Open-flue gas heaters are potentially deadly and should be phased out, coroner finds

Hundreds of thousands of potentially deadly heaters across Australia should be banned and gas fitters forced to complete up to date carbon monoxide training, a Victorian coroner has recommended
Sonia Sofianopoulos smiling while sitting on grass with her grandson Adam who is eating a sandwich.
Key points
  • Ms Sofianopoulos died from carbon monoxide poisoning from her gas heater
  • Coroner recommends open-flue gas heaters be phased out
  • There are hundreds of thousands of open-flue heaters across Australia

The recommendations came after an investigation into the death of 62-year-old Sonia Sofianopoulos, who died of carbon monoxide poisoning in her Greensborough unit in July 2017, due to a Vulcan Heritage heater.

Plumbing contractors, employed by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), carried out non-compliant carbon monoxide testing in the unit two years before Ms Sofianopolous’s death, Coroner Jacqui Hawkins found.

DHHS was also only carrying out heater servicing every five years in its 70,000 residences instead of every two as recommended by the Victorian regulator, Energy Safe Victoria (ESV). However, she made no adverse findings against DHHS or the plumbing contractors.

She found Ms Sofianopoulos’s death was the result of a confluence of events, including her heater leaking carbon monoxide into the room while at least one exhaust fan was on in her unit.

Coroner Hawkins also found the dwelling was well sealed due to DHHS retrofitting the villa with weather seals on the doors and windows, so the carbon monoxide couldn’t dissipate. Open-flue gas heaters are only meant to be used in well ventilated spaces.

A Vulcan Heritage gas heater.

The coroner recommended a national regulator prevent the sale of new open-flue heaters across Australia in order to phase out the heater type.

She recommended that up to date training be mandatory for all gas fitters as part of their licence.

Currently, plumbers and gasfitters do not need to do ongoing training to remain registered, despite standards around carbon monoxide testing constantly changing.

Coroner Hawkins said the regulator ESV had not optimally communicated the latest changes in testing to gasfitters, and videos depicting the outdated test were on its website until three months ago.

Family welcomes coroner’s findings

When Ms Sofianopoulos was found dead in her Greensborough public housing unit, her Vulcan Heritage heater was on and there was a pot of chickpeas simmering on the stove.

Emergency services initially told her daughters, Eleni Kontogiorgis and Stella Sofianopoulos, she had most likely had a heart attack.

It was not until three-and-a-half months later, they learned in a letter from the Coroners Court she had died from carbon monoxide poisoning.

After Ms Sofianolpoulos’s death, ESV tested all the heaters in the 16 unit Greensborough complex where she lived.

The carbon monoxide had leaked from her Vulcan heritage gas heater, which is a type of open-flue gas heater.

Fourteen units with the Vulcan heritage heater failed carbon monoxide testing.

A candle lit with an image of Sonia Sofianopoulos on it next to framed family photos.

The ABC learned Ms Sofianopoulos’s neighbour, Eileen Kelly, had been suffering carbon monoxide poisoning the year before.

She requested her heater be tested twice, at the urging of her doctor, but the DHHS-contracted plumbers said nothing was wrong.

It’s believed the plumbers were doing the test wrong, as they had been in Ms Sofianopoulos’s unit.

Despite the alleged failings by DHHS, Ms Sofianopoulos’s daughter Eleni Kontogiorgis said she was happy with the coroner’s overall findings.

“I think that certain things could have been done but that’s all now in hindsight so hopefully looking forward things will change and obviously we’ll never anything like this again,” she said.

“Overall we were happy with the recommendations the coroner made today.

“We’re just hoping that these changes become mandatory and part of legislation.”

She said her mother was a happy and outgoing person, with many friends.

“I don’t know how to describe the loss. It’s just been heart wrenching for all of us.”

Eleni Kontogiorgis speaks to media outside the Coroners Court of Victoria.

Hundreds of thousands of heaters affected

Victoria’s energy regulator estimates there are about 50,000 Vulcan Heritage or Pyrox heaters in Australia and hundreds of thousands of other types of open-flue gas heaters.

Open-flue gas heaters can expel carbon monoxide back into the room where they’re being used, with deadly consequences.

They were traditionally used in open, well-ventilated areas, but increasingly as older homes have been retro-fitted, they’re being found in well-sealed rooms where the carbon monoxide can’t escape.

Additionally, if kitchen or bathroom exhaust fans are running, an environment of negative pressure is created, which can suck more carbon monoxide from the heater.

ESV has labelled the heaters an outdated and vulnerable technology.

But despite the risks, 19 other models of open-flue gas heaters are still being sold in Australia.

 

Victoria moves on open-flue heaters

In May, ESV said it would move to ban the heaters altogether.

After Ms Sofianopoulos’s death, Energy Safe Victoria issued a safety alert for the Vulcan Heritage and Pyrox heaters, urging customers not to use them until they have them checked by the manufacturer.

It also forced Climate Technologies to stop making the Vulcan Heritage and Pyrox heaters. DHHS is also replacing them in all of its dwellings in Victoria.

Ms Sofianopoulos is not the first Victorian to die from an open-flue gas heater.

In 2010, six-year-old Tyler Robinson and his eight-year-old brother Chase died of carbon monoxide poisoning while they were sleeping in their home in Mooroopna, near Shepparton.

The Victorian coroner found the carbon monoxide in their systems came from an IXL Finesse gas heater.

Coroner Hawkins found that after the death of the Robinson brothers, DHHS agreed to undertake an audit of open-flue gas heaters in all public housing in Victoria, that was never actually done.

Coroners Court Finding: Inquest into the Death of Sonia Sofianopoulos

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Griffiths Goodall
Energy Safe Victoria
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