If computers and televisions can be wireless, why can’t we banish ugly power points and light switches and just, like, turn on our lights by remote control?
Oh, that’s right – electricity can fry people.
Electricity, for all its wonders, is still a very dangerous thing. It needs to be wrapped up in a cable, and zoom around a circuit made safe with a circuit breaker and, ideally, a safety switch.
Yet it’s surprising just how many people forget about the almighty zapping electricity can give. “I’ve seen people actually put a nail in their fuse box to stop the fuse tripping,” says electrician Joe Joukhadar, a home automation specialist that owns Joalzac. “I mean, sure the fuse stops blowing, but your house will probably catch fire.”
Every winter there are catastrophic stories about electrical fires. Joukhadar says there are plenty of houses that have power points that melt or light switches that give off a tingle when you switch them on. That’s bad. Very bad.
“I would say 50 per cent of my calls are from people who have a fault in their home circuit,” says Davtec electrician David Saraie. Plenty of property owners just ignore the electrics – what you can’t see, you don’t need to fix.
Like the terrace I used to rent in Paddington. My poor flatmate plugged in a lamp, only to be thrown across the other side of the room and given a fluffy fringe that literally stood on end for three days. The scorch marks on the walls and her fingertips were none too pleasant either.
After that, the landlord had an electrician repair the power point, without installing a safety switch or circuit breakers. That particular power point always had to be turned on with a wooden spoon. And my flatmate’s hair never really recovered from the zapping – it was like she’d been rubbing a balloon on her hair while sliding down a slippery dip in polar fleece.
“Power points should be checked every 10 years or so,” says Joukhadar. “But people never bother to pay an electrician to come and do it. Usually the first they know of something going wrong is that they turn on a big heater and the power point melts or the fuses trip.”
Old cabling is often a cause of electrical problems, and most property owners can do a basic safety check themselves. There are a couple of specific types of cables that can be dangerous:
COTTON-COVERED CABLING: Often used in houses built before the 1950s. Any property with the old cotton-covered wiring – which is common in houses built before the 1950s – usually needs new cabling installed, along with safety switches and modern circuits.
RUBBER-COVERED CABLING: The rubber cracks and breaks. Don’t touch it, or you’ll make it crumble even more.
BLACK TPS-COVERED CABLING: Commonly used in the 1960s and 1970s, it has reached the end of its useful life and the sheathing often cracks and crumbles.
“Sometimes you can get away with just putting a safety switch on,” explains Joukhadar. “But in those old places, the safety switch sometimes keeps tripping because there is too much leakage to earth. When that happens, the electrician has to replace the cabling.”
Saraie suggests the easiest way for people to check their cabling is to unscrew a power point from the wall and check the colour of the cable. “If it’s black, it’s probably no good. It it’s white, it’s alright,” he says.
The best thing for any property owner to install is a safety switch that immediately cuts off the power when an earth leakage is detected – it prevents electrocution and house fires.
Safety switches and permanently wired smoke alarms are required in all new buildings – although properties built before the 1990s may not have both.
Small electrical products like power points, switches and miniature circuit breakers are being counterfeited and some electricians unwittingly install products that don’t comply with Australian safety standards.
The Department of Fair Trading has a notice to recall counterfeit HPM double power points which have been made in China and don’t comply with Australian standards. A West Australian government energy bulletin also mentions counterfeit miniature circuit breakers that are failing.
HPM group marketing manager Neil Garbutt says counterfeiting is an industry problem. “The best thing for consumers to do is ask whether their electrician is installing products sold by a reputable dealer – ask the name of the place the goods were bought,” he says. “Most electricians do the right thing, but if any are buying from the back of a van or from someone who only supplies a mobile phone number, then something’s not right.”