Brian's House Building Blog

Asbestos And Electrical Wiring: Advice For Renovators

by Peyton Sanders

Home renovation projects are increasingly popular with Australians who want to develop their own style without having to pay a fortune to get it. To remodel an older house, you may need to divert or replace sections of wiring, but this work can sometimes cause problems, especially if you need to work around asbestos. Learn more about the hazards that asbestos can present, and find out what you need to do to stay safe when dealing with old wiring in your renovation project.

Why Australian builders used asbestos

Australia was once one of the world's biggest asbestos producers. For example, until the 1960s, builders clad 25 percent of all new homes with asbestos cement. In parts of Australia, nearly all homes built before 1976 contained asbestos products.

Asbestos became a popular choice for electrical insulation products after the Second World War. While rubber was once the insulator of choice, the commodity became expensive after the war, so manufacturers turned to asbestos. Asbestos was cheap, easy to source and had excellent natural insulating properties.

Crocidolite (blue asbestos) was the most effective types of asbestos used for insulation. Manufacturers used large quantities for a variety of commercial and residential projects throughout Australia.

Unfortunately, crocidolite is the most dangerous form of asbestos because the mineral fibres are so thin. As such, these fibres are particularly easy to inhale, which can then lead to various asbestos-related illnesses. Research shows that nearly 20 percent of people working in crocidolite mines die from asbestos-related mesothelioma.

The hazards of electrical wiring and asbestos

If you're renovating a house built before 1990, there's a very high likelihood that the property has asbestos in it. A visual inspection probably isn't enough to confirm if you are working around asbestos or not. In fact, the only way to test for sure is to send samples of suspected fibres to a specialist laboratory for testing.

Asbestos only becomes a hazard if the material is friable, which means the mineral fibres are loose, posing a risk of exposure to anyone living in the house. As such, it's important to remember that many Australians live in homes with asbestos without any risk of exposure because the material is non-friable.

Nonetheless, electrical wiring projects can increase the risk of asbestos exposure in two ways. You may need to drill into or remove part of a wall to get to the wires. In doing so, you may release dangerous asbestos fibres into the air. Secondly, you may also need to remove insulating material from older, damaged or worn wires. If the insulating material is asbestos, you may also inhale the fibres.

Working around asbestos

Restrictions in each state mean you can only remove a small amount of asbestos from your home without hiring a licensed asbestos removal company. For example, in New South Wales, you can only remove up to 10 square metres of bonded (unbroken) asbestos from your home, and you cannot remove any friable asbestos without professional help.

If the renovation work means you need to remove or significantly disturb a wall in a home built before 1990, you should hire an asbestos removal expert to get rid of the material for you. Whether you plan to carry out the wiring work yourself or hire an electrical contractor, you must still make the building safe before the work can continue. As such, if you need to remove large quantities of old wiring from a property, you'll probably also need a licensed expert to get rid of wire insulating material that could contain asbestos.

Of course, knowing that the property may contain asbestos could mean that you change your plans and take a different approach. For example, you may decide it is possible to route new wiring without significantly disturbing the wall. According to the type of renovation, you may decide to fix wiring to the outside surface of the wall.

In these cases, it is possible to drill into non-friable asbestos without posing a significant risk of asbestos exposure, provided you follow the directions laid down by Australian state governments. Nonetheless, this may not give you the finish you are looking for. What's more, in a room like the bathroom, surface wiring is unsafe. 

Asbestos presents a serious health risk to anyone exposed to the mineral's fibres. If you plan to work on the wiring in a home built before 1990, you need to assume you must contend with asbestos. Talk to an electrical contractor for more advice.