Furnace mechanic issues wake up call

Peter Harach has one question for officials of the territory's building safety unit, and it's not a polite one. "What are you, morons?" Harach has worked as an oil-burner mechanic since 1988.

Peter Harach has one question for officials of the territory’s building safety unit, and it’s not a polite one.

“What are you, morons?”

Harach has worked as an oil-burner mechanic since 1988. The born-and-raised Yukoner, who now splits his time between here and Vancouver Island, has his nationally-recognized red seal certificate in the trade, among other qualifications.

He also helped teach a Yukon College course on installing and maintaining oil-burning furnaces.

Harach worries the territorial government made a big mistake by ignoring the key advice it received from a series of reports by Rod Corea, of NRG Resources, between 2007 and 2010.

Corea warned that “self-regulation has failed to provide minimum safety standards, and indeed has put the Yukon at risk in their oil-heated industry.”

Harach suspects that had the territory heeded Corea’s advice, five people may not have died from carbon monoxide poisoning in Porter Creek in January.

Instead, officials have downplayed Corea’s findings.

Doug Badry, the Yukon’s director of building safety, previously told the News that Corea’s grim conclusions were skewed by a focus on old furnaces.

But Corea found new installations to be “as poor as, or worse than, older installations,” according to his last report.

Badry also asserted that homeowners are safe, provided they seek a permit when an oil furnace is installed or upgraded.

The territorial government’s building inspectors are charged with checking furnace installations outside of the capital. The City of Whitehorse’s inspectors handle this role within municipal limits.

But Corea’s report says otherwise. He inspected permitted homes in Whitehorse, Haines Junction and Teslin in 2010, and found code infractions to be rife, including ones that could create dangerous problems.

“What they’re really telling you is that the code is too extreme,” said Harach. “What are you, morons?”

Corea evaluated more than 300 residential oil furnaces between 2007 and 2010 in the territory. Only four met the code.

“I skewed those numbers because I came here and I installed one of those code-compliant units,” said Harach.

And Corea’s credentials are impeccable, said Harach. “He’s the co-author of the code book.”

Don’t count on building inspectors to catch the mistakes of furnace contractors, said Harach. His sister, who lives in Whitehorse, bought a new house in 2009 that turned out to have big problems with its chimneys.

Both were improperly installed. When Harach checked, the carbon monoxide levels “went through the roof” in the boiler room, he said.

Yet Whitehorse’s building inspectors had given the building its occupancy permit. When Harach asked them why, he says he was told “they relied on the installer.”

Since then, inspectors have taken additional training. But the Yukon College course that Harach helped run is no longer offered.

The college is considering rebooting the program, with the aim of training more tradesmen from the Yukon’s communities.

But the territory should be shooting higher, said Harach.

B.C. has 10 times as many oil furnaces than the territory, he said. Yet the province doesn’t have a certification program of its own.

There’s a demand for one. Harach services furnaces in far-flung communities like Bella Bella, which, like the Yukon, remains beyond the reach of natural gas pipes.

In such places, insurance companies are coming to ask for certified tradesmen to install oil furnaces, said Harach.

“We could be the Western Canada training centre,” he said.

The regulation of oil-burner furnaces varies across Canada. Oil-burner mechanics need to be certified to work in Ontario, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and the N.W.T.

Regulation would help the industry, he said, as it would ensure competitors couldn’t cut corners. “You’d have everyone bidding to do the job completely and correctly.”

It’s better to regulate the industry now rather than wait, said Harach.

“Ontario went through the same thing until they started killing people,” he said. Now the province has some of the strictest oil-burner regulations in Canada.

There, residents receive fuel-cap stickers to ensure the furnace has been maintained by a certified technician. If it hasn’t, fuel distributors aren’t allowed to fill up.

“Right now we have the opportunity to regulate in our jurisdiction, by our own people,” said Harach.

For every propane-burning furnace in the Yukon, there are nine oil-burning appliances. Yet there’s a gas inspector, but no oil-burner inspector.

And, as it stands, the Yukon’s building safety staff lacks anyone with a red-seal ticket in oil-furnace repair.

“Where’s the balance?” asked Harach. “Can an oil stove kill you? Do we need the answer to this?”

City council could do its part. Whitehorse still uses the 2004 building code. Yet an updated code was released in 2009, said Harach, and even the latest code is catching up with some of the latest furnace technology.

“A quick council resolution would fix this,” he said.

And more code infractions could be caught if contractors used a four-page checklist, developed for furnace installations, during their annual maintenance work, said Harach.

He suggests that homeowners specifically ask for this form to be used to catch previous code infractions.

Harach knows that new rules would be resisted by some veteran contractors. To them, he has some blunt words as well.

“You’ve been doing it wrong. And the appliances have changed.”

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com