Abandoned Structure Fires – Are Active Utilities To Blame?

By Nick Markowitz Jr.

There’s that old abandoned corner store building which has been sitting empty for close to 20 years now that all of a sudden catches fire one hot afternoon.  Of course right away you’re thinking it was kids fooling around with matches.  However that’s not what happened this time.  In conducting your investigation, witnesses tell you they saw smoke coming from the side of the building where the electric wires hooked in from the street.  Maybe its the old service wires they think.  While many an investigator may dismiss this because all utilities where turned off.  Where they really?

Turns out in this case the wiring was the culprit not the kids seen nearby playing.  How could this be possible?  Well it starts with how electric power is turned off to structures.  Typically an employee from the electric supplier comes out, pulls off the meter, then inserts a plastic cover in its place which seals off the meter base.  All fine and well but the problem is the wires from the meter out to the street are still energized and can deteriorate to the point that an arc fault develops.  This in turn can catch the building on fire.

A common myth that current has to be traveling through a wire for it to catch fire.  This is not true.  As long as voltage is present anywhere in a circuit, the potential for a fire is present.  When it comes to a fire starting, the old weakest link in the chain theory is where the fire will start.  When it comes to the installation of wiring outside, it starts to deteriorate as soon as it is installed due to sunlight hot and cold always being present.  We make the materials to resist this, but eventually they get so bad as they became a hazard.  This happens more often than you would think, but too many investigators are quick to blame it on the kids.

The question then is if this does happen then why do utility companies not cut off the wires completely especially if they know a building is going to sit empty for a long time?  The main reason is the cost to unhook then re-hook the wiring.  You can send a non lineman in a pick up truck to cap a meter base.  It takes a lineman in a utility truck to unhook the wiring or worse case they have to climb the pole.  Plus with utility companies always cutting back, linemen are already too busy handling emergencies.  Then you have cases like here in Pa. where power was deliberately kept on in old coal mine and industrial sites and substations to prevent the theft of copper wiring and other valuable materials.

Ok so is there something in the NEC-70 or other codes which could be enforced?  Well it all depends who you ask.  The utility companies do not follow NEC-70, they follow The National Electric Safety Code which sounds the same but is different and designed for utilities which are also regulated by state consumer/utility commissions.  NEC -70 only deals with voltage inside structures not utilities.

As long as the wires are not presenting a danger they can stay in place in perpetuity.  So if this is the case, should there be codes mandated as to when power wires should be completely cut off structures to prevent future problem?  Say after 1-3 years or more?   That what seems to be what it would take and it would have to be able to mandated on the utility company who at the moment has the final say.   But wait a minute, the customer paid for the wiring from the weather head to the meter base on the building, would that not make them responsible?  Yes it would if you could find them.  This is a matter which has been debated and handled differently many different times in as many different states as to who is responsible for what when it comes to a fire or other problem involving an electrical service to a structure.

What we need is one complete concise policy on this matter.   However, with giant utilities facing down communities and code making panels I do not see it coming any time soon.  So what’s the AHJ to do?  It starts by keeping an eye on abandoned properties and when you see service wires etc falling off a building or otherwise causing a hazard, immediately notify the utility.  Document the incident and if they refuse to do anything notify the state utility commission who regulates them.  They will be able to some fire under there feet.  Having the media there with you also does not hurt as well when its a serious situation which is being ignored.

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