Volume 42, Issue 10 - October 2007

Broken Dreams
Improperly Installed Mirrors Can Shatter Lives
By Les Shaver

Juanita Delaroca used to get a lot of modeling work and having flawless hands didn’t hurt her cause. But modeling wasn’t her only career. She also worked as a bartender at night for extra income cash. That’s what she was doing on January 1, 2001. As New Year’s revelers were partying around Boston, Delaroca was serving two customers at Pravda, the bar where she worked. That’s when everything came crashing down. 

Delaroca turned around as the mirrors behind her started to fall forward. She was standing directly in front of them and there was nothing she could do. “They [the customers] saw a look of shock on her face,” says Jeffrey Roy, the Boston attorney who represented the bartender and model. “She was hit from glass from the mirror and some of the bottles. It ended up cutting her back and her hands.”

When you’re a model, scars on your hands are unacceptable. “[The scars] hurt her modeling career,” Roy says. While Delaroca lost some modeling jobs, her scars and short-term pain and discomfort were nothing compared to what happened to six-year-old Jonathan Villagomez. A falling mirror took his life before he even got a chance to go to school, grow up or live his life. These events spawned lawsuits, news stories, lots of grief and many, many questions. The most prominent question: How could this happen? 

When the Wall Came Down
The local media first pointed the finger at a faulty mirror installation when a mirror fell on Villagomez. In June 2003, the child and his mother were at an Express store in the Lincolnwood Town Center Mall in Lincolnwood, Ill., when a 5- by 10-foot, nearly 500-pound mirror came down on the child, according to ABC7News in Chicago. At first ABC7News quoted a police inspector that said, “The wall where the mirror hung is structurally sound. Police photos indicate that the frame may not have been glued to the wall securely enough.” The station later reported, “Police say the mirror was attached to particleboard and two-by-fours with construction adhesive or mastic, but not all of the wood came into contact with the wall, causing it to fall.”

Four years later, Lyle Hill, president of MTH Industries in Chicago, says the problem wasn’t one of a mirror installation. “Everyone blamed the mirror, but the mirror was not at fault. In fact, the mirror stayed firmly attached to the wall where it had been properly installed. It was the drywall partition that the mirror had been anchored to that fell over.” Added weight also brought down the mirrors that scarred Delaroca. In this case, the construction company installed the mirrors properly. It’s what they added to the mirrors that was the problem, according to Roy. “They had put speakers and racks on the mirrors,” he says. “That’s what pulled it down.”

Shoddy Installation
More often than not, installation comes into question when mirrors fall. That’s what happened with three-year-old Carli. As she was standing in a Macy’s dressing room waiting area in Santa Rosa, Calif., a three-way mirror came down on her. She was lucky.

“It was a slight concussion and it split her lip and she had a nosebleed,” says Barbara Bozman-Moss, the family’s Santa Rosa, Calif.-based lawyer. “It was very minor and we were very lucky.”

Carli’s family sued Macy’s, which denied liability at first and said the girl pulled the mirror onto herself. “Our position was that if it was installed properly, there’s no way a three-year-old can pull one of those great big mirrors off the wall,” Bozman-Moss says.

Eventually Macy’s settled. A similar scenario happed to Joe Rohmeyer. Rohmeyer was visiting Oklahoma City for a week at a resort called Habana Inn. After hanging out at the pool and going to the clubs, he was going through a late-night buffet line. Along one wall was a four- by six-to-eight-foot mirror.

“As he [was] going through [the] buffet, one mirror became detached and fell and landed on top of him and sliced him across the nose,” says Jason B. Reynolds, the Oklahoma City-based lawyer who represented Rohmeyer. “From the weight of it, he had some neck injuries that we alleged as well.”

Rohmeyer immediately was taken by ambulance to the hospital. Overall, he ended up with about $8,000 in medical bills. So, Rohmeyer sued the property management company, the firm that managed the hotel, and the hotel owner. Eventually, he settled with all three for an undisclosed amount. The mirrors had been up for about 18 years, so Reynolds and Rohmeyer could no longer go after the installer under Oklahoma law. Thankfully, most of the time mirrors come down, the only real threat people face is the fright of hearing them fall or rushing to hold them up. Al Pfafman, owner of Joe’s Glass and Mirror in Williamstown, N.J., has seen this many times.

Last July, Pfafman received a called from an older lady who said her mirrors were falling off the walls. He came over quickly since she was nearby. Three of her mirrors had fallen off the wall and were leaning against her sofa.“The sofa was close enough and high enough that the mirrors were leaning off the back of the sofa,” Pfafman says. “A fourth mirror fell into a Christmas tree [which was still up in July].”

These poor installations aren’t just limited to residential applications, though. Hill says large retail chains have hired his company to fix mirrors that were installed improperly. “In [one department store], they were literally falling off the wall about two months after they were put up,” he says. Overall, Hill says the falling mirror problem is one that’s become a lot more common in recent years. “There are probably 20 or 30 situations around Chicago over a two- to three-year span where mirrors fell,” Hill says. “I am aware of a couple of very serious injuries (but none fatal) caused by falling mirrors.”

