Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Shocking demand

Insurers tell homeowners to replace old wiring or forget policy

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Chris Somers and Jodi Munn got a big shock when they tried to insure their newly purchased Fort Rouge home -- they couldn't, unless they replaced the old electrical wiring.

The two city homebuyers said they contacted a half-dozen insurance brokers, most of whom deal with more than one insurance company.

Somers said several weren't interested, period. The rest said they'd only insure their 97-year-old Mulvey Avenue home if they agreed to replace all the old knob and tube wiring in 30 to 60 days.

Munn said because 70 per cent of the wiring in the two-storey home had already been upgraded by the previous owners, they thought they'd find at least one company willing to cover them, especially as they intended to replace the rest of the old wiring within the next year or so.

Instead, they have 30 days. And they won't know the cost until Friday, when they take possession of the home and get their first estimates from electricians.

"It's a pain in the butt, but you have to do it," Munn said.

Local real estate officials say Munn and Somers aren't the only ones feeling the pain.

Manitoba Real Estate Association president Lorne Weiss and WinnipegRealtors president Ralph Fyfe said most insurance firms are clamping down on knob and tube wiring, the industry standard until the early 1950s.

Weiss and Fyfe said they've even heard of people who have been in their homes for years getting the order to replace the old wiring if they don't want their insurance voided.

Weiss said the hardline stance has huge implications for Manitoba's housing market because of the large number of pre-1950 homes here. He 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 such as old River Heights, Cresentwood, Fort Rouge, Wolseley, the West End, old St. Boniface and old St. Vital, it's probably closer to 90 per cent.

Weiss said the worry is that as more homebuyers become aware of the problem, older homes that haven't been upgraded will become harder to sell. And the people who usually buy older homes -- first-time buyers and immigrants -- are often those who can least afford the upgrade cost of $10,000 or more, he said.

Weiss said the MREA is so concerned it's setting up a task force to determine the extent of the problem and whether it should ask government for a subsidy program to offset the cost of replacing the old wiring with copper wiring.

A report is expected in a couple of months.

The president of the Insurance Brokers Association of Manitoba confirmed Canadian insurers have been clamping down on old wiring.

"But it's been going on for a few years," Peter Tessier said, adding knob and tube may be getting more attention now because of the number of baby boomers selling their older homes.

He said insurers are concerned that the old wiring was never designed to handle all the electrical appliances and home electronics equipment in most houses these days.

Weiss and Fyfe said there's evidence to suggest knob and tube wiring is no more hazardous than copper wiring.

The province's fire commissioner confirmed knob and tube wiring "is generally safe."

Chris Jones said it usually only becomes a hazard if mice or squirrels have eaten 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. But if it's been done to Canadian Electrical Code standards by a qualified electrician, it shouldn't be a problem, he said.



Knob and tube wiring

What is it? It typically consists of two wires, one hot (black) and the other neutral (white), clamped onto porcelain insulator knobs. Ceramic tubes are used to line the holes where the wires pass through wooden floor joists or other flammable materials, hence the name knob and tube.

Why do insurers say it poses a higher safety risk than contemporary copper wiring? There is no ground wire, and most of today's appliances and home electronics equipment require a ground. It was never designed to handle the amount of appliances and electronic equipment in today's homes. Because of its age -- it was used prior to the early 1950s -- it's more likely to have been damaged at some point, which could cause a fire. The risk of a problem increases if the wiring has been tampered with, and many older homes now have a mix of old and new wiring joined together.

What do experts say? Manitoba's fire commissioner says if the wiring has been properly installed and maintained, and any connections to newer wiring were done to Canadian Electrical Code standards by a qualified electrician, it should be safe.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 12, 2011 B6

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