Late last month, a deputy treasurer in Stillwater County got a rude surprise while exiting a bathroom stall in the county courthouse. A defective low-flow flushing system linked to two nationwide recalls exploded without warning, shattering a toilet tank. No one was injured, but Commissioner Jerry Dell says the county's facilities supervisor has been in touch with the flushing system's manufacturer, Flushmate, to work through the issue.
"We heard from the company after this thing went crazy and every newspaper in the country had it," Dell says. "They called and our facilities man talked to them and found out two of them were not in the recall."
Dell adds that in the wake of the explosion, no other toilets in the courthouse needed replacement or repairs.
The incident joins a list of more than 300 documented failures of the Series 503 Flushmate III Pressure-Assist Flushing System. Previous reports of everything from leaks to explosions prompted the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to issue a recall on more than 2.3 million units nationwide in June 2012. According to the recall announcement, Flushmate—a division of the Sloan Valve Company—received 304 reports of the system rupturing. Most of the failures merely resulted in property damage, but the CPSC linked the defect to 14 injuries, including severe lacerations suffered by a 26-year-old male in September 2011.
"Had this happened to someone elderly or a child, the outcome could have been catastrophic," the man stated in a report to the CPSC. "There needs to be a larger awareness campaign as we had no idea of the danger involved in using the Flushmate product."
The flushing system was both sold individually and installed in toilets manufactured by a host of companies, including Kohler, Crane, American Standard and Western Pottery. The recall cautions that the system was sold by "Home Depot and Lowe's stores, distributors and plumbing contractors nationwide for about $108."
It's unclear how many Missoula toilets may be at risk. Phone messages left for facilities managers with Missoula County, Ravalli County and the University of Montana about the potential presence of or concern over defective Flushmate systems in public buildings went unreturned. Several state and local officials who were reached hadn't heard of the Stillwater County incident or the recall, and exhibited a mixture of surprise and confusion that some toilets might actually be at risk of exploding.
After checking in with the assistant director of development services, the city engineer and the head of building maintenance, city communications director Ginny Merriam was able to confirm that "we do not have any of these toilets that could potentially explode" in any city buildings.
The initial recall applied to systems manufactured between October 1997 and February 2008. However, the CPSC announced a second recall in January applying to more than 350,000 systems made between March 2008 and June 2009. Both recalls recommended that consumers "turn off the water supply to the unit, flush the toilet to release the internal pressure and contact the firm to request a free repair kit." The kit consisted of a metal U-band, two screws and an external regulator, along with instructions for consumers on how to fix the flushing system themselves.
Plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit filed in late 2012 leveled a host of allegations against Flushmate, which had advertised its flushing units as "the most reliable, consistent and trouble-free system available." Among those allegations was a claim that the company had failed to inform consumers that the system "may develop leaks, that the welded joints may separate in the vessels, and that the toilet might explode," despite several product advisory notices issued by Flushmate citing such issues.
"Sloan/Flushmate was repeatedly placed on notice of the serious risk that the toilets in which Flushmate Systems were installed may explode, and yet did nothing to inform customers or correct the problem prior to the recall," the original complaint states.
Plaintiffs also argued that the repair kits offered as part of the recall were inadequate, not only requiring specialized plumbing skills and tools but ultimately proving ineffective in correcting the defect. Flushmate and the plaintiffs reached an $18 million settlement deal in January. Claims forms from individuals seeking to join the settlement class are due by Sept. 24. Claims are only eligible for people who have already received and installed a repair kit from Flushmate.
The recall and lawsuit, odd as they sound, received scant local media coverage prior to the incident in Stillwater County. Questions regarding the exploding toilet and the courthouse's response are now being directed to the county commissioners office or the facilities supervisor. According to Dell, the whole commode kerfuffle had county employees "quite amazed, you might say."
"Nobody ever remembered seeing a recall on it," he says.