Cut Those Tree Limbs!!!

I just completed an assignment where contact between a power line and a tree limb caused damage to several home appliances. We all know that power lines are sometimes routed through tree branches between the transformer and the weatherhead on a residential or commercial building roof.  It’s also no secret that electricity can travel through a tree.  In this particular case, contact with the limb came about as a result of rubbing so that when the wire insulation had worn off and the conductor was exposed, a short circuit to ground was created.  When this happens, current is going to go in all directions.  It is possible to energize the neutral side of a building’s electrical system so that current is fed into an appliance in the wrong way which causes damage.  Although electric utilities sometimes take on the responsibility for pruning tress, home and building owners should be proactive in helping to maintain the safety and reliability of power distribution.  As this article is being written, the northeast is being “slammed” with a huge winter snow storm.  It’s no stretch of the imagination to conceive of the number of power lines that will come down as result of broken tree limbs.  But, keeping tree limbs pruned and off power lines can mean the difference between staying warm and waiting several hours if not days for utility crews to make repairs.  Remember, unless you are in an extremely isolated area, the transformer that feeds you home or business, also feeds your neighbor’s homes and businesses.

A Word About Fraud…

Every once in awhile a case comes along that has a little bit more intrigue than the run-of-the mill investigation. A few years ago, we were asked to look into why a man was injured while working on a scissor lift that had apparently gotten away from him. In order to understand what happened, it is important that one realizes that a scissor lift can be raised and lowered while in place or moved forward and backward. The controls for this particular lift were located on the side of the platform railing and were raised and lowered as the platform was raised and lowered. This particular lift had been rented from an equipment rental company by a construction company and as stated earlier, was in use at the time of the accident. Specifically, a construction employee was standing on the platform in a raised position while attempting to move the lift to his left. Upon releasing the control to stop the machine, the machine did not respond and eventually crashed into a forklift. As a result of this incident, the rental company, by its contractual agreement with the construction company, was expecting to be indemnified because the employee had filed suit against the rental company for his injuries.

After receiving this assignment, a trip was made to the rental company’s location in order to conduct an examination of the machine. At first, no restrictions had been placed on the examination. Upon arrival, it was learned from rental company representatives that the lift could not be operated, disassembled, or tested in any way. The examination was to be limited to taking photographs and making notes of observations. One of the photographs that was taken is shown below. The photograph shows the condition of the control panel as it was found during the first examination. Note the dirty appearance and the type of joystick used.

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Approximately four months later, a joint examination was organized wherein various parties that had used or worked on the machine gathered to witness the testing and examination of the lift. The examination was begun with allowing all of the parties to photograph the machine. Although the machine had been photographed four months previous, the lift was again photographed. When the photographs were later reviewed and compared with the photographs taken at the first examination, it was then discovered that the control in place during the second examination was different form the control initially found on the machine. The appearance of the control shown below is the control that was on the lift during the second examination. Clearly, this control is different from the one shown in the photograph above. It then became obvious that not only had the control been replaced but, the only reason to replace the control was to hide the problem in the first control that most likely caused the accident. Once the lawyers were made aware of the switch, the claim for indemnification by the rental company soon disappeared. Presumably, the lawsuit filed by the employee against the rental company was settled.

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Although fraud exists, even in civil cases, it is fairly hard to prove. This aforementioned case was more the exception than the rule. Over the past 30 years, I have had several cases where I thought that something was missing or there was more to the situation than “meets the eye”. In all cases, at the end of the day, it’s what you can prove not what you can feel. If you can develop proof for what you can feel, then great! If not, then all you do is conclude based on your evidence. If you are going to commit fraud, be prepared to cover even the smallest detail. As illustrated above, no one thought that the control replacement would be noticed, but it was!

 

Compact Florescent Lights

DSC04442.JPGCompact florescent lights or CFLs as they are known are supposed to be an energy efficient alternative to incandescent light bulbs. CFLs have been on the market for a few years now and have slowly been gaining acceptance by the general public. But, (and there is a “but”) recently, CFLs have been posing a problem. The problem is that some CFLs have a tendency to explode and cause a fire. The cause of the explosion is a faulty ballast. When the ballast fails, the typical failure mode is one where the ballast emits a small amount of smoke and a burned smell, then fails completely without a fire incident. Also, please be aware that these bulbs are made with mercury. If you must handle a bulb that has exploded, use gloves to protect your hands and wash your hands afterward. The CFL shown above is just one instance where the bulb exploded, ignited the lamp shade and caused damage to an antique stereo cabinet. The damage to the home was minimal although if the fire had not been extinguished quickly, the loss could have been more severe. There currently is no recall for bulbs manufactured by General Electric with the number FLE23HT3/2/10E/SW. It should also be noted that General Electric has elected to stop manufacturing CFL bulbs as of December 31, 2016. For CFLs manufactured by other companies, consumers should check with the company directly to find out if there are any recalls for the bulb(s) they have.  For the time being, LED bulbs seem to be a safer alternative to CFL bulbs.

 

 

Fire and Appliance Safety, Part 2

In keeping with the previous post on fire and appliance safety, photographs of some items that have been encountered in previous fire investigations are posted here: the first photo shows an electric stove where the fire originated in the control panel.

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The next photo shows a packaged a/c unit damaged by fire as a result of contact made between a live wire and the edge of an opening in the metal casing.

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The third photo shows a riding lawn mower that ignited, most likely, by the owner’s failure to keep the machine clean between cuttings.

