A sparky’s take on roofing insulation risks

Chris Lehmann of Tradesmen on Time submitted a letter to the editor of the Australian online newsletter Crikey.  In the letter he wrote of how impractical the Federal Government’s audit of houses with foil insulation will.

Lehmann explained to SafetyAtWorkBlog that the insulation properties of foil insulation comes from being installed across the ceiling joists and establishing an air pocket between the foil and the ceiling.  However, this installation covers all electrical work so the integrity of the cabling cannot be determined visually or easily.

Lehmann said that it may be possible to use a non-conductive material to achieve the same insulation benefits without the electrical and fire risks of foil.  He recommended the use of insulation batts.  Batts sit between the joists and do not obscure electrical work or, at least, make the cabling more accessible.

Below is Lehmann’s letter:

“Stopping the foil insulation rollout will not stop the danger from the insulation scheme, and safety checks will be next to useless.

Foil insulation and its installation method is inherently unsafe. It may very well have good insulating properties, but so does asbestos, and we don’t use that anymore and we remove it where we find it because it is unsafe.

Foil insulation will kill you a lot quicker than asbestosis will. Here are just a few likely scenarios that could evade Garrett’s new safety check.

  • If there is rubber cable in a ceiling that deteriorates and comes in contact with the foil above it, the ceiling will be live.
  • If a staple has gone through a lighting cable that is not regularly used (such as a pantry light, or an exhaust fan) the fault may not be present for many, many years until there is congruence of circumstances with that appliance being on and someone being in the ceiling.
  • If you have vermin in the ceiling and they chew through insulation to expose the conductors and they come in contact with the foil, the ceiling will be live.
  • If you have a recessed light fitting that develops an earth fault and the foil is resting on it, the ceiling will be live.
  • If you have a fault caused by a burnt neutral, removed or missing MEN link in the switchboard and you have bare earths in the ceiling (very common in pre 70’s houses) there is a good probability ceiling will be live.
  • Dad/handyman/electrician mount something on the ceiling with a screw and it goes through a cable and into the insulation 50mm above the gyprock, the ceiling will be live.

There are so many different likely scenarios it is scary. It is not a matter of possibility that a ceiling with foil insulation becomes live, it is a matter of real probability. I have already told our employees that we do not work in ceilings with foil unless the power is isolated to the entire house.

This also presents a very real maintenance issue: if you are tracking a wiring fault in a ceiling or installing new cabling, you have to remove or disturb portions of the foil to complete the work. The act of doing this could actually cause a fault that was not there before.

All invoices submitted by electrical contractors in Qld must have a “certificate of test” attached which makes them liable for the safety of that installation in perpetuity to the effect of the work they have performed, in this case the electrical safety of the installation with regards to the foil insulation. No responsible electrical contractor would put their name on an invoice. I believe there would be a very real, sleeping liability for anyone putting their name to such a safety check.

You cannot see any of the cabling in these type of installations as the foil is put over the top of the ceiling battens. Therefore you cannot put your hand on your heart and say it is safe unless you pull the insulation up again and inspect the condition of the cabling, connections, and light fittings underneath. My very real concern is that people will pay money to a sparky (unscrupulous or foolish enough) to tell them it’s OK, and give them a false sense of security.

Foil insulation should be removed urgently. I am not being alarmist when I say that it is a certainty that more people will die. The victims in the future will not be 16 or 18-year-old installers — they will be plumbers, electricians, or dads putting the camping gear or the Xmas lights up in the ceiling.

This will be a deadly legacy of this stimulus package that will kill people 20 to 30 years into the future unless the foil insulation is removed and quickly. To be fair, it was installed previously and there was an Australian Standard for its installation. However, the flood of unskilled and inexperienced installers into the market, armed with nothing but a Stanley knife, staple gun, and a roll of glorified alfoil made installation standards plummet. What was previously an el-cheapo, less safe product for insulating a home became a deadly, unsafe product.

Chris Bowen repeatedly defended Peter Garrett on Lateline this week by saying Garrett had sought “expert advice”. A warning from the peak Electrical Contractors body in the country surely has to be considered “expert advice”. They had no axe to grind in issuing a warning about the safety of the foil insulation, other than the protection of life and property. This was an entirely foreseeable tragedy, expected and witnessed by people like myself who make a living by managing, preventing, and correcting electrical risk every day.

If Garrett wants to get on the front foot with this, he should announce that foil insulation method is banned, and instigate a policy of removal immediately. Putting all politics aside, as a bloke who is climbing into another ceiling tomorrow and sending people out to do the same on my behalf, I want to make sure we all have a better chance of going home safely.” (links added)

Thanks Chris for letting us reprint your letter.

