More to be done on the furnace file

Those of us who don't know our oil-burning furnace's blower from its burner assembly put faith in the mechanics we hire to install and maintain these devices.

Those of us who don’t know our oil-burning furnace’s blower from its burner assembly put faith in the mechanics we hire to install and maintain these devices. There’s just one problem: a raft of reports prepared for the Yukon government show that most home furnaces do not meet the building code, and in some cases pose a safety risk.

This thought is all the more frightening now, on the heels of the coroner’s inquest into the deaths of five Yukoners from carbon monoxide poisoning.

It’s important to keep in mind that what happened at 1606 Centennial Street in January 2012 was a rare event. The last time Yukoners died from the poisonous gases released by an oil furnace occurred in 1975.

It’s also important to understand that the latest deaths were easily preventable, and only occurred because of a long cascade of failures. Contractors failed to properly install equipment; building inspectors failed to catch these mistakes; the landlord failed to make recommended repairs.

Sadly, the family that occupied the building may share some responsibility, too, as it seems likely that they where the ones who restarted the furnace after it had fallen into misuse. It was supposed to have been properly serviced before being reactivated, but it’s unclear whether that was communicated with the tenants.

This much is clear: a special portion of blame deserves to be held by the territorial government, which has known for years that its means of regulating oil-burning furnaces, which heat most of the territory’s homes, is broken from top to bottom. It did very little about this until an entire household died.

Notoriously, territorial officials concealed from public view the final report and accompanying video by Rod Corea, the oil-furnace expert who conducted a series of audits on residential oil furnaces between 2007 and 2010. Of the 305 furnaces that Corea inspected, only four met the building code.

Even more worryingly, Corea found no evidence of the situation improving during his several years of monitoring, despite repeated warnings he issued. New furnaces were just as unsafe as old ones. In some cases, repaired furnaces were in worse shape than before.

He concluded that the oil-burning trade had failed to regulate itself, and that unless the government stepped in, a disaster could be waiting to happen. He was right.

Even before Corea sounded the alert, the territory had been urged by a committee of experts to prepare new legislation to govern work on oil furnaces. That was nearly five years ago.

It’s in this broader context that we should view the new measures being trumpeted by the territorial government. They include requirements that carbon monoxide detectors be installed in any home with an oil-burning furnace, and that only red-seal certified mechanics may install or upgrade oil furnaces.

These are sensible changes, but it’s hard to see how they will fix the widespread problems that Corea identified. The certification requirement should ensure that new installations and upgrades are safer, but what about all the poor existing installations that Corea found? After all, no minimum standards will exist for mechanics who conduct routine maintenance on existing oil furnaces.

Cabinet ministers say that such standards would be nice to have some day, but they haven’t set any deadline for fear that mechanics who service rural Yukon will be caught unprepared.

This is precisely the same justification offered by the territorial government to resist regulating the oil-burning trade at all, up until the Centennial Street deaths. It wasn’t valid then. It isn’t valid now.

The trouble with blaming the trade’s lack of training is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Give businesses a clear sense of when new rules will be in place, and they’ll act to ensure they’re in compliance. Set no clear expectations, and don’t expect much to change.

The territory plans to create a list of certified oil mechanics, whom concerned homeowners may call upon to conduct routine servicing. But after all that’s happened, the public deserves assurance that anyone who works to service oil furnaces is qualified.

We also shouldn’t have to take it upon faith that the state of the territory’s oil furnaces have improved. The government, having established that many home furnaces may be unsafe, surely has some responsibility to track the situation to ensure it has improved.

To do this, the government should hire a credible third party to conduct ongoing audits of the territory’s oil furnaces. The obvious person for the job is Corea. Unfortunately, he’s so fed up with the lack of action on the territory’s part that he’s not interested in returning to the territory.

Cabinet should endeavour to bring Corea back on board. If they can persuade him that they’re serious about improving oil-furnace safety in the territory, it would give their actions a much-needed credibility boost.