In a few days, you’ll find Olivia Clarke racing through corridors, nestling in lecture halls and meeting deadlines in her new student apartment.
The Burlington native, who is in her second year of Political Science at a Hamilton University, is happy she moved out of her old student home. Last year Clarke says she was afraid that a faulty electrical system would burn down her house.
“My old house was a tragedy waiting to happen… I am not an electrician at all but I knew there were major electrical problems after moving in.”
The 23-year-old started looking for houses shortly after being accepted into her program of choice. “I knew I wanted to live off campus. I’ve already been through the whole ‘dorm-life’ experience… this isn’t my first post-secondary institution and this time I just wanted to focus on my studies.”
Clarke says she put a deposit down on a home that was just five minutes away from the University. “I found the house online. The price for a bedroom was reasonable and the location was great,” she says, “I didn’t want to risk someone else getting the room so I went for it.
Tim Birnie, President of Birnie Home Safe – a Mississauga-based licensed electrical contractor – believes that the competition to find off-campus housing in University communities makes it easier for landlords to skimp out on safety repairs.
“Some landlords feed off of the vulnerability of these students, they know people like Olivia are in need of a place to stay during the school year so they don’t bother investing in their older homes, especially those that need the electrical repairs. It’s so wrong,” Birnie says.
Some landlords try to maximize profits by adding multiple kitchens and washer/dryer facilities into their homes to accommodate more students or renters. Birnie explains that if the service feeding the residence is under-sized, adding additional high-draw appliances can severely compromise the integrity of the wiring system. If you live in a home that has been converted into separate apartments or living spaces, it’s recommended that you request an electrical inspection.
After signing the agreement, Clarke waited till August of last year to move in. While she had previously toured the house when she was first looking for places to live, she never questioned the integrity of the home.
“There were students already living here and the homeowner seemed nice. I didn’t think anything was wrong with the house because everyone looked comfortable.”
Birnie says parents and students need to ask lots of questions before they move in. “If you know the house you are staying in is old, find out if the landlord has performed an electrical inspection because we know that when a house reaches a certain age the electrical degrades… you should also check and see if there are functioning smoke and CO alarms.”
Dorm Safety – Smoke and CO Alarms
According to Chief Fire Prevention Officer, Joe Wintar, from the Burlington Fire Department, smoke alarms must be installed on every storey of the home and outside sleeping areas.
CO alarms are installed in residences with fuel burning devices (home furnace, gas stove) or in residences with attached garages. Your CO alarm must be installed adjacent to sleeping areas as per the Ontario Building and Fire Code.
“If you want to install more smoke and CO alarms that’s perfectly fine, what we are describing is just the minimum code,” Wintar says.
If you rent, the building owner or property manager is responsible for maintaining your unit’s alarms.
Tim Birnie explains that an inspection is the best way to know if there are any issues with the electrical system. “With so many students moving in and out of houses and apartments, the electrical system can be at risk.”
Dorm Safety – Overloaded Circuits:
Overloaded circuits is a big issue among student residences, explains Birnie. “These older dorms or student homes weren’t built to power all of the electronics students use today.”
An overloaded circuit is an excessive electrical load on a particular circuit. This occurs when there are too many devices plugged in at once. When a circuit is overloaded for a long time the wires can start to break down, overheat and reach fire conditions.
The concern is that year after year new students are inheriting these electrical issues. “As the years go by the level of danger will only increase,” Birnie says.
Dorm Safety – No Outlet Space:
When Clarke was living in her first residence she noticed there was a lack of outlet space. I had one outlet in my room. I decided to put one of those power bars to give me more outlet space.”
This is a dangerous hazard explains Birnie. “Just because you are increasing the outlet space, this does not mean you are increasing the amperage of the circuit. This is a prime example of how to overload your circuit.”
It was in mid-October that Olivia Clarke decided to unplug everything from her room. “I smelled something burning and It was coming from a particular outlet. I immediately went to the outlet, I touched the faceplate and it was really warm… I was surprised the breaker didn’t trip like it usually did in our house”
Dorm Safety – Fire Hazard:
Chief Fire Prevention Officer Joe Wintar says residents who feel like there is a fire concern, or the potential for a fire to start, in their home should call 911 and ask for the fire department. “We want to prevent fires from starting…no one’s going to get a slap on the wrist if they call. This is an educational opportunity.”
The chief fire prevention officer says residents with questions about fire safety or smoke and CO alarms, should ask their local fire department.
This is something Olivia should have done when her breakers started tripping, “…the breakers would always trip especially if a few of us in the house were using multiple appliances. Then it stopped happening and I knew it wasn’t good.”
