Montgomery’s consumer protection director, Eric Friedman, said that to varying degrees, the retailers identified in the report — Home Depot, Lowe’s and Sears — are cooperating with authorities to notify customers. But Friedman said that the retailers bear “some responsibility” for their subcontractors’ sidestepping of county safety requirements.
In Montgomery, gas appliances, such as water heaters, must be installed by a licensed plumber. Such appliances also must be checked by an inspector from the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which oversees permitting of gas appliances in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
But two-thirds of all gas water heaters bought last year by Montgomery residents in county outlets of Home Depot, Lowe’s and Sears were not inspected, according to data released by the WSSC and Montgomery’s Office of Consumer Protection.
25% of installations faulty
Based on past inspection findings, officials estimatethat about 25 percent of the water heaters were improperly installed, posing a heightened risk of carbon monoxide poisoning and fire in the customers’ homes.
The three retailers said they had helped to notify many of the customers and would work with government officials to create a better inspection process.
Inspectors across the Washington region said that the retailers had dropped the ball on a potentially dangerous issue.
“The retailer that’s selling the product to the customer needs to make sure they have contractors who are going to follow the [permitting process]. It really does fall back on them,” said Jason Green, permitting and inspections chief in Carroll County. “Most homeowners don’t realize what’s required.”
Spokesmen from Home Depot and Lowe’s said that the conflicting schedules of inspectors and customers often cause inspections to fall through. The codes mandate that an inspection be conducted within five days of installation.
Inspectors said that although major accidents are rare, the rules requiring a licensed installer and a follow-up inspection are intended to reduce the risks of accidents and death. In May, North Bethesda was rocked by the explosion of a gas dryer that had been installed by a resident who wasn’t licensed to do such work.
The extent of the problem elsewhere in the region is unclear. Installations in Prince George’s are governed by the same safety requirements. Prince George’s authorities have not analyzed data there, but WSSC officials said they think that a review would find a similarly widespread lack of inspections.
Montgomery officials analyzed sales records for about 1,250 gas water heaters and found that about 850 had not been inspected. Since local authorities, subcontractors and retailers began to notify affected customers this year, 30 to 40 percent have had inspections or have had inspections scheduled, according to the WSSC.