LAWRENCE — The immediate effort to provide heat to thousands of residents affected by the gas outage in the Merrimack Valley has hit a snag, as inspectors encounter many homes with outdated and underpowered electrical systems that cannot safely run space heaters.
Inspectors going door-to-door in Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover have delivered just a handful of the thousands of space heaters being made available to residents who are facing the onset of cold weather without heat. Fearing a fire hazard, officials said many of the homes inspected so far first need a costly, and potentially time-consuming, replacement of their electrical service.
“If they don’t feel it’s safe, we don’t give them a space heater,” Lawrence Fire Chief Brian Moriarty said of the inspections. “We don’t want to make things worse.”
Two-thirds of the homes without gas service are in Lawrence, where the housing stock is older and many multifamily properties have not seen improvements in years. Inspectors have found triple-deckers still running on 60-amp service, while current building code requires 200 amps, said Lou Antonellis, business manager of the International Brother of Electrical Workers, Local 103, which has provided hundreds of electricians to help with inspections. Some houses still have older screw-in fuses instead of circuit breakers in their electrical boxes.
“These old electrical systems can’t support these added electrical appliances,” said Antonellis, who is concerned that residents will end up overloading circuits. “Overloaded electrical circuits can cause fires.”
To minimize the risk of fire, inspectors want each space heater to be on its own electrical circuit and not compete with other appliances. In two visits to homes Wednesday, Warren Stred, a quality assurance inspector with Abode Energy Management, agreed with an electrician who concluded that neither would receive a space heater because they did not have enough circuits to isolate the device from other electrical uses.
“So far, that’s been very consistent,” Stred said of the team’s inspections in Lawrence.
The owner of a house that Stred and the electricians visited on Dunstable Street Wednesday, who asked that his name not be used, said the home is still using the original power panel in a home his father built in the late 1950s. Though it does have some modern wiring, the electrician told him to consider upgrading the panel because the house has limited electrical capacity. The owner said most of the major appliances run on gas.
“It’s from the days when gas was the way to go,” the homeowner said.
Space heaters account for more than 4,600 fires a year nationwide, according to the National Fire Protection Association. In Massachusetts, there were 139 space heater fires reported to the state fire marshal’s office between 2007 and 2016, including seven that resulted in fatalities.
Residents have already been given electric hot plates to cook on. Inspectors such as Stred have installed hundreds of smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, but they’ve handed out just a few dozen space heaters.
The setback is prompting officials to search for alternatives and adds to the challenge of restoring heat and hot water to some 8,600 residents and businesses following the explosions and fire that ripped through three Merrimack Valley communities on Sept. 13. The local utility, Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, is racing a Nov. 19 deadline to replace 48 miles of pipe in the area and return gas service before winter weather arrives.
Columbia Gas has acknowledged liability for the financial toll on residents and businesses and promised to pay for any necessary repairs or upgrades. But it’s unclear how many of the 4,300 affected residences in Lawrence will need a complete upgrade of their electric service, and how long that will take. However, officials expect to supply replacement appliances to homes that need them beginning on Sept. 28
A spokesman for Columbia Gas, the utility company responsible for the disruption, would say only that officials are continuing to assess homes.
Antonellis said an electrician can install a new service in a day or less, on average, but would require more time to do other work, such as installing additional outlets to bring the homes up to code. He said the union has sent nearly 300 electricians to the area. Officials have asked for additional help, and some 40 more electricians could arrive later in the week, he said.
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