeping over. Of all the possible reasons they did not get out in time, a significant one was that there had been no working smoke detectors in the home. Thinking about the children being carried out, changed me forever. That night on the way home, I purchased two boxes of smoke detectors, stopped by the homes of all my friends and family members who had children, and installed smoke detectors in their rooms. Each one of my grandchildren also has a smoke detector that they take with them when sleeping over at a friend’s house.
About two weeks after the tragic house fire, I was called back to do a re-inspection at the house of the woman who had been so upset with me. When she answered the door, she immediately apologized for her behavior on the previous inspection, saying she had read in the newspaper about the children dying in that house fire, and told me that she respected my insistence on having all the detectors in place before I issued the C.O. Walking out of the house that day, I had a feeling of total satisfaction of a job well-done.
To respond to the man’s question regarding why I chose being a building inspector as a profession, I simply stated that if one person’s life is saved, then I have done my job, and that is thanks enough for me!