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The next photo is of a paper shredder, also burned, because the machine was not kept clean.  Dust created by shredded paper is just as flammable as any petroleum based fuel if the right conditions exist for ignition.

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The propane gas regulator shown below was installed backwards so that gas was flowing into the outlet port and existing through the vent port.  Since there was no pressure regulation, the cap covering the adjustment, (located in the center) was blown off and the escaping gas ignited.  The homeowner happened to be standing nearby and was severely burned.

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The next photograph shows a line cord attached to an aquarium pump. The problem was identified as a faulty line cord that was not properly sized for the continuous operation. As a result, the line cord insulation melted and ignited.

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The following photograph shows a coffee maker that ignited and caused a small kitchen fire.  This appliance was destroyed badly enough so that the actual problem was unidentifiable.

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The pipe flange in the next photograph cracked after having been in use for several years.  The leaking gas percolated up through a homeowner’s lawn and ignited; destroying the home as well as damaging a neighbor’s house.

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Corrosion of the copper gas line resulted in the leaking of propane gas and a sudden explosion.  The explosion destroyed a residential structure.

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Fires and Appliance Safety

The weather has definitely gotten colder and heating systems are being put to the test. There are different kinds of systems; electric resistance, gas-fired forced air, hot water, and steam to name a few.  Regardless of the type of system, the potential for accidental fire is part of all heating systems.   During this time of year, it not uncommon for problems to develop which, when left unattended, can result in significant damage to homes and businesses.  For example, furnaces, both gas and electric, should be cleaned at least once per year; at the beginning of the heating season.  Some people think that just because they change their air filters every once-in-awhile maintenance is complete.  NOT SO!  Depending on the efficiency of the filter in use, some dust particles will pass through the filter media and accumulate on blower blades, motors, and heat exchanger surfaces.  The burning smell often detected when the furnace is first started is the result of dust accumulation.  If the furnace is never cleaned, dust accumulation can ignite and spread outside of ductwork.  Similarly, if the controls area is never cleaned, burners can become clogged resulting in poor combustion and sometimes, delayed ignition.  Delayed ignition of gas/air mixtures can become explosive and when ignited, can release a tremendous amount of heat with deadly force.  Poor combustion can also produce carbon monoxide which when inhaled can be deadly, especially to elderly people and young children with respiratory problems.  Similarly, electric heating systems such as heat pumps should be checked for proper operation as well as components that are in good working condition.  One of the biggest problems that should be guarded against is the wiring insulation that becomes brittle with age and cracks.  Exposure of conductors can result in short circuiting leading to a fire which can then spread to the structure.  Just because a circuit is protected with a circuit breaker doesn’t mean that a fire can never develop.  Circuit breakers are current limiting devices NOT thermal limiting devices.  Heat exchange coils, motor, fans, and blowers in heat pumps should also be kept clean.  Heat pumps come in different configurations such as air to air, air to water, and air to ground.  In the last two configurations, a fluid such as water or glycol is circulated to transfer heat to or from the heat pump.  In order to do so, a pump is used to circulate the fluid and must also be serviced at certain times.  Failure to do so can result in pump motor burnouts that could result in fire.  Remember, the pump and its motor are usually two separate components unless intentionally manufactured as a single unit.  Lastly, there is not much that can be done with hot and steam boilers except to make sure that the wiring is in good condition, stack temperature is not excessive, and piping is also in good condition.  Also, remember that piping can also be a source of ignition.  Hot piping can ignite combustibles if contact is maintained long enough.  Maintenance is the key to preventing fires in heating equipment.

Happy Holidays

R. J. Hill Consulting would like to wish everyone a very Happy Holiday season.

“They Can’t Do Anything But Say No”

We’ve al been in situations where we have to ask for something but at the same time, doubting whether we’ll get what we want. And the only way to justify asking is to rationalize the request by thinking that we’ll never get what we want without asking. So, we inevitably conclude that “they can’t do anything but say no”. The same thing happens when people submit claims to their insurance carrier. You have to put your claim in someone else’s hands and wait for them to decide whether you have a valid claim. Usually, it boils down to a settlement between the carrier and insured. However, there are those instances that arise when damage occurs and the insured feels that it should be covered but, it likely is not. A case in point recently arose when an insured driver hit a plastic five gallon container with his car and filed a claim alleging damage to the transmission oil cooler. Upon investigation, it was also learned that the drainage of transmission fluid, which the driver claimed never to have noticed, resulted in the complete destruction of the transmission. For those that are not aware of the location of a transmission oil cooler, it is usually located in the radiator/condenser area, in the front of the vehicle, where air can come in contact. Knowing that the plastic container would have had to enter the air opening in order to contact the cooler, the bumper and grille areas were examined for damage and none was found. In addition, the air opening was much too small to allow even a part of the container to enter and make contact with the cooler. Furthermore, none of the cooling fins or tubes that were part of the cooler were damaged by anything external to the vehicle. Needless to say, the claim was denied much to the disappointment of the insured.

The message here is if you, as the insured, know that there is element of uncertainty in your explanation, then don’t be surprised if your claim is denied. That is not to say that all claims have to have a reasonable explanation. There are times when only an expert can explain the circumstances that are not obvious to a layman. But, when the explanation is bordering on the absurd, it’s time to reconsider your claim. Remember, you can submit your claim because they can’t do anything but say no.

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