Bad Connection
The Villagomez and Rohmeyer cases, along with those witnessed by Pfafman and Hill, lead to one simple question: Why? Why are these mirrors falling off the walls so frequently? It’s a question glass company owners and manufacturers of mirror mastics have considered for awhile. And, in the end, they always come back to one group: the mirror installers. “Typically, the problem is unqualified installers using the wrong [adhesive] or the wrong mechanical approach to hang a mirror,” Hill says.

Take, for instance, the department store where MTH rehung the mirrors. In a few of the stores, the installers left their supplies. Instead of an accepted mirror-hanging mastic, Hill found liquid nails sealant. “It’s a cheap adhesive,” Hill says. “In long-term applications, it won’t hang onto the back of the mirror. Liquid nails may work well with wood or plaster, but it doesn’t work with mirrors.”

But liquid nails aren’t the only bad mastics Hill has seen installers use to hang mirrors. He’s seen them try cheap putty, butyl caulk and painter’s caulk. “These simply do not work with mirrors.” Some mirrors may be installed with the correct product, but they’re no longer functional. “We’ve gotten some mirrors with mastics that are out of date and too old,” Hill says. But, even if an installer uses the correct mirror mastic before it goes bad, it won’t work unless he knows what he’s doing. “They’re putting mirrors up and they’re using adhesives and hardware that’s not meant for the application that they’re doing,” says Lawrence Palmer-Ball, president of Palmer Products Corp., a manufacturer of mirror adhesives based in Louisville, Ky. Dan Lesniak also works for a mirror adhesive manufacturer. As national sales manager of Gunther Mirror Mastic in South Bend, Ind., he saw a prime example of the proper product used incorrectly when he investigated mirrors falling at a restaurant ten years after they were installed. Fortunately, the adhesive failure occurred at night, when no one was around. “There were quite a few things wrong with this install,” he says. “It [the mastic] was put on [in] globs and dots. We require it to be put on in vertical beads. There also wasn’t enough mastic used.”

Industry experts say mirror installations usually fail for one of three reasons. A bad adhesive is only one of these ways. “There are so many variables in an installation,” Lesniak says. “The bond between mirror and wallpaper may be not good. The bond between wallpaper and drywall may not be good.”Even if the surfaces lend themselves to a solid installation, they need to be prepared. Lesniak says, “Different substances, like high-gloss tile and things like that, can cause problems. If they’re not sanded and dust particles aren’t cleaned off, there may be a concern as well.”

Sometimes the mirror doesn’t even contact the surface. “You’ll have an installer go and do an installation where you have a wall that’s way out of plumb,” Palmer-Ball says. “You can apply plenty of adhesive, and when you put that mirror in place, the adhesive is not even making contact with the surface.”

Good Catch
Since there are so many ways to use adhesive improperly during the mirror installation it seems to makes sense to have a backup—something to catch the mirror if the adhesive fails. “Typically what we see in a mirror failure is that mechanical fasteners weren’t used in a lot of instances,” Lesniak says. That’s what Bill Green, operations manager for Barefoot & Co., in Charlotte, N.C., sees whenever he goes on a trip. “You go into hotels and go into a lot of places and look at the mirror and it’s not installed with the clip,” he says. “There’s not a secondary support. It’s usually just glued up.”

Pfafman sees this as well. “People are refusing to put the top channel on,” he says. “In effect, you have no top mirror support.” Everything Barefoot puts up has some sort of backup. “For everything, we require a secondary keeper,” Green says. “If mirrors are put up without a keeper, you’re relying on the paint to adhere the mirror to the drywall. We’re just not going to take that chance.”

It’s not just installers who recommend using secondary support in mirror installations. The mastic manufacturers do as well. Gunther Mirror Mastics suggested that all mirrors installed with its product have a secondary support.

“We use mechanical fasteners as a failsafe,” Lesniak says. “If one system fails, the other is there to help.” Mechanical fasteners can take various forms. There’s the channel along the top. Some companies will use rosettes. “We developed a rosette that we use and toggle into the wall,” Green says. “You drill a hole through the mirror and screw it down.” Clips are also an option. “Sometimes we use clips and we hide the clips with mirror trim,” Pfafman says. Even lights can provide support. In the case of an adhesive failure, they often can hold the mirror up. However Green cautions that care needs to be used with this approach. “We wouldn’t use rosettes with lights,” Green says. “The mirror would have to fall through the lights to come off and the lights would have to come off.”

A Lack of Care
So if attachments can ensure that mirrors stay on the wall and, in the process, keep people out of harm’s way, why don’t more installers use them? One reason is complaints from the customer—the group they’re designed to protect. “The customer bullies them into it [not using attachments]. They’ll say, ‘I don’t want that.’ So you’ll do it [follow their instructions] and not care. People tell us all the time that they don’t want the channel on the top.”

