When people think about heating options, they’re usually focused on fuel choice – do they prefer electricity, biogas, wood heaters, or gas heaters? Then they may consider aesthetics. They want something that suits their sense of style. Or they may want additional features, like fast lighting, low maintenance, in-built thermostats, or remote control options. Their heating supplier will guide them on other factors, like the size of the room, or the method of heat distribution. And then – of course – budget comes into play.
There’s one consideration that’s frequently overlooked, both by the buyer and the seller: air circulation. In the past, it was a given that fireplaces needed a chimney and lots of open space. The ventilation was intended to prevent suffocation, whether it was from gas fumes or wood smoke. Nowadays, modern fireplaces have so many safety features that nobody thinks to mention air movement. At least … not until someone’s heater turned fatal.
Ms. Sonia Sofianopoulos was a 62 year old public housing resident in Melbourne. She died in July 2017 when her Vulcan Heritage gas heater sprung a leak, releasing carbon monoxide into her room. Ms. Sofianopoulos lived in a building with 16 housing units, and her neighbour, Ms. Eileen Kelly, is concerned. Their heating units were inspected 9 months before Ms Sofianopoulos passed away, and again after her death.
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The contractors were hired by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). During both evaluations, 13 of the 16 heaters were said to be in safe working order, including Ms. Sofianopoulos’ and Ms. Kelly’s. However, Ms. Kelly’s blood has shown unhealthy carbon monoxide contamination as far back as 2016. After the tragic death, Energy Safe Victoria (ESV) ran an independent audit of the heaters in the building and found them all unsafe. It then recommended a ban on open-flue heater sales by companies like Vulcan Heritage.
Other companies that produce these gas heaters include Braemar, Zayna, Cannon, Heatmaster, Coonara, Pecan, Illusion, Regency, Jarrahdale, Rinnai, and Real Flame. In total, there are 33 models that are thought to be risky, and while the ESV stopped short of a blanket recall, they recommend these models be phased out of production. The challenge? Hundreds of thousands of these heaters are suspected to be in circulation, installed in homes and currently in use. Many home owners are probably panicking as we speak.
What makes these heaters dangerous, and how can you tell? Direct vent or closed flue systems have no openings into the room. They have a dual piping system where fresh air is drawn from outside to feed the fire, and burnt fumes are released to the outside through outlet flues. With an open-flue system, exhaust fumes are released into the outdoors, but the flames are fanned using air from inside the room itself. These heaters sometimes have vents, other times they have an open front with no protective glass.
To ensure gusts of air don’t douse the flames as they rush in to feed the fire, open-flue heaters are designed with a draught diverter. Its function is to redirect wind that could blow out your gas fire. Unfortunately, the diverter doesn’t always work, and when this failure combines with other factors, carbon monoxide can leak back into the room. That’s what happened with Ms. Sofianopoulos, and ESV fears it may recur in other homes. To avoid further accidents, ESV advises that anyone with a Vulcan Heritage or Pyrox heater should refrain from using it. Instead, they should have their gas fireplace inspected by a licensed gas fitter, just to be sure there’s no toxic gas leaching into their living space.
Ideally, this kind of assessment should be done every two years, though few home owners maintain this schedule. Also, residents may be unsure if their heaters are direct flue or open flue systems. Call your manufacturer (or type your heating model into Google) for confirmation. Paul Fearon is the CEO at ESV, and he says it’s hard ensuring open-flue heating safety because there’s no way to gauge the exact number in the market, and therefore it’s a challenge to ensure they’re all validated for safety. Instead, his organisation has issued a safety notice against Pyrox and Vulcan Heritage.
Fearon says they’ve run tests and are worried about one other model, though they’re loathe to specify which one. Fearon did say he wasn’t averse to a temporary safety ban while measures are taken to avoid further deaths. In the meantime, residents are advised to call Climate Technologies, the company that manufactures these two brands. The company will arrange for safety testing. They can be reached on 03 8795 2462. For residents of DHHS housing who didn’t buy their own heater, the number to call is 1800 148 426.