Toronto ice storm: make sure that electrician is licensed

A Toronto electrician says some unlicensed contractors are ripping off homeowners desperate to have their power restored in the wake of last weekend's massive ice storm.

Frank Cozzolino of Solutions Electrical said handymen are charging homeowners to repair damaged service lines to their houses. That's a problem because utilities such as Toronto Hydro won't re-energize a home unless the repair work was performed by a licensed electrician operating under a permit issued by province's Electrical Safety Authority (ESA).

"It's 100 per cent wrong, it's illegal and it's dangerous," said Cozzolino in an interview with CBC News. "If [the power utility] doesn't see the paperwork, they won't turn the power back on," he said.

ESA spokesperson Nancy Evans said that while every building is different, generally utilities such as Toronto Hydro are only responsible for repairing lines to the point where the wires reach the building. Lines and standpipes against the house are on private property and the homeowner's responsibility to repair.

Cozzolino said he's received a "huge" volume of calls since the ice storm struck Sunday, leaving 250,000 Toronto Hydro customers without power. Many were forced to flee their cold, dark homes over Christmas. By Thursday more than 54,000 customers remained without power even though Toronto Hydro crews were working around the clock to repair lines damaged by falling trees.

Toronto Hydro CEO Anthony Haines confirmed that some homeowners anxious to get their power restored over the holidays have turned to unlicensed handymen.

In a news conference on Thursday, Haines said in a few cases Toronto Hydro crews were not able to restore power because the homeowner had no proof of a permit. In other cases, Haines said crews could see the work was unsafe.

"Clearly the work hadn't been done by qualified people and we had to tell people we can't restore power to them," he said.

The concern is that work done by unlicensed contractors may present a risk of shock or fire.  

In a few cases, Toronto Hydro had to remove service from houses that had power "because the line into their home was an unsafe connection," Haines said.

Cozzolino said he's received calls from homeowners who've paid a contractor but could not get the power turned back on because a permit wasn't issued.

"It's sad because they have to pay twice. That's not right, especially at this time of year," he said.

So how can a homeowner with damaged lines get power restored safety without being ripped off?

Evans said homeowners should ask the following questions of electrical contractors:

Are they fully insured?

Do they have a ESA licence number? Often it will be printed on the contractor's truck.

Will they arrange permits with the ESA? "If they say, 'Oh, don't worry about the permit,' that's a red flag," Evanssaid. Cosentino agrees. "If they say 'You don't need a permit, run the other way,'" he said.

Are they qualified to perform the type of electrical work you require?

Can they offer a Certificate of Inspection? This is issued by the Electrical Safety Authority after the work is done and the ESA informs the utility that the reconnection can be safely made. It may also be needed for any insurance claim.

Can they provide a reference?

Will they provide a written cost estimate for the work?

Evans said the ESA has put on extra staff to speed the permit and inspection process in the wake of the ice storm. If homeowners hire a licensed electrical contractor, the contractors will arrange permits with ESA. If a homeowner needs to call ESA they can reach them at 1-877-372-7233 to confirm permit requirements or to get a permit. The ESA has also posted information for homeowners here.

Cozzolino also had some tips:

Cost: He said a typical mast repair done by a licensed electrician operating with a permit will likely cost about $1,500, depending on the job.

Permit doesn't mean delay: Cosentino said homeowners hear the word "permit" and worry that getting one will be a long process that will hold up the work. "It's one phone call and the work can start," he said.

It's their Christmas too: Homeowners should realize electricians have to pay their staff extra to work holidays, and this will likely be reflected in the price.

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