(posted in the Friday December 17th 2004 edition of the North Bay Nugget)
Cradled in the southeast arm of a woodland outcrop in Corbeil is an inviting country home, and a family wondering if it’s safe to live inside it. When the Hues decided to invest in a new furnace to heat their house during the unforgiving Northern winters, they didn’t intend to pay for it with their peace of mind. “I worry every time that it’s put on: Is the furnace OK?” asks Jo-Ann Hue. They replaced their ageing furnace—installed when the house was built about 30 years ago—with a new Lincoln oil furnace in 1998. Since then, some annual inspections have identified premature cracking in the heat exchanger—the part of the furnace that transfers heat from a flame to the air passing by the outside.
Third heat exchanger
Sitting in her living room this fall, sifting through a pile of receipts and correspondence, a frustrated Hue explains they’re on their third heat exchanger. The others were replaced when a technician from Fern’s Heating in North Bay decided the cracks posed a potential risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. Hue crosses her fingers for the next routine annual inspection early next year. In the meantime, the family has installed a carbon monoxide detector near the furnace in the basement and another by the upstairs bedrooms. “Just in case”, Hue says.It’s a situation that appears to be a symptom of a greater problem with Ontario’s privatized fuel regulator that some say is looking the other way, the local fire department ordering the furnaces out of city homes, an American manufacturer that says its product is not a hazard and a lot of confused consumers who don’t know what to believe. All furnaces are designed to prevent dangerous flue gases from escaping. Some have sliding baffles, while the Lincoln Low-Boy MBO-model oil furnace has a baffle plate welded to the wall inside the heat exchanger.
These furnaces are manufactured in Canada by International Comfort Products Canada Corp. (ICP), a division of UnitedTechnologies Company Canada Corp. ICP is part of the Carrier Corp., which told the Nugget it’s trying to gather information from the distributor and track down more details about affected furnaces, says Margaret Gan-Garrison, a spokeswoman for Carrier headquarters in Farmington, Ind. “We’ve had this product for many years, and this is surprisingfor us,” says Gan-Garrison. The furnace’s design has changed once before, switching from four welds to two, to “make sure it doesn’t aggravate the lifespan” of the furnace, she says. “We’re confident that the furnaces do not present a hazard.”And the company has lab results to back that claim. The Technical Standards and Safety Authority (TSSA) was hired by Ontario in the mid-1990s to be the province’s fuel safety regulator for the Ministry of Consumer and Business Services.
Documents obtained by The Nugget under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act show North Bay fire prevention officer Randy Vezina contacted the TSSA a year ago about ‘apparent failures’ of heat exchangers in the Lincoln furnaces that were cracking after just one or two years of use. Extensive tests by an independent lab in Toronto showed heat exchangers with cracks or holes did not leak carbon monoxide. The TSSA concluded there was a “life-cycle’ issue with the cracked heat exchangers, and it didn’t request a recall. Claude St-Pierre, a certified oil burner technician and owner of Fern’s Heating, used to be the contractor for fuel giant Ultramar Ltd. which has distributed the furnaces here.
St-Pierre has filled one makeshift furnace graveyard at his father’s home, and now has another in his own backyard, with Lincolns that have been sent away for testing. St-Pierre estimates the graveyards hold about 70 cracked heat exchangers,and he figures he has tagged and shut down hundreds over the past few years. He took over the business from his father who retired this summer, and he says the furnace controversy is hurting the company’s reputation among customers. “My dad built a good business after 34 years of trust.” St-Pierre says. “You wonder why you do all this because it’s discouraging.”He’s also a program co-ordinator at Canadore College where he teaches oil burner Technician programs across Northern Ontario through Contact North, and offers Instruction for a private employer in Brampton. St-Pierre’s classes, and his opinions, are based on guidelines set by the TSSA.The codes that guide the fuel industry are worded in a way that gives “latitude” for technicians to base their decisions. And it isn’t unusual to have disagreements, says Mike Scarland, manager of operations for TSSA. “Typically, under those circumstances, the fuel supplier makes the ultimate call as to whether or not something is defective,” Scarland says. If there is a safety issue, he says, it’s usually due to problems with installation or the homeowners not maintaining the equipmentproperly. Through its area inspector, the TSSA found furnaces here with “some sort of crack or hairline crack or… break or integrity.” But he says these are not safety issues. It also isn’t unusual for units to crack or corrode over time, he explains, and most furnaces are negatively pressured so it’s unlikely they would leak carbon monoxide. Yet all it takes is a change in weather conditions to alter the air pressure for them to leak, says Rod Corea, a former TSSA inspector, who helped write the training manuals currently used to certify technicians in Ontario.
