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Silent killers in rented homes

The two most dangerous things in rented homes are gas and electricity, says Frances Burkinshaw, so you need to be very aware of your responsibilities.

Frances Burkinshaw

Fire image

I am writing about two situations, both happened some time ago but which still ring true today; sadly nothing much has happened to stop these near-tragedies happening today.

Frances Burkinshaw image

Frances Burkinshaw

I was President of ARLA and an ARLA trainer. Most of the courses that I deliver include sections on safety. Without doubt it is easier to get a message across to delegates when you can tell a true story – but with safety issues these stories can be sad and very moving. I have been able to impress this on delegates with real facts after having to deal with near tragedies.

My mother was in her 80s but still fit and able to weed her garden from dawn to dusk. Suddenly she became tired and listless, then very dizzy and unwell. The doctor couldn’t find anything wrong – other than old age! She got worse very quickly, became bedridden and we expected to lose her within weeks. The doctor said, “she has had a good innings!”

Where there’s smoke there’s fire, you can see it and smell it. Carbon monoxide is invisible and silent.

My brother said that he could smell gas. That in itself was nothing; I think someone had left the gas on in the kitchen. It did, however, get me thinking about carbon monoxide poisoning. Carbon monoxide is colourless and odourless so my brother hadn’t smelt that. I decided to call the heating engineer; he came and gave the boiler a thorough check.

My mother lived in a single storey building; the engineer went in the attic to check the flue. For some reason there was no fixed flue; it was a concertina type made of foil. It had become totally detached! All the burnt gases were therefore escaping into the attic – my mother was dying from carbon monoxide poisoning! I was aghast at the thought. My whole career was based around safety for tenants and training other agents in safety matters and there was my mother dying before my eyes.

The flue was mended; within days she was out of bed and recovering, and off on holiday to Torquay with her sister. She lived for another ten years – healthy and happy! We are often told that carbon monoxide poisoning is really difficult to detect as it can manifest itself in various ways. It is even more important therefore to ensure that we install detectors in rented accommodation – and in our own homes.


This situation happened three years ago. A doctor, the son of great friends, and his family moved to Kent from London. Whilst looking for a house to buy, he and his wife, four children and two dogs rented a large house belonging to a mutual friend who was living in the USA. It was arranged privately and very amicably; I’m not sure what safety checks were done – if any. There was oil central heating so certainly no gas safety was necessary and I am almost certain that the electrics weren’t checked. Had they been, things might have turned out differently.

Tom (not his real name) had friends to stay – a couple, their two children and a dog.

It was January; dark, cold and the middle of the night. Tom got up to go to the bathroom. Half asleep he walked along the landing to the bathroom; something made him look up at the ceiling. What he saw will remain with him always. There was a hole in the ceiling where the extractor used to be and the whole of the roof space was properly alight. Needless to say he was fully awake within a second and raised the alarm.

Four adults, six children and three dogs in the house… imagine the pandemonium. The electrics were gone so it was completely dark other than any light from the fire in the attic.

They all got out of the house just in time. The ceilings gave way minutes later. The fire service quickly arrived; they said that the attic had been burning for at least two hours. How lucky was Tom, his family and friends to escape unharmed? It could have been so much worse.

Apparently that extractor was not properly wired back to the fuseboard; it must have shorted and caught fire. Had there been a proper fixed wiring test that problem would have been identified and rectified.

Once again I reiterate the absolute need to have fixed wiring tests and appliance tests in all rented accommodation – and in our own homes. Stay safe!

Frances Burkinshaw is an independent trainer available nationally for in-house or group training. 01892 783961 or 07887 714341 or [email protected]

November 16, 2017

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