Regular barn inspection critical to electrical fire prevention

Any exposed electrical connection is an area with fire risk

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All it takes is one spark — fire can happen anywhere and anytime on a farm. While the cause can be difficult to confirm, firefighters, inspectors and insurance companies agree, electrical issues top the list as one of the leading causes of fires on farms.

Steve DeVries.
photo: Supplied

“I’ve seen all kinds of electrical hazards and my rule is that unless the electrical-related area is closed, sealed tight and clean, the risk of a fire is real,” says Steve DeVries, electrician and owner of Gotham Electric. “Regular barn and electrical maintenance are your best defence against fire.”

DeVries specializes in several electrical areas, including agricultural and commercial, and has first-hand agriculture experience as a chicken farmer near Listowel. He notes the areas most prone to fire on a farm are monitors on electrical panels and receptacles.

“There isn’t really one area that poses the most risk of fire. Receptacles are the weakest point for fire issues, so you always need to monitor them, but anything from poor cords, faulty lighting or corrosion can cause a spark. If it isn’t maintained properly, any electrical area is prone to fire on a farm.”

Corrosion is one of the leading culprits of electrical issues in lighting, fans and receptacles, especially in barns with exposure to high levels of ammonia. DeVries says the best defence against electrical malfunction and fire risk is to monitor every outlet, light and fan regularly, establish a maintenance schedule and fix any identified issues right away.

“Updating receptacles to a corrosion resistant type, like installing weather-proof covers with vapour tight seals is also a good idea, especially on outdoor receptacles and in hog and dairy barns,” he says. “And if you’re renovating or building a new barn, consider reducing the number of receptacles. The more you have, the higher the potential for problems.”

Taking a proactive approach to electrical safety and maintenance is a farmers’ best defence. “There’s a lot of confusion around the Ontario Electrical Safety Code as it relates to farm buildings, and it’s constantly changing,” says DeVries. “Most farms meet the minimum code standards, but don’t go any further. If you’re building or renovating a barn, it’s always a good idea to talk to your electrician to identify additional safety and fire prevention precautions.”

When it comes to electrical maintenance, DeVries advises farmers to make it part of a routine. “A lot of electrical issues are invisible, and we don’t often worry about something until it quits working,” he says. “Regular inspections and an annual consult with your electrician is a good start to a maintenance plan. Being proactive is important, but so is the follow-through. If you identify a concern, fix it or call your electrician immediately. If a motor is running hot, fix it. Don’t wait until it’s on fire to address the problem.” DeVries reminds farmers that maintenance also includes cleaning to reduce dust and debris build up that can cause electrical problems.

Hot spots on breaker boxes and receptacles or inadequate heat dissipation top DeVries’ list of hidden electrical issues. And these are difficult to identify. That’s why he recommends farm owners invite their insurance provider to inspect barns and farm buildings with a thermal imaging camera. He also advises farmers to invite their electrician to participate in the inspection so any problems that are identified can be fixed on the spot. “It’s peace of mind,” he explains. “You never know what kind of hot spots or problems are hidden in a wall or breaker box.”

FLIR (heat sensing) thermal imaging equipment is available to use free of charge from Farm & Food Care Ontario. For more information email: [email protected].

“Farmers are all busy, no matter what time of year,” says DeVries. “Your best defence against electrical fires is to prioritize safety and make it part of your business everyday.”

This article was produced as part of the Farm & Food Care Ontario: Livestock Emergency Preparedness Project and the Reducing the Risk of Barn Fires Advisory Panel (2016). A group of concerned Ontario Farm Commodity Groups, Fire Prevention Officers, Electrical Safety Professionals and Government of Ontario staff.

This project was funded in part through the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, a federal-provincial-territorial initiative. The Agricultural Adaptation Council assists in the delivery of the Partnership in Ontario.

Electrical fire prevention tips

  • Make safety part of your farm business by prioritizing maintenance and prevention practices
  • Build a relationship with your electrician that focuses on maintenance, fire and safety preventative
  • Be proactive by developing and following your own maintenance schedule
  • Invite your insurance provider to walk through the farm, barns and buildings with a thermal imaging camera to identify any hidden hot spots
  • Address and resolve any identified electrical, safety or fire risks – don’t wait until it’s too late
  • Update receptacles located outdoors or in barns with high levels of ammonia or moisture exposure with corrosion resistant covers

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