According to the National Fire Protection Association’s most recent statistics, the nearly 3 600 formal house fires recorded during 2010 in South Africa caused the deaths of 60 people and a monetary loss of more than R1.3 billion.
Further, 49 percent of house fires have their origins in electrical distribution or lighting equipment problems, according to NFPA figures for 2005 to 2009.
This is why it’s critical to use only qualified, registered contractors to issue electrical compliance certificates when properties change hands, says Richard Gray, chief executive of Harcourts Real Estate.
Commenting on government’s decision to take over the function of registering electrical contractors from the Electrical Contracting Board of SA to the Department of Labour from June 1, Gray says he hopes the move will ensure tighter control over the industry and root out fraudulent and unregistered operators.
“It’s no secret that the industry is fraught with operators who are illegally issuing electrical compliance certificates to unsuspecting consumers,” he says. “As a result, many new home owners mistakenly believe that their properties are safe.”
According to Chris Greager, national director of the Electrical Contractors’ Association South Africa (ECASA), electrical compliance certificates – a legal requirement when selling a property – should confirm that a thorough inspection of the property’s electrical installation has been done by a qualified, registered contractor.
“Regardless of how old a property is, it can have electrical problems such as poor earthing, illegally installed additions, open joint boxes, unreadable ratings on circuit breakers, a lack of labelling on the distribution boards, faulty light switches and socket outlets, and illegal open wiring,” he says. “Fires can occur as a result of circuit breakers being overrated for the wiring they protect. If there is a fault, the undersized wiring could then start burning before the circuit breaker detects the fault.”
Other major causes of electrical fires include faulty appliances such as electric heaters and stoves, and ceiling insulation. Explains Greager: “When installing Think Pink-type products in the ceiling over low voltage downlighters, home owners don’t always know that they have to cut holes above the lights to allow for the heat to dissipate. Downlighters generate a lot of heat, which can cause the beams to start smouldering and eventually burst into flame.”
In older homes, he says, the wiring may have deteriorated and could need replacing, or the owners may have carried out their own illegal additions and alterations. In newer properties, the most common problem is that part of the installation, whether as a result of negligence or a lack of oversight by the original contractor, was not carried out in accordance with SANS 10142-1, which prescribes the minimum safety requirements for all electrical installations in South Africa.
The severity of fire damage to a house would depend on a number of different issues, says Greager.
“Thatched houses would obviously suffer significant damage. Less obvious but also vulnerable are homes under normal plaster tiles, because, if the beams start burning, the roof will collapse if the fire isn’t extinguished quickly enough. Inside the house, damage would be relevant to whatever combustible materials there are in the vicinity of the fire.”
Greager says that section 8 of the Wiring Code (SANS 10142-1) stipulates that contractors must work through an extensive checklist, from the point of control – the point at which the incoming supply from the meter can be switched off – to the point of consumption, such as a socket outlet, or the supply terminals to the stove or swimming pool connections.
“They must ensure that it is safe, that there is no illegal wiring and no deterioration of the system. They then have to carry out a range of tests with instruments to ensure that the numerous readings they are required to take fall within the accepted and prescribed parameters.”
Greager urges sellers, transfer attorneys and financial institutions to ensure that they only use registered companies and contractors and that they also receive the correct version of the compliance certificate.
“There are still many electricians using the incorrect documentation, which will render the certificate invalid,” he cautions.
He also strongly recommends that non-selling home owners use only registered electrical contractors when having electrical installation work done, and to insist on certificates of compliance for any new installations, additions, extensions or alterations.
“If such certificate isn’t issued, any previous certificates will be invalidated, which could in turn result in insurance claims being refused,” he warns. “For peace of mind, property owners must use the services of electrical contractors who are members of the ECA (SA) which guarantees their work for up to R15 000.”