Bad wiring called major fire threat in barns

An educational campaign in Ontario takes aim at deteriorated electrical/mechanical equipment and heating devices


As barn fires go, an early March blaze near St. Pierre-Jolys, Man., was fairly minor.

It caused about $50,000 in damage, and chickens, goats, sheep and rabbits died.

A loss of livestock is always stomach turning, but the financial losses were relatively small. In comparison, a large hog barn fire could easily cause losses in the millions.

News reports on the St. Pierre barn fire didn’t mention a cause, but an electrical or wiring issue is a safe bet.

“We feel approximately 60 to 70 percent of all barn fires are caused by deteriorated electrical/mechanical equipment and faulty/improper heating devices, which are open ignition sources,” said Jim Zyta, vice-president of loss prevention with Heartland Farm Mutual, a firm in Waterloo, Ont., that specializes in agricultural and rural insurance.

The wiring and electrical systems in hog, poultry and dairy barns often cause fires because they are humid and have elevated levels of corrosive gases such as hydrogen sulfide and ammonia.

The harsh atmosphere corrodes wiring and electrical connections, creating the ideal conditions for arcing or overheating of wiring.

Ontario Agriculture, insurance companies and other agencies launched an education program last year to address this problem.

A fact sheet, available online at www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/engineer/facts/16-043.htm, summarizes the cause of barn fires and what contractors and farmers can do to prevent them.

“It’s being handed out at farm shows across the province. It’s an awareness thing,” Zyta said.

“What we’re trying to do is … to get farmers and builders and electricians to (ensure) that the right electrical equipment goes into these (barns).”

The fact sheet said corrosion and rodents chewing on wiring are major causes of electrical failures. Choosing more resilient and more expensive options, such as wiring enclosed in plastic or stainless steel, is part of the solution.

“The electrical system components used in the barn must be specifically designed to withstand the barn’s corrosive and wet environment,” the fact sheet says.

“There are different grades of electrical components available for different operating environments.”

As well, electric motors used in barns should have an enclosed frame to protect against dust, water and corrosive gases.

It appears that a percentage of livestock producers and building contractors are listening to the message because superior wiring is being installed in new barns in Ontario, Zyta said.

In Manitoba, the largest producer of hogs in Canada, the provincial government doesn’t have an education program around electrical systems in barns. It is dealing with the issue through codes.

“As the electrical code authority, Manitoba Hydro requires engineered drawings for installation of the electrical and HVAC equipment as part of the electrical permit process for farm buildings,” a provincial spokesperson said.

“The professional engineer is to ensure that the electrical installations address the conditions that are often found in various farm production facilities.”

Installing proper wiring in new hog barns is an urgent issue. Most of the barns in the province are 20 to 25 years old and must be replaced, soon.

“We should be building about 20 barns a year (in Manitoba),” Andrew Dickson, Manitoba Pork’s general manager, said last year.

“Over the next 10 years, we essentially have to replace most of the buildings we’ve got. That’s a $2 billion investment.”

Contact robert.arnason@producer.com

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