EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

Merrimack Valley

January 20, 2013

Gas service shutoffs make dangerous situations

LAWRENCE — A health inspector said a fire in an apartment building on Union Street Thursday morning highlighted a common problem around the city: People who can’t afford their gas bills are resorting to using temporary, electric space heaters to warm up their homes and microwave ovens instead of gas stoves to do their cooking.

Ray Hileman, the lead housing inspector for the Board of Health, said he has given several tenants of 103-107 Union St. a 24-hour notice to get gas service or he will seek criminal complaints against them in Housing Court for violating the state sanitary code.

“Everybody has to have a gas account” for heating and cooking, he said. Temporary space heaters and microwave ovens do not comply with the law, even though the practice has become more and more common around the city by cash-strapped residents.

Tenants can continue living in the Union Street building, but they must open gas accounts, he said. “The only time gas, water or electric service can be off is for repairs or if the property is vacant,” he said.

The fire broke out around 7:30 a.m. Thursday in a beauty salon at 103 Union St. when an outlet that had several space heaters plugged into it overheated and ignited a bench that was leaning up against the back wall of the business.

A dog alerted neighbors, who sprayed the blaze with a fire extinguisher. A sprinkler system in the building also knocked down the fire. Firefighters were able to quickly get the fire under control and remove the bench that was on fire. The building, which houses eight apartments and one business, did not sustain any structural damage. The inside of the salon sustained some smoke and water damage.

The fire, however, alerted firefighters to the fact that gas had been turned off to about half of the building due to non-payment.

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