Stopping the foil insulation rollout will not stop the danger from the insulation scheme, and safety checks will be next to useless.

Foil insulation and its installation method is inherently unsafe. It may very well have good insulating properties, but so does asbestos, and we don’t use that anymore and we remove it where we find it because it is unsafe.

Foil insulation will kill you a lot quicker than asbestosis will. Here are just a few likely scenarios that could evade Garrett’s new safety check.

  • If there is rubber cable in a ceiling that deteriorates and comes in contact with the foil above it, the ceiling will be live.
  • If a staple has gone through a lighting cable that is not regularly used (such as a pantry light, or an exhaust fan) the fault may not be present for many, many years until there is congruence of circumstances with that appliance being on and someone being in the ceiling.
  • If you have vermin in the ceiling and they chew through insulation to expose the conductors and they come in contact with the foil, the ceiling will be live.
  • If you have a recessed light fitting that develops an earth fault and the foil is resting on it, the ceiling will be live.
  • If you have a fault caused by a burnt neutral, removed or missing MEN link in the switchboard and you have bare earths in the ceiling (very common in pre 70’s houses) there is a good probability ceiling will be live.
  • Dad/handyman/electrician mount something on the ceiling with a screw and it goes through a cable and into the insulation 50mm above the gyprock, the ceiling will be live.

There are so many different likely scenarios it is scary. It is not a matter of possibility that a ceiling with foil insulation becomes live, it is a matter of real probability. I have already told our employees that we do not work in ceilings with foil unless the power is isolated to the entire house.

This also presents a very real maintenance issue: if you are tracking a wiring fault in a ceiling or installing new cabling, you have to remove or disturb portions of the foil to complete the work. The act of doing this could actually cause a fault that was not there before.

All invoices submitted by electrical contractors in Qld must have a “certificate of test” attached which makes them liable for the safety of that installation in perpetuity to the effect of the work they have performed, in this case the electrical safety of the installation with regards to the foil insulation. No responsible electrical contractor would put their name on an invoice. I believe there would be a very real, sleeping liability for anyone putting their name to such a safety check.

You cannot see any of the cabling in these type of installations as the foil is put over the top of the ceiling battens. Therefore you cannot put your hand on your heart and say it is safe unless you pull the insulation up again and inspect the condition of the cabling, connections, and light fittings underneath. My very real concern is that people will pay money to a sparky (unscrupulous or foolish enough) to tell them it’s OK, and give them a false sense of security.

Foil insulation should be removed urgently. I am not being alarmist when I say that it is a certainty that more people will die. The victims in the future will not be 16 or 18-year-old installers — they will be plumbers, electricians, or dads putting the camping gear or the Xmas lights up in the ceiling.

This will be a deadly legacy of this stimulus package that will kill people 20 to 30 years into the future unless the foil insulation is removed and quickly. To be fair, it was installed previously and there was an Australian Standard for its installation. However, the flood of unskilled and inexperienced installers into the market, armed with nothing but a Stanley knife, staple gun, and a roll of glorified alfoil made installation standards plummet. What was previously an el-cheapo, less safe product for insulating a home became a deadly, unsafe product.

Chris Bowen repeatedly defended Peter Garrett on Lateline this week by saying Garrett had sought “expert advice”. A warning from the peak Electrical Contractors body in the country surely has to be considered “expert advice”. They had no axe to grind in issuing a warning about the safety of the foil insulation, other than the protection of life and property. This was an entirely foreseeable tragedy, expected and witnessed by people like myself who make a living by managing, preventing, and correcting electrical risk every day.

If Garrett wants to get on the front foot with this, he should announce that foil insulation method is banned, and instigate a policy of removal immediately. Putting all politics aside, as a bloke who is climbing into another ceiling tomorrow and sending people out to do the same on my behalf, I want to make sure we all have a better chance of going home safely.

Peter Fray

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