Customer stuck with bill after failed inspection, blames fire alarm company

Wireless fire alarm system costs homeowner because hard-wired system never removed

Homeowners call contractors when they need expertise.

Unfortunately, not all contractors have the knowledge consumers expect of them, and it can turn into a homeowner headache years later.

Jeff Mermelstein didn’t realize he had a problem until he listed his Millburn home for sale.

To get the required Certificate of Occupancy, he submitted to town inspections in April. This included visits from the plumbing, electrical, building and fire sub-code officials.

There was an issue with the home’s fire alarm.

The problem started back in 2011, when Mermelstein’s hard-wired fire alarm system was on the fritz. He was paying a company for central station monitoring, and it wanted to charge him for the repair.

Instead, he called ADT to take a look. Rather than fix the system, ADT sold the homeowner a new wireless system. The company only sells hard-wired systems for new construction.

Mermelstein was happy with the new system through the years, but the fire sub-code official said he couldn’t pass the home.

“ADT left the wired detectors, but did not tell me in doing so I was violating the fire code,” Mermelstein said. “Now that I am selling my house, I am scrambling to correct the ADT-caused violation, spending many hundreds of dollars.”

Mermelstein said when ADT installed the wireless system, it replaced the wired control panel, deactivated the existing system and left the non-functional wired detectors in place.

Mermelstein learned that leaving the wired detectors there but inoperable was a fire code violation. To pass, he’d need to have the original system removed from the home entirely, Mermelstein said he was told by the inspector.

He called ADT for help.

“The representative at ADT told me that ADT does not remove equipment installed by other companies and would not remove the wired detectors,” Mermelstein said. “I said that was not true since they disconnected and removed the existing alarm panel.”

He said he spoke to several other reps, and they all said the company doesn’t remove existing equipment.

He tried to escalate the issue without luck, and he also contacted the company via social media.

“Other than repeating the party line and telling me they do not remove other equipment, as well as telling me that their installers are not electricians and they are not responsible for following or ensuring that the fire code is followed, there was no resolution or responsibility,” he said.

Because the closing date on his home sale was fast approaching, Mermelstein paid another contractor $722.25 to remove the remnants of the old system.

“Call me naive, but I would think that someone spending the money to install a fire alarm and pay for central station service, etc. would like it to comply with the fire code of their municipality for safety and resale reasons,” he said.

MISTAKES, EXPERTS SAY

We reached out to ADT and asked it to examine the case, and pretty quickly, it offered to help Mermelstein.

First, it pointed to its contract, which says the homeowner has “sole responsibility for complying with any and all codes, laws and standards that may apply to the installation, placement and maintenance of the alarm system.”

“Nevertheless, as a token of goodwill, ADT refunded the $722.25 that he had to pay to a third party electrician,” a spokesman said.

We thought that was terrific, but we wanted to understand more about what happened, so we posed the scenario to some independent experts without naming ADT as the installation company.

What we learned should be an eye-opener for homeowners, and it brings into question what happened at Mermelstein’s home.

For starters, no permits are required to install wireless systems, but permits are required to work on hard-wired ones. That’s why there was no town inspection when the system was installed.

But because ADT removed the control panel from the hard-wired system, a permit probably should have been pulled, which would have led to an inspection, the experts said.

The installer should have known the homeowner would eventually have trouble passing inspection, said David Kurasz, executive director of New Jersey Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board.

“If they saw the wired system, they should have said, ‘Do you know you need to deal with this other system?'” Kurasz said, noting that while there may not be a legal responsibility to warn the homeowner, there is a moral one.

The New Jersey Uniform Construction Code went into effect statewide in 1977 and provides for uniform adoption of regulations, codes and standards that apply throughout the state, said John Drucker, the fire and electrical sub-code official for Red Bank and TK with the New Jersey Electronic Security Assoc.

“It is the responsibility of licensed alarm contractors to have knowledge of the applicable regulations, codes and standards,” Drucker said. “Licensed Alarm Contractors, as well as Electrical Contractors are required to attend continuing education to maintain your licensure.”

Richard Silvia, who serves as president of the New Jersey Fire Prevention and Protection Association and also as the fire marshal and fire sub-code official in Saddle River, said it’s a building code violation to disable the system.

“As fire marshal, I would have fined them $5,000 per day. As the fire sub-code official I also would have hit them with a $2,000 per day fine,” Silvia said. “It sounds like a lot of things were done that shouldn’t have been done.”

We wondered whether ADT’s quick payment to the customer had anything to do with possible code violations, so we reached out to the company to ask some deeper questions.

We received a response.

It said ADT is proud to serve eight million customers and takes issues like this one very seriously.

“What happened to him is rare,” the spokesman said. “We have apologized and provided the entire $722.25 he claimed. We have also coached the installation technician who performed this work on proper process to ensure it never happens again.”

Later, the spokesman added this from ADT’s New Jersey installation manager: “If there is an existing [hard-wired] system we are taking over we will reactivate, however if there are non-functioning devices we will replace with wireless due to the difficulty of running wires from locations back to the alarm panel.”

STAYING SAFE

Silvia shared some other tips for our readers.

He said alarm installers, technicians and salesmen generally don’t know the code.

After a customer signs a contract, the tech simply installs what he’s been told to install by the salesman who sold the system, Silvia said.

Salespeople are part of the problem, he said.

Several years back, Silvia said, he contacted several of the large alarm companies for estimates for a wireless system to supplement his own home’s wired system.

He said the sales reps were extremely pushy, and told him the code required “this and that.” But they didn’t know who they were talking to, Silvia said.

“I said, ‘I asked you to come in and give me your honest perspective on a supplemental system and you’re trying to sell me a complete system and giving me wrong information,'” he said. “I can see how people can easily fall into their trap because most homeowners are not aware of what they’re doing and they take the contractor’s word.”

Silvia, who said it’s his job to educate homeowners, said the best system is a low-voltage one with central station monitoring.

While fire code officials can’t come to your home to recommend or give an opinion on what kind of system your home should have, Silvia said, you can ask your fire marshal or fire sub-code official for help in a different way.

Silvia said he, as a courtesy, will often come to a home for a “rough inspection,” meeting with the installer to review plans before a system is installed. This helps to avoid failing an inspection, he said.

“It saves them time and money because they know exactly what has to be done,” Silvia said. “It’s not what I want. It’s what the code wants.”

Not all code officials will come if you request a “rough estimate,” but it’s worth a try.

As for Mermelstein, the homeowner, he said he appreciates that ADT is returning funds, but he’s still frustrated by his experience.

“I was told by five ADT employees that ADT will do nothing for me, until I wrote to you at Bamboozled,” he said. “I am sure I am not the only customer who has suffered from ADT’s code violations.”

Have you been Bamboozled? Reach Karin Price Mueller at Bamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @KPMueller. Find Bamboozled on Facebook. Mueller is also the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com. Stay informed and sign up for NJMoneyHelp.com’s weekly e-newsletter.