by Brian Jastrow
The risks are low, the potential profits are mind boggling. These are the two factors that are fuelling the grow-op industry in the GTA. Toronto police say that because the city's vacancy rate is near an all-time high, apartment buildings have become a preferred location for marijuana growers.
According to the CMHC, the average vacancy rate in Toronto in 2006 was 3.2 percent.
One of the big advantages for growers is that many apartment buildings have a single hydro meter for the entire building. That allows the extraordinary electricity comsumption to go undetected by Toronto Hydro.
These grow operations pose a serious fire and health risk to neighbors who are unknowingly forced to breathe in potentially harmful mould spores and spores from the fertilizer used to grow the plants. In some cases grow-ops are heavily guarded by booby traps and armed gang members.
Growers beware - apartment owners have a new weapon. Infrared thermography can detect high electricity use by thermal inspection of the hallway electrical distribution panels. In most cases an average- size unit will be equipped with an 80 or 100-amp, double-pole circuit breaker.
When these growers are unplugging the 220-volt stove outlet and running their 1,000-watt lighting systems for long periods of time, this will be detected as a thermal anomaly on the individual circuit breaker due to the fact these lights will create excessive amp loading which should not exceed 80 percent of the circuit capacity. For example, an 80-amp, double-pole circuit breaker should not have more than 64 amps maximum load.
High-end thermal imagers will detect this thermal pattern and transpose it into a thermograph, a digital image of the hot breaker.
Of course a thermal anomaly could be caused by a faulty circuit breaker or a loose lug in the panel. In either case the problem should be repaired to prevent the risk of fire.
There can be limitations in detecting grow-ops with infrared technology. Growers generally prefer cycling their lights on 120 to 180 minute intervals to ensure the crop is maturing at a very high yield. That creates the possibility that at the time of inspections the amp load at the suite distribution panel will be in a normal state. Growers generally use high intensity discharge (HID), metal halide (MH) and high pressure sodium (HPS) lighting.
All electrical apparatus associated with the suite / distribution system should be inspected at least once per year if not bi-annually to combat this growing concern.
A typical highrise consisting of 18 floors and approximately 170 suites will take between six and eight hours to complete (depending on the number of anomalies located). The overall costs including a level III thermographer, electrician and a thorough report (hard copy and CD) would be $800 to $900, which also includes a thermal scan of the machine elevator room, mechanical, boiler, pump and the most critical main/feeder electrical room.
It has become mandatory in many states in the United States that building owners have a certified thermal inspection on electrical apparatus every year for insurance coverage. This is not surprising considering 30 percent of all fires in Ontario are caused by electrical malfunction.
In Ontario, no legislation requires owners to have a thermal inspection carried out, but many fire insurance companies are requesting that building owners carry out an inspection.
If building owners and managers want an upper hand in catching these villains, preventing electrical fires and maintaining the over-all health of their building they should invest in hiring a fully certified, level III thermographer.