/ 29 January 2008

How to avoid losses caused by power failures

Now that it’s official that Eskom will be regularly switching off our power for some time to come, we need to look at measures to prevent loss or damage caused by an interrupted power supply.

Plan A, of course, says Gari Dombo, MD of Alexander Forbes Insurance, is to buy a generator. “This will ensure that geysers and fridges do not stay off for too long when you are away from home. It would also ensure that alarms do not fail due to flat alarm batteries.”

Given purchase, maintenance and fuel costs, however, most people are not able to afford this option. Furthermore, generators that fit the budget of most homeowners are not able to switch on and off automatically when the power fails or is reconnected. So, unless you are home at the time of the power failure, a generator will not do you much good.

“Assuming that one does not have a generator, what are the risks people face and what can we do to manage them?” asks Dombo.

Firstly, heating appliances left on when the power goes off but not switched off again when the power comes on are obvious fire hazards. Therefore, simply switching off all heating appliances when the power goes off is the best precaution against fire.

That said, most insurers will pay out in the event of an unsupervised appliance causing a fire.

Secondly, says Dombo, power failures can cause electric surge damage when authorities switch the power on again. Motors, computerised equipment and other electrical appliances can all be permanently damaged.

To prevent damage to electrical equipment, electrical surge protectors can be installed on a residence’s main fuse box. Surge protectors that fit into wall sockets are also available.

A simpler solution, suggests Dombo, is to switch off appliances quickly as soon as the power goes off.

While some policies cover non-lightning-related surge damage, “You need to discuss this with your insurer, as cover varies between different insurers and specific policies and some may not cover you,” says Dombo.

Thirdly, power failures can cause the battery on your alarm to fail. Most alarms nowadays have a battery back-up supporting the alarm system for between six and 12 hours in the event of a power failure. When the power comes on again, the battery is recharged.

If, however, the alarm battery is old or has seen continual use as a result of repeated power failures, it will eventually pack in, exposing you to burglaries.

To ensure that burglar alarms don’t fail, Dombo says: “Check when last the battery was replaced. While most batteries have a lifespan of two to four years, it is advisable to replace an alarm battery every two years.”

It is also advisable to add an additional battery to the alarm system, something easily installed by your security company.

In the event of experiencing a robbery while your alarm battery is not working, it is not always certain that an insurer will pay out. Dombo says: “Some insurers will be sympathetic — for example, if you can show that you have taken all reasonable steps to ensure that your alarm is normally in working order. Others, however, may not be quite as understanding.”

It is therefore all policy holders’ obligation to find out whether they are covered in the event of being burgled while their alarm is not working.

As a basic rule, Dombo suggests: “If your policy has an alarm warranty, ask for it to be removed. The insurer may be prepared to do this for you if you have other protection in place, such as burglar bars and security gates.”

Finally, power failures can damage the contents of fridges and freezers. If the failure is a short one, however, there should be no damage to food. “If possible, move the food to somewhere where it can be re-refrigerated, or consume the food before it goes off.”

While most policies provide some cover for deterioration of food, sadly this does not apply if power is deliberately switched off by the authorities.

That said, concludes Dombo, “If it can be shown that the authorities were negligent, legal steps can be taken against them to recover losses. Furthermore, consumers should not forget that the Small Claims Court provides a cost-efficient legal avenue.”