An Edmonton tropical fish lover who says a faulty aquarium heater came close to starting an apartment fire is demanding electrical products be inspected before reaching store shelves.

The heater, called a BettaTherm, isn’t approved for sale in Canada, but is nevertheless widely sold in pet stores and online.

'Can you imagine? You buy your five year old a fish … and all of a sudden your house burns down'- Matthew Edlund

Matthew Edlund was visiting his friend, also an aquarium enthusiast, when they smelled a strong chemical odour.

At first they thought it was coming from outside the apartment.

“It wasn’t until we were about to leave and we saw smoke actually rising from the fish tank that I ended up going over and pulling out the heater,” Edlund said.

“And as I pulled it out you could see fire - blue-green flames - shoot out from the bottom.”

Edlund says, given the dangerous mix of electricity and water, it was fortunate there was someone was home when it happened.

“It’s a 100-unit building. I would have been concerned the whole thing would have gone down.”

Edlund discovered the heater had no stamp of approval from the Canadian Standards Association, or any other accredited testing agency, as required by law.

He says he’s especially concerned because the BettaTherm heater is the kind of entry-level equipment someone would buy for their first aquarium.

“These are sold by the thousands,” he said. “Can you imagine? You buy your five year old a fish…and all of a sudden your house burns down.”

Edlund went through his own extensive collection of aquarium equipment and found many pricey lights, pumps and heaters that also were not approved for sale or use in Canada.

“I was terrifically shocked to find out how much stuff wasn’t … certified,” Edlund said.

Uncertified equipment easy to find

Go Public visited several pet stores in Edmonton.

We were able to buy the uncertified BettaTherm heater at Big Al’s Aquarium Supercentres and Petland, and found it for offer at petsmart.com and Amazon.ca.

How to protect yourself from unsafe electrical devices

-Don’t buy any device unless it bears the stamp of the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) or other accredited testing agencies such as UL

-Be wary of any used electrical devices unless you can be sure it hasn’t been tampered with

-Report the sale of any untested products to your local electrical inspector (in Edmonton by calling 311)

In an email, Petland spokeswoman Amy Pawson Blackwell said the company was pulling the BettaTherm from its shelves and that its supplier had suspended ordering and distributing the heater until it receives more information about its certification from the manufacturer.

The BettaTherm is made in China by Zoo Med Laboratories of San Luis Obispo, Calif.

In an email, Keith Morris, Zoo Med’s National Sales Manager, told CBC that since 95 per cent of its sales are in the U.S. it complies with U.S. law, which doesn’t require testing.

Morris says the company voluntarily submits some products for testing, but that it is up to Canadian importers to make sure the product conforms to Canadian law. He says no Canadian importer has given Zoo Med a copy of what’s required in this country.

At Big Al’s Go Public also bought an uncertified temperature regulator for a reptile cage.  

A spokesman for Big Al’s, Derek Zabielski, said in an email the company has removed the product from its shelves, and was conducting a review of how the product came to be  offered for sale.

City warns consumers to look for CSA stamp

We showed both the aquarium heater and the temperature regulator to Edmonton’s chief electrical inspector.

Brian Magega gave a thumbs-down to both devices, especially the Repti-Temp Rheostat.

“It’s not legal, and I would consider it not safe,“ said Magega, who said he wouldn’t use the device in his own home, because its plug isn’t grounded or properly sealed.

Magega says electrical devices that don’t have the CSA, or other approved stamp, haven’t been fire or shock-tested for the purpose they’re being sold.

The Alberta Electrical Code Regulation prohibits the manufacture, importation or sale of any electrical device, including aquarium equipment, that hasn’t been inspected or certified by an accredited testing agency.

But responsibility for enforcing the Code falls to municipal electrical inspectors who spend most of their time inspecting wiring in buildings and who don’t do proactive store inspections.

“It’s buyer beware,“ Magega said. “Unfortunately these types of products do get into the country, and we don’t know about it until we get a complaint.”

“Of course they want to bring in a cheaper product, so that they can pass on the savings,” Magega said.

“But in the long run there’s no savings here. And of course there’s added risk [from] using a device that doesn’t have the appropriate certification.”

After CBC Go Public spoke with Magega, the City of Edmonton sent staff to inspect the shelves at several pet stores.

At one store the BettaTherm heater and reptile thermostat had been removed, but the city found two uncertified air pumps for sale.

The city says it sent a written warning to that store and reminders to the  others about what markings should be on the products they sell.

Federal laws also forbid the sale of unsafe products.

The Canada Consumer Product Safety Act prohibits anything that could pose a risk to human health or safety from being sold, or made, or brought into Canada, and gives Health Canada the power to investigate complaints.

But Matthew Edlund believes consumer protection laws aren’t effective if they’re not actively enforced.

He says “Buyer beware” isn’t good enough and says products should be inspected before they’re put on store shelves.

“There’s three levels of government that are supposed to be looking at this,” he said.

“The manufacturers of this equipment have realized that no-one is looking , so they don’t have to spend the extra expense to get the certification.”