Home-based pot growers face burning issue
Fire officials say grow lamps can overload electrical circuits
Who can you trust these days? Caregivers to do the right thing? Electricians that can keep quiet? Makes me wanna move west……-UA
Charles E. Ramirez/ The Detroit News 6/27
Richmond— Michigan’s medical marijuana law appears to be sparking more than just political fires.
The law also has created a booming cottage industry of marijuana growers, but some of these would-be green thumbs are causing house fires by overloading electrical systems with grow lamps and other devices, experts say.
“Grow lamps can be a tremendous load on (a home’s) electrical service,” said Brian Batten, vice president of the Michigan Fire Inspectors Society. The nearly 600-member group represents the state’s fire inspectors, provides education and monitors fire code changes.
“Most people who are growing medical marijuana … if they do it right and they do it safely, they’ll be fine,” said Batten, who is also the Ferndale fire marshal.
“But they have to make sure their home’s electrical system can handle the load.”
In April, Macomb Township’s Fire Department responded to a fire in a subdivision near 22 Mile and Hayes. Firefighters found marijuana plants and a grow operation in the home’s basement. Township Fire Chief Robert Phillips said the cause of the fire was faulty wiring.
Last year, 145 out of 14,918 fires in Michigan were determined to have been caused by an electrical problem, according to the state’s Bureau of Fire Services in Lansing.
The agency doesn’t track or keep statistics on fires started by grow lamps or other electrical devices, said Michigan Fire Marshal Ronald Farr. Still, it happens enough that Batten said he now includes the topic in his lectures and seminars for other public safety officials.
In 2008, Michigan voters approved a law that allows medical patients suffering from certain conditions to legally consume marijuana after registering with the state. Patients must provide written proof of their condition from a doctor.
Caregivers can grow pot
Under the law, state licensed caregivers can provide or grow marijuana for a qualifying patient who is too ill to grow his own. Caregivers can provide each of their patients with up to 2.5 ounces of usable marijuana, according to the state’s Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs.
In addition, caregivers can grow up to 12 marijuana plants per patient, and each caregiver can have up to five patients.
Many growers prefer to cultivate the plants indoors. Some use a soil-free process called hydroponics. With or without soil, raising plants indoors enables a grower to be independent of Mother Nature.
To get maximum yield, indoor growers use lamps to simulate daylight. In hydroponics, they also use devices such as pumps to move nutrients to roots, fans and blowers to circulate air, machines that generate carbon dioxide, air scrubbers to eliminate odors and air conditioners to regulate the temperature.
“It can get quite sophisticated,” said Walter Bobik, owner of Richmond Hydroponics Home Supply in Richmond. “And of course, there’s a right way and a wrong way to grow.”
The wrong way is to plug too many lamps and other growth-promoting devices into a home’s electrical system, Bobik said.
“Some of the lamps are 1,000 watts,” he said. “People will put a bunch of the lamps together and plug them into an extension cord and plug that into a single outlet.”
Unfortunately, after that a fire usually ignites, Batten said.
Overloads not only concern
There are other safety concerns, too, including excess carbon dioxide, improper duct work and incidents of electricity theft.
While carbon dioxide is good for plants, too much of it in a home displaces the oxygen, and people in it can suffocate, Batten said. Air ducts that aren’t hung properly or securely can ensnare firefighters during a rescue.
And unscrupulous growers who steal electricity put themselves and others at risk. “Firefighters responding to a fire at a home will turn off the power before they go in,” Batten said. “If someone has spliced into another wire to get more electricity to grow plants, firefighters may not know about it and go into a structure that still has power.”
John Austerberry, a DTE Energy spokesman, said the Detroit-based utility is frequently forced to deal with electrical theft for illegal marijuana growing operations. One such operation the company came across was using about $1,200 worth of electricity a month, which is four to six times more than the average home in the area uses, he said.
Proponents of medical marijuana say growers must be cautious if they’re going to cultivate the plants in homes.
“Safety is always an issue,” said Michael Komorn, a Southfield lawyer and board member of the Michigan Medical Marijuana Association, which advocates for patients, caregivers and health providers. “Most caregivers want to comply with the state’s laws,” he said. “And they want to make sure their grow rooms are set up to be safe.”