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Uninsulated Pipe Freezes, Bursts at Baker House

Rebecca Loh -- The Tech
A freezing pipe triggered a fire sprinkler near Baker House's front desk Wednesday evening, causing a small flood.
By Dan McGuire
Contributing Editor

A sprinkler nozzle burst Wednesday evening in Baker House, dropping an inch of water into the area around the dormitory's front desk and creating a miniature waterfall down the outer wall of the building.

The water rushing from burst nozzle also caused a drop in the water pressure of the dormitory's sprinkler system, setting off the fire alarm and forcing an evacuation of the building.

Professor William B. Watson, Baker House's housemaster, said that design and construction errors in last summer's renovation of the lobby area contributed to the sprinkler failure.

House Manager Kenneth Winsor said that before the renovation, the sprinkler pipes hung down from the ceiling into the room. As part of the renovation, the pipes were moved into a utility space between the drop ceiling and the roof of the building.

"As I understand it, what happened was that the sprinkler head over the front desk froze and then it thawed," he said. When the ice thawed, the nozzle broke. "The pipes were not adequately insulated for the area in which they resided."

Watson said that the sprinkler break was a symptom of a larger problem: the lack of heat in the front desk area. "We think that the front lobby is too cold and we want more heat in that area. Desk workers have been complaining that its too cold," he said. Portable heaters are currently being used to keep the desk area warm.

Watson said that a permanent solution would probably need to wait until the summer to be implemented. In the interim, Winsor said that MIT had installed insulation on other pipes running over the front desk.

Leak causes little visible damage

The leak, while spectacular, did not cause any significant damage to the front desk. Volunteers managed to mop up most of the water before it had a chance to seep in and cause damage.

A computer set up to monitor the status of the dormitory's doors was damaged, said Winsor. Papers sitting at the front desk, such as catalogs, were also ruined.

Some pieces of mail were also drenched. "There was some [damage] to some Interdepartmental mail, I don't know for what dorms," said Christina L. Gehrke '99, the Baker House desk captain.

Gehrke said that residents' U.S. mail had not been affected. "Most of the packages were okay. Nobody's told me about any problems," she said.

Watson said that while the front desk itself weathered the spill, the front desk's ceiling may have suffered lasting damage.

@$:False alarms not a new problem

Watson said that he raised the issue of frequent fire alarms at Baker House when he spoke before the Cambridge Licensing Commission this week on an alcohol issue. "I felt very badly that false alarms were very frequent [we were having them] once or twice a year," he said.

"We have a new system and I don't expect the fire alarms and smoke detectors to malfunction because its all very new," he said. "I was very confident that we had gotten over the previous problem where aging equipment would cause false alarms," he added.

Watson said that continued false alarms could be a safety risk. "False alarms breed false confidence in students," he said. "If we have a real fire in Baker house, students will think that it is just another false alarm," he said.

Watson said that he was pleased how Baker residents responded to Wednesday's alarm. "When the alarm sounded everyone responded promptly to it. There were a couple of hundred people outside five minutes after the alarm sounded. My hope is that we take these alarms seriously in the future."