It's a treat to find someone who is truly passionate about their work. This was the case when I spoke with Lucy Impera, the registrar for licensing and certification at the Electrical Safety Authority, a non-profit Ontario organization dedicated to protecting the public.
For Ms. Impera, this is more than a job - it's personal, in large part because about 12 years ago she almost lost her brother to an electrical accident. He was tinkering with some wiring at home and was jolted 14 feet across the room.
Saving others from a similar or worse fate is the ESA's mission, and the need for this protection is evident in the latest figures from the Ontario Fire Marshal's office. Between 2002 and 2006, residents of the province suffered 15,000 electrical fires, one third of which were directly related to residential electrical systems.
Most of the time, electrical accidents happen because the person doing the wiring isn't qualified to do the work. Sometimes they occur even when a qualified and licensed person is involved because someone previously tinkered with the wiring and set up a potentially deadly booby trap.
To counteract this loss of life and property, Ontario passed a law that came into effect Jan. 1, 2007, making it illegal for homeowners to hire someone who is not a licensed electrical contractor to do such work. And it is illegal for an unlicensed person to do the work, or to advertise that they do residential electrical work.
But don't use this law as an excuse to take on these jobs yourself. Going that route could kill or maim you.
Ms. Impera says a common challenge to this advice is, "How hard can it be to change an outlet?" Her response is, "An electrical outlet that costs 69 cents looks the same as one that costs more than $4 but they have different ratings. One is intended for copper wiring only, the other for aluminum and copper.
If you don't know what your home's electrical system consists of - aluminum or copper - and you try to install the wrong outlet, you could be in trouble."
You also can't always know what hazards have been left behind by previous residents of your home. For example, say you want to install a new light fixture on the dining room ceiling and you've turned off the power to that junction box to do so. If that light fixture was wired incorrectly originally, the power may not actually be off and you could electrocute yourself.
Or, say that, unbeknownst to you, the light fixture you're dealing with is a three-way device (controlled by more than one switch). The wiring for that sort of fixture is more complex. Couple confusing wiring with the fact that the power may still be on even though you think it's off and you have an even greater chance of getting hurt or killed.
Ms. Impera offers the following tips to make you an informed, well-prepared consumer:
Be specific about your renovation plans. Tell your electrical contractor what power-consuming equipment and fixtures you plan to install, both immediately and in the future. This will allow your contractor to test whether your existing system can accommodate the added load - both immediate and anticipated - and, if the system isn't adequate, install the necessary components to make it safe.
Know in advance where you plan to locate things that draw power, such as appliances, the TV and table lamps. That way your contractor can ensure there's a permanent, separately wired outlet installed exactly where you need it. This level of planning also ensures that you won't be using extension cords. They should be used only in temporary situations, such as plugging in holiday lights, because it's been proven they heat up and fail over time, creating a hazard. This is especially true if they're running underneath carpet, or near furniture that can damage them.
While the message is getting out, unqualified contractors continue to try to dupe homeowners into hiring them. Since the law took effect in Ontario, the ESA has responded to 1,508 complaints, conducted 1,378 inspections and issued 823 fines to unlicensed operators. The fines are serious, ranging from $200 to $10,000. If injuries or fatalities occur, the offender could face a fine of $50,000 or more, and possibly a prison term.
There may be someone near you trying to pass himself off as qualified and licensed, so know how to protect yourself. To confirm if someone is legally qualified to do electrical work in Ontario, ask for their licence number and then check it out at http://www.pluginsafely.ca or phone 1-877-ESA-SAFE (1-877-372-7233).
There are 6,000 licensed electrical contractors in Ontario. The above website and phone number can be used to locate those working in your area.
In other provinces, contact your provincial ministry of labour or local utility company to find out if an equivalent licensing organization or requirements exist.