Interview with Mike Visser, Founding Chairman of The Earth & Lightning Protection Association

TheSA-Mag had the privilege to speak with Mike Visser, Founding Chairman of The Earth & Lightning Protection Association.

What is ELPA

The Earthing and Lightning Protection Association, we are members of the industry who would like to see our industry regulated so that when consumers purchase the first second and third line of defence against natures second most deadly “natural “cause of death, they know they are getting certainty through certification and compliance.  Floods are first most likely cause, which normally occur after the lightning has done its business.  We started out as an institute, but by popular consensus, became association of voluntary membership, not for profit.

ELPA started out with three goals, Protect the consumer, ensure a uniform interpretation of the codes of practise, and to protect the industry and our members.  Our Motto of “Certainty through Certification and Compliance” spells out what we are about. By certifying the competence of our members (through testing and evaluation), using compliant materials, and working safely, we can provide the end user the certainty that his system will work as required.

We plan to engage with other industry bodies elsewhere on the planet such as ATLAS (Association of Technical Lightning and Access Specialists) in the UK who have a rich history in training and certification of their members as steeplejacks and other specialised tasks.

Why was ELPA started.

So many consultants we have met and worked with have lamented that so often their clients have ended up procuring the services of earthing and lightning protection contractors who did not have adequate understanding.  Consequently, their clients had to pay twice, the first time to learn, the second to get it done right, according to codes of practise.

Currently, although we have standards, very few contractors understood the codes and applied them to their installations.  Consequently, installed systems may increase the risk, as happened to a home owner who had been provided a half a solution employing masts, without the correct earthing installation.  As a result, lightning current ran on the brick force popping plaster out of brick lines, destroyed tile work and sections of the plumbing in the bathroom which had also been incorrectly earthed. The lightning current also damaged the majority of the electronic equipment.

Many large company engineers have for many years been requesting an association to eliminate the un-qualified contractors who cannot offer the service and protection required.

How and When did ELPA begin?

In late 2014 after discussions with Jan Jordaan (who has been almost 40 years in the industry) we decided it was time to look at getting together with other major industry players to discuss the how best to protect consumers from the ignorant. Jan suggested that we should discuss this with Tony MacDonald of the ECB as he had been instrumental in starting the ECB understood the implementation of voluntary organisations, and knew the regulatory environment. Tony suggested we invite the major players in the industry to attend initial discussions about formation of the SA Institute of Lightning Protection Installers. So, in 2015 we started meeting and since then it has been a question of perseverance.

What is your role in the Association

I was the founding chairman, and led the Association till late 2016 when we had our first elections and Alexis Barwise took over the helm.  I moved from chairman to the role of treasurer, and with our national director Trevor Manas, we provide leadership and direction in the day to day committee work and board of director’s responsibilities.

How much has ELPA gown since inception.

As a fledgling association, our original committee had been up to 16 members, our first general meeting which we called on 18 July 2016 where we asked the industry at large (over 30 industry companies attended) whether they would support our formation and achieved a unanimously positive response.  Since our official launch in June where we had nearly 200 hundred attendees, we have had almost 80 applications to write our first series of “installer certification” examinations.  It would seem that we will require another series of Installer examinations in October to cope with the next series of applicants.

We anticipate a significant membership and our constitution allows for several membership types starting at the lowest level, which is an ordinary member, who may or may not be involved in the industry.  We then have Associate members, active companies providing the services, or those who provide equipment, or materials, or tools to the industry.  The affiliate members could be associations or institutions who may have an interest in the industry and desire to affiliate themselves with the Association.  Lastly, we have Honorary members, those who have made great contributions to the industry, or be of value to the association, and who is accepted by our national executive committee.

Within this frame work, we then plan to certify the installers assistants, who are the men with their hand on the tools, and here we plan to provide certification to the specialist contractors who do the bulk of the work in the industry and are typically unqualified, and based on their educational limitations, unable to secure certification in any field, and yet are highly skilled, able, and safe team members that most companies depend on to install systems correctly.  These individuals will be certified as competent contractors facilitating greater job opportunities for them and greater recognition with improved career certainty for this important component of our industry.

ELPA will then certify Installers, these members understand the codes of practice, project planning, quality control programs, design interpretation, and the installation handbook.  They ensure that the installers assistants and their labour crews install and assemble the systems in accordance with the designs.  We then have designers to test and certify, whose task it is to undertake the risk assessments as dictated within SANS/IEC 62305 code of practise to determine the risk exposure, thereafter design systems to reduce the identified risks to below acceptable levels.

Then we have to certify Assessors, who will be highly experienced individuals able to certify the compliance and installation qualities and deficiencies as acceptable to ELPA standard or not acceptable, our most highly trained and certified individual.

What are the immediate goals for the Association

Assembling the body of knowledge for installers and creating testing systems which prove the applicants understanding of the subject is our immediate goal.  From there we are working in the installers assistant syllabus which has proven to encompass a remarkably broad range of skills requiring a high degree of diverse knowledge to certify a specialist contractor who must perform many different tasks to turn raw materials into a functional certifiable protection system.  We are hoping to have our first draft of designers examinations out in November and then the assessors examinations by March 2018.  We are working with others on the Installers assistant qualification development.  Surge protection installation certification is planned for before year end.

What initiatives are there to educate and train members. A uniformed interpretation of the Codes of Practice has been achieved through consensus in the drafting of our examination and preparation of our handbook.

How big is the association in terms of members?

As a new association, the numbers are growing and our first examinations have been set, we have over 70 members booked so far.

Brian Taylor of SABS and Tony McDonald of the ECB, Jacques Hannekom of EHL; Piet Human of Tesla Power and Lightning Protection; Nelson Pillay of Vodacom; Doug Kay of Electrotech; Andrew Economou of Pontins; Gary Thoresson of Thor Earthing; Trevor Manas of LPConcepts; Paul van As of Surgetech; and Alexis Barwise of DEHN Africa.

More recent membership additions are Seath Scowby of Lightning Protection Services, Bertie van Zyl of Advanced Lightning Protection, Helmut Kanwischer of HHK, and Geoffrey Powell of Lodivect who is a UL certified practitioner.

What are the main social and business priorities for ELPA?

To protect the Consumer through certainty through certification and compliance.

What is the relationship like between the association and members? Are memberships renewed yearly?

Yes, our joining fee for ordinary members of R500 will be renewed annually at R250.

New implementations will see codes of practice requiring certified work? What does this mean for the industry?

We see the implementation of the insistence that our members adhere to the agreed upon interpretation of the codes of practise will level the playing field for the consumer since the practitioners of the art will all be quoting similar compliant systems.

What initiatives are there to educate and train people in this industry?

The exams are set and the certification is on its way, obviously the initial syllabus will be enhanced after the first series of exams as the committee members make recommendations regarding the examinations and comment on the aspects missed out, elements to include in the different sections, and interview questions.

What are the main constraints and challenges in your industry and for your association?

Our main challenge is how to establish a standard for protection of the poor, since the expertise, tools, materials, and equipment specified in codes of practice ultimately are costly.

For the association to be recognised and the certification of its member to be a requirement in the industry to insure the agreed on uniform interpretation of the codes of practice are applied. 

What future plans are there for ELPA and its members?

To be recognised by our consumers, develop certainty in our training and certification programs, and export the concept throughout Africa to assist them in their pursuit of safety for their people, and reliability of equipment, and infrastructure before, during, and after lighting strikes.