Tim says that if a breaker stops tripping there is an issue “the problem hasn’t magically fixed itself, this means the breaker is defective… a breaker that doesn’t trip anymore needs to be replaced by a professional.”
In Clarke’s case, she had multiple devices running at once which overlaoded her circuit. “I was powering my laptop, my cell phone, a portable heater… this wasn’t as bad as some of my housemates who had mini fridges and stovetops in their rooms…”
Warning signs of an overloaded circuit:
Power outages: Circuit breakers that frequently trip or fuses that often need replacing.
Lights that flicker or dim: Large- draw appliances like a dryer or refrigerator can sometimes cause lights to flicker because the heavy load is disrupting the normal amount of voltage allotted for their circuit.
Arcs and sparks: Flashes of light or showers of sparks in the electrical system (switches and receptacles).
Sizzles and buzzes: Unusual sounds from your switches, fixtures or outlets.
Overheating: Overheated wires can give off an odour of hot insulation; switch plates or receptacle covers that are hot to the touch or discoloured from heat buildup
Electrical shocks: Any shock, even a mild tingle, can be the sign of a larger issue.
When Clarke unplugged everything from her room she notified the landlord right away. “She was surprised that I was telling her there were electrical problems. She said the home never had electrical problems which was a lie.”
The Landlord sent her brother, who was not an electrician, to inspect the electrical panel.
Dorm Safety – Hiring a professional:
The Electrical Safety Authority (ESA) says if you are hiring a business or an individual to do electrical work in your home, by law, they must be a Licensed Electrical Contractor. Homeowners are permitted to do electrical work in their own home but the law says they must take out a permit prior to doing the electrical work. The work is subject to inspection and review by the ESA.
Clarke didn’t feel safe in her room. “I couldn’t sleep, I was paranoid I was going to wake up to a room full of smoke… my housemates were also nervous but our landlord was uncooperative”
Olivia and her roommates persisted in asking the landlord for a professional electrician to perform an inspection. “She wouldn’t listen to us and said her brother made the necessary repairs which I don’t think actually happened,” Clarke says.
Clarke who was signed on for a year lease moved out of the rental property just before Christmas.
“I tried to reason with my landlord but I was getting nowhere. After contacting the Lease Tenant Board I decided it was in my best interest to leave before the lease was up.” Clarke did not wish to comment when asked if she faced any penalties after breaking the lease agreement.
According to Canadian Real Estate Wealth, In Ontario, tenants can break their leases with relative ease.
The Political Science student moved back in with her parents and commuted from home for her second semester.”I was in an unsafe environment. Living close to campus wasn’t worth it… none of my housemates live there anymore, I think the owner sold the house.”
Dorm Safety – Condition of Homes:
Tim Birnie has a personal experience with electrically unsafe student dorms.
“My son lived in an old residence first year and I was shocked to see how many of the residents had small fridges and other large-draw appliances plugged in,” he says.
Like Clarke’s residence, older school dorms that were built more than 40-years-ago cannot handle the electric load used today.
“After first year, my son moved into an older house with his friends…. the home was wired with two-prong outlets, so no ground,” he says. “There were no GFCI outlets in the kitchen or bathroom which is very unsafe.”
Birnie Home Safe has serviced thousands of older homes, including student residences. The Mississauga electrical company says that more often than not, there is an electrical issue in these types of buildings.
“We’re dealing with older homes, the wires behind the walls are worn and brittle due to degradation… imagine adding extra load to an already fragile circuit. We shouldn’t be surprised that there are problems,” Tim Birnie says.
For everyone’s peace of mind Tim suggests that parents invest in an electrical inspection before their child moves into their home. “Ultimately the landlord is responsible for the inspection but I would pay for it first and then deal with the landlord if there are any serious electrical issues.”
Tim says Birnie Home Safe is happy to speak to landlords or residence directors about the importance of electrical safety and related maintenance.
“More than a business we are an organization that is on a mission to eradicate electrical fires and there’s a level of education involved in that,” he says.
Home Safe says that almost half of the reported residential fires are electrical in nature but they are preventable with the right education.
The licensed electrical contractor offers a no-fee preliminary electrical consultation for those individuals who suspect their home has electrical hazards. “This is the best way for us to know for sure if there are problems,” Tim says.
According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) firefighters respond to an average of 3,810 fires at college dorms each year in North America. Careless smoking, unattended candles and cooking, and the improper use of extension cords and power outlets are the most common culprits.
Olivia Clarke makes her way to the campus bookstore as she prepares for her first day of class. Olivia is optimistic about the new school year.