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Danger lurks: be careful my friends

Aug. 1, 2013
Mechanical contractors face dangers both obvious and hidden on a daily basis.

Mechanical contractors face dangers both obvious and hidden on a daily basis. Let your guard down, violate basic safety guidelines, venture beyond your skill sets too far, ignore common sense, or run out of luck and as the admonition goes: serious bodily injury or death can occur. 

As copper scrap values rose over the past few years, the rash of break-ins and theft of copper and brass rose dramatically. Real Estate for sale signs have given motivated crooks a “no one home” invasion invitation. The smell of natural gas caused a passer-by to call the gas co. The owner was alerted and arrived to find his water lines, water meter, and copper gas lines missing with, as is typical, a basement window kicked in. To say the thief, or thieves, were not gentle would be a gross understatement. They didn’t stop in the basement and ransacked the plumbing in the kitchen and bathroom too. Faucets gone; the kitchen sink ripped from its countertop; water lines mangled, twisted, and torn off within the flooring and no insurance to recover any costs.

New water lines? Plastic please! In their haste or as an accidental unintended consequence of the branch gas lines being copper flared, and no actual tools other than brute force, the gas was on and filled the home from basement to third floor. The visit reminded me of one call decades ago where I was dispatched on a no-heat call. A distinct odor of natural gas was present in the basement and I told the owner we had to find its source and repair that leak before we attempted to relight the boiler’s burner. “That’s the neighboring attached row home.” The neighbor’s front door was open, they were watching TV, and the odor of gas was wafting out the front door! Had they called the gas company? No! Darwin Award candidates.

Visiting yet another home, a rental unit that had been vacant and the tenants moving in told me there was no light on the basement because “the lights are burned out.” Working by flashlight to investigate the darkened recesses can be a challenge and row homes tend to have height-challenged head-banging floor joists where a jagged copper pipe, nail or other sharp objects —like a broken light bulb —can lacerate your scalp or put out an eye. Something sharp hit my forehead and shining the flashlight’s beam upward revealed it was a cut-off end of a 120-volt line —copper wiring.

These thieves were diligent and obviously had come prepared to cut off wiring. No pipe cutter, however, and evidence of violently removed water lines were obvious. In their haste to strip away the water meter, they snapped off the galvanized water service at the entry-point. The owner accepted the proposal and upon arrival the tenant’s daughter asked if we needed to plug in any tools? “Only one receptacle works — they cut off all the other wires.”

Checking the main breaker panel, I fully expected to discover most circuit-breakers would be tripped or off. Wires snaked away from the panel and most, including the 220-volt line that had served the stove/oven, were bent downward where plumbers would likely come into direct contact while replacing the water lines. No scorch marks on the raw ends. Breakers tripped or ff? No — on! Every one of those cut lines was live, so the crooks were smart enough to flip the main breaker and devious enough to flip it back on when finished with their mayhem.

First job: remove service panel cover; trace each cut wire to its breaker and turn that off while also wrapping the raw ends with electrical tape. A duplex receptacle added to one of the cut-off 15-amp lines for the duration of replacing the plumbing.         

The exposure we face daily was driven home early-on in this adventuresome trades career: digging a dead plumber from a collapsed sewer ditch where shoring would have prevented his demise. His wife’s screams still echo in my mind. Hot attics where heat exhaustion lurks; frost bite; wading through raw sewage or reaching-in to retrieve a lost ring; hazardous vapors while working in confined unventilated spaces; exposure to asbestos, fiberglass, and all manner of construction-related dust; burns from solder, hot water, open flames, or ignition explosions; encountering underground utilities where they had been “location-marked” feet or yards away or installed incorrectly, like the time we created a development-wide blackout because the original utility crew had decided it was too much work to lay the multi-thousand-volt power-feed to a ground-mounted neighborhood transformer when they encountered a water-service and, instead, drooped it over the ¾-in. copper line, which eventually caused a pin-hole leak from electrolysis and a fireball greeted us when the backhoe bucket shorted out the line.

Or how about cutting a cold water line within a home only to witness an electrical arc across the gap (or surging through your arms and chest) because of an electrical imbalance with the home’s power system! Run-away boilers and super-heated water; plugged relief valves and collapsed flue-tubes in water heaters where a sudden change of state from water-to-steam narrowly averted. Stay focused and work safe my friends.    

All Dave Yates material in print and on Contractor's Website is protected by Copyright 2013. Any reuse of this material (print or electronic) must first have the expressed written permission of Dave Yates and Contractor magazine. Please contact via email at: [email protected].   

About the Author

Dave Yates

Dave Yates material in print and on Contractor’s Website is protected by Copyright 2017. Any reuse of this material (print or electronic) must first have the expressed written permission of Dave Yates and Contractor magazine.

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