An electrical contractor’s guide to managing asbestos

When it comes to electrics, switchboards reign supreme – yet beneath older switchboards lurks the menace of asbestos. Master Electricians’ Matthew Duncan explores everything you need to know – including when to keep your distance.

In this Article:
Asbestos is found within many older Australian buildings
Early identification is key
Pay special attention to any material marked ‘Zelemite’ or ‘Lebah’

In the realm of electrical craftsmanship, we are faced with challenges daily. Amid the backdrop of modern technological advances, we find ourselves working with relics of the past that demand our attention. This is especially true when we’re talking about asbestos-infused switchboards.

The crucial role of switchboards

In the electrical domain, the switchboard reigns supreme. New-age components, such as AC units, switched socket outlets, photovoltaic (PV) installations and EV chargers, all culminate in a fascinating symphony orchestrated by these indispensable panels.
However, a shift back in time reveals that older switchboards lack the convenient DIN mounting rails we now take for granted. What’s more, the installation of fuses and Residual Current Devices (RCDs) on these ageing switchboards not only consumes valuable time but also exacts a toll in terms of materials and costs. Identifying this at an early stage becomes imperative.

Yet, beneath the seemingly innocuous veneer of these older switchboards is a lurking menace – asbestos.

This silent infiltrator is an unfortunate relic of Australia’s construction history, weaving its way into the most inconspicuous corners of our domestic landscape. From insulating hot water cylinders to toaster elements, high-temperature jug cords ensconced in white fibre insulation, and, significantly, switchboard panels, asbestos has left an indelible mark.

Identifying asbestos

The most perplexing challenge we face lies in the identification of asbestos within these switchboard panels.

Panels, particularly those manufactured prior to 1987, were fashioned from materials such as Zelemite and Millboard, which are known to contain up to 20% asbestos.

Any components bearing the inscriptions ‘Zelemite’ or ‘Lebah’ must be approached with the assumption that asbestos is present.

Older black mounting boards that have the scent of bitumen or coal tar also fall under this ominous warning. However, laboratory analysis is the sole recourse to confirm the presence of asbestos definitively.

Responsibility of electrical contractors

As custodians of safety and responsibility, electrical contractors must place asbestos considerations at the forefront of any quote or project involving switch or meter boards. The initial hurdle is the challenging task of identification, and consulting with the customer at this stage is important. In cases where it’s unclear whether asbestos is present, it’s vital the customer agrees to err on the side of caution and consider switchboard replacement as an essential step.

Financial implications

Herein lies the next hurdle – the financial implications of switchboard panel replacement. Upgrading fuses, RCDs, and Multiple Earth Neutral (MEN) connections could significantly escalate costs, not to mention the metering relocations required.

Clear and effective communication with the property owner becomes pivotal. This communication is even more vital when the customer is obtaining a second quote, as we need to ensure they are comparing apples with apples.

An alternate approach involves leaving the existing board intact and adhering to stringent guidelines while mounting devices. Unfortunately, this strategy doesn’t mitigate the threat of asbestos-related contamination.

Government guidance

Fortunately, the Australian Government provides guidance in the form of two crucial documents: the Code of Practice: How to manage and control asbestos in the workplace explains comprehensive methods for handling asbestos-containing materials in the workplace, while the  Code of Practice: How to safely remove asbestos outlines safe procedures and practices, offering essential guidelines for the safe removal of asbestos.

Handling asbestos-laden switchboards demands an extra level of precision. For example, when drilling holes into asbestos boards,, the safe method is meticulously detailed within Appendix G. Recommended Safe Working Practices. This method requires specialist equipment and consumables for disposal. Surprisingly, the one-time cost of drilling may surpass the expense of replacing the entire board in some instances, so decisions around this must consider anticipated work volumes and the potential return on initial investment.

The complex puzzle

The asbestos conundrum in switchboard work is a complex puzzle with no one-size-fits-all solution. As electrical contractors navigate these jobs, a commitment to safety, adherence to government guidelines, and open communication with property owners are the keys to success.

The decision to remove or work with asbestos-laden switchboards ultimately depends on a careful assessment of the anticipated workload and the prospect of cost-effectiveness.

A safer future

As new innovations and legacy materials become part of our everyday work,, our dedication to safety and responsibility must remain at the forefront. By staying informed, we can ensure a safer and more resilient future in the face of asbestos.

Master Electricians have unlimited direct access to the MEA Safety Hotline. Speak directly to the safety experts. Phone 1300 889 198.

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