Ask the expert: master electrician Rosarii Lannon on knob and tube, electrician superstition and how it feels to get zapped

Ask the expert: master electrician Rosarii Lannon on knob and tube, electrician superstition and how it feels to get zapped

Master electrician Rosarii Lannon goes by the moniker Electro Dame. Her powers are, well, powerful, and she’s been bravely confronting the dangerous under-layer of buildings for 30 years. We talked to Lannon about knob and tube, electrician superstition and how it feels to get zapped.

(Image: Carmen Cheung)

How did you pick Electro Dame as the name of your company?
My son came up with it when he was about nine. I thought, That’s really cute. Plus, it pretty much sums up who I am.

Have you felt like a pioneer in this mostly male field?
When I first started, in the mid-’70s, many of the tradesmen I worked with thought it would be bad luck to have a woman on-site. They were very superstitious, and they wondered why a woman wanted to do a man’s work. I went everywhere looking for jobs. The first contractor who hired me had four daughters, and he said he hoped that one day someone would give one of his girls a break.

Despite regulation, it seems like there’s a lot of dodgy electrical work being done in Toronto.
The Electrical Safety Authority is trying to prevent general contractors from doing the electrical themselves. In most cases, they’re not certified to do it. Often I’ll go into a house and say, “My heavens, what happened here? Nothing conforms to code.” That can be dangerous.

What’s the biggest challenge with aging Toronto houses?
Overloaded circuits. I told one couple to map out their circuits before I came over—turn off the circuit breakers, one at a time, to see what they would lose. I got a call back a couple of hours later and they said, “We’re in the dark. We turned off one circuit, and we lost everything but the fridge.” So I went in and sure enough, people had added and added over the years but only to the one poor old circuit.

How dangerous is knob and tube, really?
It’s usually OK, but for whatever reason insurance companies don’t want to insure houses with knob and tube. I met this 94-year-old man living alone in a house, and the only thing he used was a kettle and a toaster. But out of the blue, the insurance company said, “We’re not going to insure the 60-amp service or the knob and tube anymore.” Even though the Electrical Safety Authority said it was fine, the insurance company balked. It was heartbreaking.

Have you ever been hurt on the job?
I was doing a 200-amp service upgrade. I was up on my ladder, tapping into the Toronto Hydro power supply. I thought, I’ll just make these wires look a little neater, and I took off my gloves to do some untangling. But there was a hole in the insulation, and in a second, I was being electrocuted. I could hear myself scream, but I couldn’t let go because all the muscles contract. The electricity goes straight through your heart. It’s extremely painful, like being burned from the inside out. But I was able to move my feet, and I fell back, which broke the connection. My only serious injury was a broken toe.

What did you take away from that?
It’s all about respect. Don’t mess with electricity.