GROWING consumer concerns about the safety of knob and tube wiring and a get-tough stance taken by insurance companies has prompted the Manitoba government to commission a study on the issue.
Family Services and Consumer Affairs Minister Gord Mackintosh said Friday he has received many complaints from constituents about hard-line insurance industry practices around knob and tube wiring.
It's estimated that up to 40 per cent of Winnipeg's roughly 160,000 houses have at least some knob and tube wiring. In older neighbourhoods, it's probably closer to 90 per cent.
Mackintosh has asked the province's director of consumer protection and its superintendent of insurance to work with the fire commissioner to produce a report by Nov. 1.
"It's time to direct a formal review as to what the extent of the practice is (of insurance companies demanding upgrades before agreeing to insure), the impact on consumers and what, if anything, is required to ensure fair practice going forward," Mackintosh said.
He said there have been many complaints, including one constituent who was given two weeks to make significant alterations over Christmastime.
The Manitoba Real Estate Association has also been fielding complaints from people concerned about insurance companies clamping down on homeowners and either withholding insurance or making onerous demands for changes before agreeing to insurance coverage.
Lorne Weiss, president of the MREA, which recently flagged the issue, said his association is supportive of the province's move.
"We think there is a role for the province to play in trying to ascertain if in fact there really is a problem with knob and tube wiring," he said.
His group already has a task force looking into the wiring and what they have found so far is that knob and tube in themselves are not a problem or fire hazard.
"In fact, what we have been told is that it has a higher amperage rating than the copper wiring used in new construction," said Weiss.
That means that more power can safely move through that wiring than the newer type.
Last month, the province's fire commissioner, Chris Jones, told the Free Press that knob and tube wiring "is generally safe." He said it usually only becomes a hazard if mice or squirrels eat away the protective coating, which can cause arcing, or if new wiring has been installed in part of the home and improperly connected to the old wiring.
Mackintosh said he is concerned about the impact on busy and vulnerable consumers who may feel "captured" by the insurance company they deal with.
"There is a lot of effort going into strengthening older neighbourhoods and we don't want to see backsliding as a result of an inability to get insurance or because of excessive premiums," he said.