Technology monitors high-risk barn wiring to help stop barn fires

A project by Trillium Mutual Insurance aims to get 100 monitoring devices installed on farms in a year

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An Ontario insurance company is trying to stop barn fires before they start by subsidizing the installation of technology that monitors wiring systems for faults.

The sensor-based early warning system is part of a unique collaboration between Trillium Mutual Insurance and PrevTech Innovation.

Why it matters: Barn fires create more than a financial loss. They often result in the loss of animals causing emotional trauma for farmers and a public relations challenge for the industry.

Ontario recorded approximately 80 fire incidents a year in recent years with an estimated $18.5 million in losses.

Although the number of incidents may be declining, the estimated losses are skyrocketing due to the ever-increasing size and value of structures on Ontario farms.

An estimated 40 per cent of those fires can be directly traced to wiring issues, a provincial report released earlier this year says.

Mike Virley.
photo: Supplied

That’s prompted Trillium to offer a rate freeze to clients who install PrevTech Innovation’s Smart Sensor for three years.

“The whole essence of the technology is early notification before problems occur,” said Mike Virley, Trillium Mutual Insurances’ vice-president of operations. “It’s more peace of mind for the farmer to prevent downtime and interruptions.”

Unlike the residential sector, agricultural producers haven’t benefitted from the development of fire prevention, monitoring and property protection technology in the same way homeowners have, said Virley. But he said that’s beginning to change.

A watchdog for barn wiring

Enter Quebec’s PrevTech Innovations’ Smart Sensor, an autonomous non-invasive unit that is easily integrated into existing or new build electrical systems.

The unit continuously monitors the network for electrical and thermal anomalies and when a potential failure is detected it sends an early warning text message to the farmer, their electrician and PrevTech’s team.

The PrevTech team can then be consulted through a simple user-friendly interface to assess the situation with the producer and their electrician and discuss how to fix it.

The off-the-shelf price for the unit is $1,675 plus HST along with the cost of installation, which would be approximately two to three hours plus materials, said Virley. The annual monitoring fee is $995 plus HST.

The PrevTech Innovations Smart Sensor.
photo: Supplied

Through the unique partnership with PrevTech Innovations, Trillium agri-business customers can acquire the units at a reduced rate. If the system proves to lower barn fire risk over the long term, it could mean reduced insurance rates for those who have it installed.

“We have purchased the rights to a significant number of units which we are giving to our (agri-business) members for free,” said Virley. “Our members would still be required to fund the installation costs and the annual monitoring fee.”

Virley said the technology is ideally suited for large farm operations particularly in the dairy, swine and poultry sectors. However, Trillium is encouraging all members to take advantage of the program.

The ultimate goal is to prevent agricultural structure fires, he said, but Trillium sweetened the program by entering into a three-year rate stabilization plan with participating members.

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“Whatever the base rate is on the structure today, we will hold that rate for a period of three policy terms to help offset some of that monitoring fee,” he said.

The sheer size and scale of new builds often overshadow the local fire service’s ability to knock down a blaze quickly and effectively.

Grim statistics

An Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) report released Jan. 2, 2020, said approximately 40 per cent of all barn fires are attributed to faulty electrical systems.

The Ontario Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management (OFMEM) identifies the leading causes of preventable fires as mechanical or electrical failure, misuse of ignition source or equipment and design, and construction and maintenance deficiency. Their data also says the cause is never known in about 40 per cent of cases due to the complete loss of the structure and contents.

High barn fire claims have prompted one insurance company to support the installation of sensors that monitor wiring systems.
photo: iStock/Getty Images

The cost to farmers isn’t solely tied up in the loss of livestock or a physical building. There’s the cost of operational downtime, the irreplaceable loss of genetics along with the mental and emotional burden of those losses.

“There’s a few spots there where insurance doesn’t fill the gap,” Virley said. Those are gaps he hopes technology like PrevTech’s unit can help mitigate.

There’s been a lot of positive feedback from Trillium’s independent broker network since the program’s official launch Oct. 1 and Virley hopes to have several Smart Sensors installed in barns across the province by the new year.

Before launching this program, Trillium ran a small year-long pilot program with five producer members using the Smart Sensor. The results showed very clearly the tech was able to catch anomalies in electrical systems and provide a rapid response to remedy the issues, he said.

Data points

Virley said the long-term plan is to generate a significant sample size over a three-to-four-year period where Trillium will, hopefully, generate solid data pointing to a decline or eradication of agricultural structure fires attributed to or presumed to be electrical in nature.

“If we could get 100 units out there in a year, I think that would be wonderful,” said Virley. “That would be a great sample size.”

The data collected over the life of the program will be used to identify trends or common themes around which anomalies trigger the sensors and offer insight on where improvements to electrical systems could be made.

Quebec’s PrevTech Innovations’ Smart Sensor’s autonomous unit is integrated into existing or new build electrical systems where it continuously monitors the network for electrical and thermal anomalies.
photo: Supplied

If the data indicates the Smart Sensor effectively decreases the incidents of electrical fires, it would solidify better rates on agricultural structures that have the unit installed.

Virley cautioned that PrevTech Innovations’ Smart Sensor doesn’t eradicate any other risks management services Trillium offers, such as inspections and thermography, but provides an additional piece of the safety puzzle for members.

Virley said PrevTech’s unique understanding and recognition of Canada’s agricultural community and its focus on adapting the Smart Sensor to meet those needs solidified the partnership with Trillium.

Even so, Virley said it would be the producers themselves who determine if the partnership and the program are a success.

“It’s going to be the farming community that embraces and sells this product to one another,” said Virley. “It’s our hope they collectively see the benefits of such technology and the investment in risk management.”


Maintenance tips

According to an OMAFRA fact sheet the following maintenance steps can be taken to help prevent barn fires:

  • Have a qualified electrician do regular inspections of electrical and mechanical equipment, checking for signs of deterioration and/or corrosion of equipment in livestock confinement buildings.
  • All items that are deemed to be unsafe or questionable should be repaired or replaced immediately.
  • Some insurance companies conduct inspections of electrical equipment (such as panels and plugs) using infrared cameras to look for hot spots (overheating) as a way to detect corrosion issues.
  • Keep an eye on combustible materials and their proximity to electrical equipment.
  • Clean up can include mowing of vegetation and the regular removal of rubbish inside and around buildings. As well, all trees that are near buildings should be trimmed or removed.
  • Properly site and manage on-farm fuel storage facilities away from buildings. This ensures flammable vapours released during refueling of vehicles or filling of storages are not drawn into the farm buildings.

About the author

Reporter

Diana Martin

Diana Martin has spent more than two decades in the media sector, first as a photojournalist and then evolving into a multi-media journalist. Five years ago she left mainstream media and brought her skills to the agriculture sector. She owns a small farm in Amaranth, Ont.

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