Your electrical system could be on life support Aging infrastructure is a growing problem in Canada’s rental housing industry. While this is not a new issue, it has become front and centre due to recent incidents in Toronto. Fires and breakdowns in the reliability of several buildings’ electrical systems have ousted thousands of people from their homes… in one case, for more than one year. The main problem is lack of maintenance on the part of building owners and landlords. It has become such a serious concern that the City of Toronto is working with Ontario’s Electrical Safety Authority to perform a series of electrical inspections on aging apartment buildings as part of a safety blitz. Many landlords and property owners have been doing a good job of keeping their building’s systems up to date and in good working order. However, this is not the case for every building, as evidence has shown. Failure in the electrical system can have serious consequences, even endangering the health and safety of tenants. If you’re not diligent about inspecting and maintaining your building’s electrical system, then a small issue can lead to significant breakdowns, as well as serious financial and legal repercussions.
Age is a primary factor While construction of rental housing has increased over the last 20 years, most of Canada’s purposebuilt rental stock dates from the 1970s and earlier.
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According to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), three quarters of primary rental stock was built before 1980, with 25 per cent built before 1960. This means that the majority of rental properties built in Canada are at least 40 years old, with many of those buildings much older than that. Electrical systems in older buildings degrade with regular use. While parts and systems can be serviced and maintained, they can malfunction more quickly over time. Corrosion of metal parts is very common with aging electrical systems, and these require maintenance and replacement to avoid potential electrical hazards down the road. These types of issues could indicate additional
potential electrical hazards. Older electrical systems are also much less energy efficient than systems introduced in the last 10 years. “ESA research indicates that older buildings, specifically those constructed prior to 1976, have an increased risk of electrical incidents,” said Dr. Joel Moody, Chief Public Safety Officer and Senior Director, Policy and Innovation, Electrical Safety Authority (ESA). “This is mainly from normal wear and tear over time and where electrical systems have not been adequately maintained.” With the increase in failing electrical equipment, servicing aging multi-residential buildings has become a prominent issue. Electrical equipment failures can account for hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage. As aging building structures continue to age, this problem will continue to worsen unless active steps are taken. “The top causes of electrical equipment failure are exposure to moisture and water penetration, which account for nearly all electrical losses,” said Vinh Dang, Senior Project Manager, Wynspec Engineering. “These problems can easily be corrected with a proper routine preventive maintenance program.”
Maintenance is a legal obligation As a landlord or property manager of a multi-unit residential property, you are legally responsible for maintaining the building, including its electrical systems. If your municipality does not have a property standards by-law, then you must ensure that your residential rental complex complies with the prescribed maintenance standards under the Residential Tenancies Act (RTA). Municipalities are responsible for reviewing and investigating complaints from tenants about the state of their rental complex’s maintenance. In Ontario, the provincial standard under the RTA requires landlords to comply with standards that include utilities and services (e.g., electrical). “Property owners are required to regularly maintain and repair electrical systems to ensure they are in safe working order,” said Dr. Moody. “Property owners are required to ensure electrical work is done by a qualified licensed electrical contractor and that any necessary permits are obtained to facilitate review of the electrical work by the Electrical Safety Authority.” It is important to note that property managers and building owners are legally allowed to do their
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own electrical work – to some degree. However, they must follow the Electrical Code in their province. The Code is updated every few years to address emerging technology and improvements in electrical safety practices. Always follow the current edition of the Code before doing any electrical work. Also, almost all electrical work requires a permit from the provincial authority with jurisdiction.