The main problem consumers have with attachments is their look. Green says, “A lot of people don’t like the looks of mechanical fasteners. There are so many mechanical fasteners and some of them are barely visible to the naked eye.” It also takes more time to put in an attachment. That means money. A lot of customers don’t want to spend that money. This isn’t just an issue with homeowners, though. Department stores also will skimp on cost, which, in the long run, can lead to what happened to Villagomez. Often a glass shop can offer the cheapest price because it doesn’t take the time to back up the mirror adhesive with a mechanical system. In other situations, it’s just a time issue.

“It’s an easier job,” Pfafman says. “They just carry the mirror in and put two-inch bevel strip and hide it [the space between the top of the mirror and the ceiling]. If you save an hour’s labor time, that’s a good deal.”The problem is that there seem to be too many people with this careless attitude installing mirrors. “You have unqualified people putting up mirrors,” Hill says. “That’s the bottom line. They’re using the wrong materials and wrong methodology.”

Long-Term FixSo how do you get mirror installers on the right page, so that they’re using the correct materials and methodology? It starts with education. “Some people aren’t educated and don’t know the value of a top mechanical security device,” Pfafman says. “Some of them don’t know the difference.”

So the question is how to best educate mirror installers. Mastic manufacturers have tried to take the lead with both proper installation techniques and the use of extra support. “In all the literature and on the back of our tubes, we say that mechanical fasteners be [installed] in addition to mirror mastics,” Lesniak says.

Palmer-Ball went out of its way to alert its installers that it had a new product out on the market. “We have gone through periods where we put extra literature in each case of product that went out the door,” he says. “When we introduced new products in 1993, for over a year we put another flier in each, stating: ‘This is a new product. If you haven’t used it, you need to read the directions, do mockups and get yourself familiar with how the product works before you take it out on the job.’”

Palmer-Ball is now a strong proponent of accreditation for mirror installations. “We feel that some certification programs would really go a long way to make mirror installation better,” he says. “It’s hard to get up to speed and find out what you need to know about the products you’re using.”

Lesniak agrees that any push for better mirror installation needs to start with training.

“I think more training needs to be done,” he says. “Certification is definitely a step in the right direction.”

That would certainly help ensure that newly minted mirror installers know what they’re doing. Their lack of knowledge is a huge concern to some people in the industry. “They will hire new people and they don’t always take them through and tell them what needs to be done in applying these products,” Palmer-Ball says. Those out in the field installing mirrors don’t see accreditation as a cure-all, though. Green thinks better design of keepers could go a long way in making installations safer.

“Designers and architects setting expectations in front of what needs to be used would be a great start,” Green says. “Often times it is [to] the ‘look’ of secondary keepers that we have objections. Once we describe the reasons why secondary keepers are needed we then get understanding and acceptance.”

Even if an installer knows how to put up a mirror correctly, factors like cost and time may convince him to take shortcuts. “Everybody is trying to save a buck,” Hill says. “It’s really worse than I’ve ever seen. The goal seems to be just to get the stuff up.”

Even then, many installers don’t seem to think the mirrors they put up will be the one that falls and harms someone. “I don’t think a lot of people think anything will happen with their installation[s],” Green says. 

GANA Guidelines
Mirror Installation Guidelines
The best mirror job is one that is not only striking in appearance but one that is trouble-free during installation. Proper techniques, carefully and professionally employed, can virtually guarantee this kind of result. To help ensure the best results, read and follow these tips from the Glass Association of North America (GANA):

  • Always use gloves when handling any mirror to prevent damage to the face or backing from skin-borne salts and chemicals.
  • Whenever possible, lay out a mirror installation prior to taking it to the jobsite—that way any errors in cutting or sizing can be caught and fixed immediately and no excessive handling will occur.
  • Never install mirrors on new plaster, new masonry or freshly painted walls without proper sealing. Also, do not install in construction areas when airborne solvents and heavy-duty cleaners are in the air.
  • In humid climates wait until the air-conditioning is operating before installing mirrors.
  • Never install mirrors outdoors without additional engineered protection for the backing of the mirror.
  • Set mirrors off the wall with an open air space behind to provide ventilation for the backing whenever possible.
  • If mastic must be used, be sure it is approved for mirror use. Mechanical fastening devices always should be used with mastic. This can help prevent injury or damage from the mirror in the event of the mastic failing.
  • Be certain that the room or space in which the mirror is to be installed is properly ventilated during and after installation.
  • Never permit edges of the mirror to be exposed to “puddling” conditions such as on back splashes.
  • Be sure there are adequate tolerances between installed mirrors to avoid later problems as the building settles.
  • Mirrors should be one of the last items installed in new construction after final cleanup.

Les Shaver is a contributing writer for USGlass magazine..


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