Oil furnace failings threaten Yukoners

If your home is heated with oil, there's a good chance your furnace is set up wrong, poorly maintained, and is quite possibly a safety hazard. These findings come from the latest study, released last week, on the state of th

If your home is heated with oil, there’s a good chance your furnace is set up wrong, poorly maintained, and is quite possibly a safety hazard.

These findings come from the latest study, released last week, on the state of the territory’s residential oil-burning furnaces.

The study, which looked at oil furnaces in 51 homes in Whitehorse and several other Yukon communities in July of 2008, found that 40 per cent of these appliances were improperly set up for safe, efficient combustion.

The average home has six infractions of the B139 Installation Code for Oil-burning Equipment. Three of those infractions are considered “significant,” which means they are either an imminent hazard or could reasonably be expected to develop a problem in the future.

This is not a new situation. An earlier report, produced in February of 2008, came to much the same conclusion.

Both reports were prepared by Toronto-based NRG Resources for the Yukon Housing Corporation. Home-owners responded to an advertisement and volunteered to have their furnaces inspected for both surveys.

These findings are certainly not news to Don Fulmer, owner of Fireweed Plumbing and Heating. He’s been complaining about the shoddy state of the territory’s oil furnaces, and the lack of regulatory guidelines to improve the situation, since the early 1980s.

Some infractions he encounters are minor, such as dirty filters. But every year he encounters serious problems in some furnaces he services, such as cracked heat exchangers that leak carbon monoxide.

He’s seen cases where such a leak has existed for several years. The occupant may have noticed symptoms such as eye, nose and throat irritation, and lumped it up to a reoccurring cold. They didn’t realize carbon monoxide was slowly accumulating in their bloodstream.

They were slowly being poisoned by the odourless gas.

In extreme cases, “you just go to bed one night and you don’t wake up,” said Fulmer. “That happens every year in North America.”

“Thankfully we haven’t had any cases like that in the Yukon I can remember. But there are some cases where people have been hospitalized.”

Then there are homeowners who, pressed for space, begin to cram their mechanical room with Christmas decorations, boxes of papers and other flammable goods. The boxes end up being stored against the furnace, creating a fire hazard.

Such problems ought to be caught during annual furnace maintenance. But 64 per cent of furnace owners surveyed in the 2008 report did not regularly service their equipment. The 2009 report had only slightly better findings: 45 per cent of the furnaces that required annual maintenance had been neglected.

Similarly, furnaces are frequently installed in the territory by a person without proper training, resulting in more code infractions.

These problems are all compounded by a shortage of certified oil-burner mechanics in the territory. The 2008 report says less than five per cent of oil-burner mechanics in the Yukon are certified.

And there are no rules prohibiting this, because no certification is required to be an oil-burner mechanic in the Yukon. Contrast this to the regulation of propane-burning equipment, which is tightly regulated by the Gas Inspections Unit of the Building Safety Branch of Consumer and Safety Affairs.

The situation is most grim outside Whitehorse. Haines Junction homeowners reported there is no local oil burner mechanic available to service and maintain their furnaces.

So, what’s being done to fix these problems? The 2008 report makes six recommendations to improve the situation.

Three recommendations have been adopted, said Marc Perreault, the housing corporation’s director of program delivery. One is underway. And two, for now, are being ignored.

The shelved recommendations all involve legislative changes. One would require Yukon’s oil-burner mechanics to be certified. Another would create an Oil Burning Devices Act, which would regulate the industry.

This is despite the 2008 report’s conclusion that the industry has failed to self-regulate itself and requires more government intervention.

The government isn’t so sure. It wants consumers to take a more active role in maintaining their oil furnaces and ensuring that repairmen are qualified, said Perreault.

So the government will wait and see. It plans to commission another report next year to see if any progress has been made. If the results continue to be as disappointing, only then will they consider drafting new laws, he said.

“We want to see if we can improve this situation without having to legislate. You know, everyone hates legislation,” said Perreault.

“If we can’t fix the problem through other means, then legislation will have to come into play. We definitely need to take public safety as number one.”

Several recommendations have been adopted. These include: conducting surveys of furnaces outside Whitehorse, done this summer; launching an advertising campaign to encourage residents to properly care for their home furnaces, done this autumn; and sharing the findings of the reports with industry representatives to encourage discussion and corrective action, also done in the past year.

Another recommendation is soon to be adopted. That’s the proposal to train and certify oil-burner mechanics in the Yukon.

A pilot project is to be launched between April and August of this year, said John Gryba, Yukon’s director of advanced education.

The courses would be less extensive than those required to obtain an oil-burner mechanic certificate in southern Canada, said Perreault.

Instead, two levels of courses would be offered: one to train a worker to conduct annual furnace inspections, and one to teach how to install oil furnaces.

“If you’re just installing a furnace in a small home, you don’t need a four-year apprenticeship,” said Perreault. “We want to avoid overkill.”

And the Yukon government and the city of Whitehorse are currently training their building inspectors to ensure “they understand exactly what they need to look for,” said Perreault.

“This, right now, is underway,” he said.

As well, an oil-fired appliances advisory committee was struck last year, which includes industry representatives, including Fulmer, to discuss proposed changes.

“It’s time consuming, but at least we’re getting it started,” said Fulmer. “I’m reasonably happy with what’s going on now. You don’t change things overnight.”

Contact John Thompson at