Last winter, the Free Press reported on a family who barely escaped carbon monoxide poisoning, thanks to attentive neighbours. The leak had apparently occurred during a furnace repair job.
My question is who checks furnace repairs? When I had a new furnace installed, a few years ago, a mandatory inspection by Hydro took place. But what sort of licence and safety enforcement exists for smaller repair jobs? Who protects the unaware customer?
Repairs on natural gas appliances, including furnaces, normally have the most consumer protection of any residential system. That is due to the fact that repairs involving gas piping or equipment can only be legally done by licensed gas fitters or technicians. Other systems, such as electrical or plumbing, may be repaired or renovated by homeowners or others as long as proper permits are obtained.
I am not sure about the exact situation you are referring to, but it is very unusual for a furnace repair to lead to Carbon Monoxide (CO) escape into a home, but it can happen. CO is typically a problem with furnaces that have incomplete combustion of the natural gas fuel. When this occurs, excess CO is produced rather than the typical Carbon Dioxide (CO2) and water vapour. If the high CO concentration escapes into the living area, it can be extremely dangerous for the occupants as the gas is colourless and odourless. This normally occurs if there is damage to the burner components or the heat exchanger in the furnace or a blockage in the venting system. Regular servicing of a furnace should determine if either of these situations exist, so it is very odd that this would occur after repairs. Cracks and damage to heat exchangers occur over many years and are not a sudden occurrence.
If you are correct in your information, the technician may have inadvertently damaged something or maladjusted the burner when he removed it for cleaning. If it was not properly reinstalled or came loose, then incomplete combustion is possible. Also, if the vent assembly or the chimney liner was repaired/replaced and came apart or became partially blocked after repairs, this could lead to the dangerous situation. The only comment I have is that every trade or profession has good and bad practitioners. Individuals that are sloppy, lazy or poorly trained may be negligent.
If the repairs were minor or part of an annual service, there will not be a permit required and no inspection will take place. If the repair was major or a complete furnace replacement was done, a permit should have been issued and the homeowner would have been contacted by Manitoba Hydro to schedule an inspection. This inspection may not take place for several days after the repair, and the dangerous condition could persist until this date.
As previously stated, the protection for homeowners on avoiding dangerous situations with natural gas heating systems is licensing of the technicians. The licensing will be subject to proof of proper education and apprenticeship of individual contractors and their employees. Many trades, such as plumbers and electricians have similar licensing requirements, but often contractors may do that type of work without using licensed individuals. It is illegal for the same practice with Natural Gas appliances and heating equipment, so there are much less defects in that area.
Surprisingly, there is currently no similar licensing requirement for building contractors or home inspectors. Where does one go to find out if a member of either of these two groups is reputable and properly trained? The best way, in addition to word of mouth from satisfied friends and family, is to ask for training and affiliations. This can be confusing, as advertisements may list various organizations that have only fee payment as criteria for membership. How does the consumer know which affiliations are valuable?
For residential contractors, this is less of an issue than for home inspectors. There is one Association in Manitoba that has Standards and reasonable accountability for their membership. The Manitoba Home Builders Association – Renovators Council has many contractors with good experience and training.
For home inspectors, which is a relatively new area of expertise, there are many “associations” that are nothing more than glorified marketing groups. They claim to “certify” members, which may require simple payment of yearly dues or in one specific case, a simple 30 minute, unsupervised online quiz. There is no accountability to consumers for the “Members” of these groups. In Manitoba there is only one organization that has a credible, published Standards of Practice and a Code of Ethics. The Canadian Association of Home and Property Inspectors has over 1200 inspectors in various stages of membership across the country. All Associates and Registered Home Inspectors (RHI) in Manitoba have successfully passed a comprehensive 2-part proctored examination, completed a mentorship program and completed ongoing education requirements.
Licensing of home inspectors may not be a reality until several years from now, but there is a National Certification Program that is scheduled to begin this year. Development of the program has been supported by the Federal Government and Canada Mortgage & Housing Corporation (CMHC) and CAHPI. This certification program is voluntary, but is already being considered as the basis for licensing in 2 or 3 Provinces. When this happens, homebuyers will then at least be afforded the same protection as consumers of natural gas appliances.