15- to 30 – year lifespan
Heat exchangers usually have a lifespan of 15 to 30 years, he says, crediting other manufacturers who have “stepped up to the plate” when cracks or corrosion occurred in their products. Lennox Industries recalled home gas furnaces in 1997 and offered free carbon monoxide detectors when it found “unacceptable levels of corrosion” in some of the heat exchangers of furnaces manufactured and installed from 1982 to 1989.
And Unitary Products Group of York International Corp., makers of Coleman furnaces, recalled about 226,000 gas furnaces last month because they can overheat and cause cracks and burns through the heat exchanger. “Generally speaking, it’s always been taken that a cracked heat exchanger is a deterioration of an appliance…. A crack always raises a concern,” says Corea, owner of NRG Resources Inc., a consulting and training service near Barrie. “To use the argument that it’s not producing CO (carbon monoxide) doesn’t cut it.” At the very least, Corea says, technicians should issue a work order to the homeowners and distributors to “spread around the liability of the assessment.”
Corea was there when the province transferred responsibility of the fuel industry to the independent TSSA. He left on good terms, he says, but the difference was “night and day” with its approach moving from safety to money. “One thing they will always be concerned about is being sued by (the makers of) Lincoln furnaces, so they’re going to have that on the back of their minds at all times,” Corea says. “I think Claude is doing the right thing in bringing to everyone’s attention that this is a concern,: he adds. “From what he’s told me about it, I would certainly shut it down.” And it appears the North Bay Fire Department is following that advice. Linda Turgeon was on her second Lincoln furnace in her home on Highway 63 since 1999. Fern’s Heating determined late last year that the heat exchanger was again cracked.
Asked for help
Turgeon says her oil supplier, Ultramar Ltd., decided the furnace didn’t necessarily have to be replaced. She asked for help.
“I was on my way to work, and it was just bugging me so bad. I didn’t know who to go to, so I stopped at the fire hall,” Turgeon says. An Ultramar agent complied with an order from the city’s fire prevention officer to “immediately” replace the furnace with a different brand. There were no carbon monoxide readings in the home at the time.
“The North Bay Fire Department has been aware of the Lincoln MBO oil furnace for approximately two years, and it is common knowledge that the heat exchangers on these units develop cracks, posing a potential life safety risks to building occupants,” says a letter obtained by the Nugget from the fire prevention officer to Turgeon, Fern’s Heating and Ultramar.
Ultramar has since switched to another Lincoln model, although that’s common practice and nothing to do with cracking, says Louis Forget, vice-president of public and government affairs for Ultramar Ltd. in Montreal. Ultramar, he says, became aware of the problem in the 1900s. “It seems there was a small percentage of premature heat exchanger failures.” Forget says. The Ducane Company in the Unites States used to manufacture Lincoln Barriere furnaces which were part of a massive recall in that country in 1996 because heat exchangers in the furnace can crack. A further recall notice was sent by Ducane in 2002. There were no reports of injuries ICP took over manufacturing Lincoln furnaces and negotiated a warranty replacement program for Ultramar customers with affected furnaces, Forget says. Yet a document obtained by the Nugget shows Ultramar distributed a letter to its service contractors and technicians in April 2002 instructing them “do not advise the customer at this time” if the Lincoln MBO heat exchangers have “very small hairline cracks.” With the earlier test results showing no carbon monoxide leaks, there was no need to “make people concerned for nothing,” Forget says. “There’s no fire hazard or there’s no problem that could occur with those furnaces that could put the health of someone in danger,: he says. “No one would take a risk…of leaving the equipment there if we felt that there was even a slight chance of a problem.”
After receiving information from North Bay’s fire prevention office, the Ontario Fire Marshall’s Office has sent a request to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to investigate further. Documents show Fire Chief Ted McCullough has issued an interoffice e-mail to firefighters and fire prevention officers to note the make and model of oil furnaces when they attend a carbon monoxide call. The fire prevention officer in October shut down and removed another cracked Lincoln heat exchanger at a Franklin Street residence, replacing it with a different model. There were no carbon monoxide readings at the time. It was the second Lincoln heat exchanger in that home to be replaced since 1997, St-Pierre says.
“Thank you. You probably saved our lives,” the 78-year-old widow calls out to him as he leaves the home. “To be honest with you,” she says, “I’ve had my best night’s sleep last night because I know Fern’s was on the job.”
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