Kevin Jones

Categories construction, contractor, death, electricity, government, Inspectors, OHS, safety, UncategorizedTags , , ,

15 thoughts on “A sparky’s take on roofing insulation risks”

  1. I was touring in the north of Scotland recently and saw a few properties that had \’planted\’ roofs. One of them was short grass with what looked like wild flowers in it. I know there are benefits to be had, but it just looked so great, I\’d do it for that reason alone.

  2. Yea I see their concerns with the roofing hazards or risks but is it really the politicians responsibility to come out and declare why or what is hazardous.

    I don\’t think that he knows what he is talking about.

  3. I thought foil belonged directly under the roofing. Even triple cell silver batts aren\’t as useful as fibre batts as insulation. How did stapled foil insulation come to be recommended in the first place except as a cheap and nasty option???

  4. Hi Kevin,
    I can see many issues here:
    Fire from inappropriately installed foil,
    Fire from inappropriately installed insulation
    Falls from roof (both installer and anyone else on the roof – eg childers)
    Electrocution – various sources – not just old wiring
    Hazardous substances exposure (laying (Fibres and chemical) and from smoldering insulation)
    There is no doubt that this has been a very hastily hatched program and it again highlights the need for competent, trained safety professionals to be advising Government whenever they get a \’good idea\’ No-one is saying that they should not have advanced this program, but next time, please give it some real thought.
    BTW I have heard a \’rumour\’ that solar heating (roof and storage) may have also come into some criticism. I understand that the CEC (Clean Energy Council) have sent a circular to \’reassure\’ people that solar panels are safe. Can anyone shed some light on this and what generated the response from CEC?

  5. Chris

    I think there is enough concern out there that the electrical contracting industry won\’t be criticized.

    On the development of an appropriate process, most observers of the insulation issues in Australia at the moment would agree that everyone needs to take a deep breath and start thinking, and planning, clearly. Knee-jerk to knee-jerk to knee-jerk is not an appropriate management strategy. I think the issue has a long way to go before resolution.

  6. I read in the CM last week a claim by the foil installers association that no deaths had been attributed to it before, I have no reason to doubt this. I personally believe it is inherently unsafe, but with reputable, experienced people installing it this risk can be minimised.

    The issue has been the standard to which the recent flood of foil insulation has been installed. If I was an established foil installer I would be ropeable at what the cowboys have done to their livelihoods.

    Unfortunately, I believe as a public safety measure, with 38000 homes with this stuff in the ceiling, the best option is removal. The second best in the installation of rcd/mcb (safety switch) protection on each final subcircuit. The option of last resort is inspections, this will only tell you if it is safe today, not tomorrow, not next week, not in 10 years time

    There is a “chronic” risk to the installation of all types of insulation if it is installed incorrectly from fire. With foil insulation, there is the “chronic” fire risk and the more “acute” electrocution risk.

    As I said, asbestos is a great insulator, but we don’t use it because it anymore as it is dangerous and we remove it where we find it. Electricified foil will kill you a lot quicker than 20 years of asbestosis will.

    Before I would even consider any involvement with the safety checks, I want to see a written, approved test procedure published that all within the industry have to follow to be able to claim any rebate to give the best chance that they are being carried out correctly in the majority of cases. Couples with a pro-forma waiver that exempts the contractor from any future liability as long as the check was carried out diligently. Even then, there will ongoing public risks from the inherently unsafe nature of the installation method for the life of the product. A check today, doesn\’t gaurentee it will be safe tommorow.

    I already see some cynics pointing at the Electrical contracting industry and accusing us of potentially profiteering from the crisis. Electrical contractors didn’t cause this debacle, but we are going to have to be the ones to mitigate the danger and risk associated with it….

  7. Ross

    I think that many people and politicians have mixed up the issue of house fires and foil insulation. Most of the pictures of insulation-related house fires are showing fibreglass batt insulation. These fires may have occurred through an installer inadvertently damaging the existing electricals. This type of house fire is also possible when a homeowner installs there own insulation.

    The foil insulation deaths over the last few months have stemmed, mostly, from electrocution. The number of installers has increased enormously in response to the government\’s \”green stimulus package\”. The politicians are focusing on the circumstances that established an environment for poor safety rather than the deaths themselves. Investigation of the deaths stays with the coroners and OHS regulators.

  8. There are safety issues with other types of installations too if not done safely. The biggest is fires caused by not installing a 250mm exclusion ring around halogen downlights, because of the heat that is generated from the high-low voltage transformers – especially bad with loose-fill cellulose fibre insulation – but not the only one. Overheating power cables because the insulation is laid over them (which can also reduce their efficiency by 30%, offsetting some of the greenhouse gas savings from installing the insulation). The risk of electrocution to installers from old wiring. Mostly, unskilled, untrained, unaware workers exposed to risk by the unseemly haste with which this program was rolled out.

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