Being proactive is the best approach The best way to ensure that electrical systems function properly is to implement and follow a proper maintenance plan. This helps to keep systems in good working order, prolongs the life of the building and its systems, and minimizes potential catastrophic failures. Work with a licensed electrical contractor to create a maintenance plan. The contractor should review the plan with you in detail, considering each unit of equipment as it relates to the entire functioning and operation of the building. This will determine the frequency of inspection and testing based on the type of equipment and environment for the maintenance plan. Schedule inspections regularly to ensure that issues are addressed, and that systems are up to date. If you have not spoken with your contractor or electricity consultant for more than a year, you should schedule a conversation immediately. “In general, the best preventive maintenance that anyone can do is to complete a comprehensive infrared scan and correct any problems or issue found,” said Ed Porasz, P.Eng., President, M & E Engineering Ltd. “Secondly, if the building has a main switchgear, the gear should be cleaned by an electrical contractor, which will require the building’s electrical system to be shut down. During the shut down and cleaning, the interior of the switchgear will be inspected and repaired if required.” It is vital to regularly inspect, clean and maintain the switchgear inside the main panel. This includes oiling or greasing moving parts as per manufacturer’s instructions. If the switch is not properly maintained, it might malfunction by failing to switch off. This could lead to a buildup of energy and, in a worst-case scenario, an explosion. “When planning a program for your buildings, make sure that superintendents do a routine visual check of all mechanical and electrical rooms,” said
Dang. “All vents and fan grills must be cleaned of all dust or dirt accumulations. Ensure that ventilation openings are not obstructed. And keep a clear and complete record-keeping system.”
building’s major equipment and systems, such as boilers and chillers, lighting and more. They will also examine equipment controls for energy usage.
Hire a licensed electrical contractor
An engineer will evaluate the building’s energy usage by examining and comparing energy bills for the last two years. This enables them to analyze changes in energy usage over time and season, and determine whether there is any unusual usage. They will also compare the building’s energy usage to similar buildings to show how it is using electricity in different ways.
You can do everything “right” (i.e., perform regular maintenance of your electrical systems) and still run into serious issues if you don’t employ properly trained professionals to do the work. Apartment buildings have highly complex electrical systems, as well as kilometres of wiring, and require extensive knowledge of codes and safety systems to be properly maintained. This type of work cannot be left to untrained building staff. “A visual review should be carried out by a professional engineer to assess the condition of the structure concealing the mechanical and electrical rooms,” said Dang. “This is particularly important since most rooms are either in basements and underground parking garage facilities that are exposed to extreme temperature changes. A condition assessment should be carried out by a professional engineer confirming that the structure concealing the mechanical and electrical rooms are structurally sound and in a watertight condition.” Before hiring a professional to inspect, maintain or replace electrical equipment, it is incumbent on property owners and managers to ask the licensed electrical contractor whether they’ve previously worked on similar electrical systems. Not all contractors have the same experience needed to work on all systems. Multi-unit residential properties have different systems than singlefamily houses and commercial properties, and 40-year-old apartment buildings are not built the same as five-year-old condominiums. “Check to ensure the contractor holds all required qualifications and licences, including an ECRA/ESA licence for electrical work,” said Dr. Moody. “Confirm the contractor has secured all appropriate permits for electrical work. Request a copy of the ESA Certificate of Inspection from the contractor once the work is complete.”
Conduct an energy audit In addition to doing regular maintenance, building owners should schedule an energy audit, possibly in conjunction with a building condition assessment, to get a comprehensive overview of their property. Audits involve inspections of the
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“If a piece of equipment has one to ten years left in its life expectancy, and if the newer equipment has a payback in five to ten years, it may be beneficial to replace the equipment earlier to save on energy, maintenance and increase reliability,” said Porasz. “If an energy audit shows a payback that is longer than what is acceptable to the owner, then reviewing the equipment ensures that it is well maintained and there may be parameters that could be set on the existing equipment to make it slightly more efficient without changing it.”
Conclusion Regular maintenance is the best defense against electrical failures in your multi-unit residential building. If you have an older building, it’s essential to stay on top of electrical maintenance and repair before it leads to catastrophic failure and potential safety issues for your tenants. Failed or neglected equipment almost always results in unnecessary and costly repairs due to the urgency of the situation. Make and follow a maintenance plan, and hire licensed electrical contractors to keep your building’s electrical systems functioning properly before you are forced to shut your building down due to failures that you could have prevented.
By David Gargaro, in collaboration with Dr. Joel Moody, Ed Porasz and Vinh Dang
RHB, RHB Magazine, Electrical System, Electrical Safety Authority