It was the type of callout emergency service personnel dread.
At around 6:30pm on February 16 this year, the call came for services to attend a residence in the north-west Sydney suburb of Eastwood. There were reports that a 46-year-old man was lying unconscious in the cavity under a single-story house.
As he was still connected to wires, firefighters had to isolate power to the house before paramedics could remove him. By this time, he was already dead.
It was not clear how long he had been there or why he had been under the house. Given that a trailer filled with furniture and a cement mixer had been parked out front, there appeared to be some renovations taking place at the address.
Sadly, that incident – reported in the Sydney Morning Herald – was far from the only case where accidents or fatalities have occurred involving electricity in the home. Indeed, around fifteen Australians lose their lives every year and around 300 are hospitalised because of preventable electrical accidents, according to a Master Electricians Australia report published in 2015. According to that same report, just four in ten homes (39 percent) had safety switch coverage on both their light and power circuits (but not on all circuits). Indeed, 35 percent of Australian homes had no safety switches at all and 26 percent had switches but only on one circuit (the power circuit).
As is well known, injuries in respect of electricity can happen in two ways.
First, electric shock occurs when the body comes into contact with electricity and the current passes through it. When this happens, the flow of electrons passing through the body heats and burs tissues or interferes with essential electric signals such as those which cause the heart to beat.
Electric fires, meanwhile, can result from ‘arcing’. This occurs where you have loose connections and there is a space between those connections. When this occurs, an extremely hot arch forms when electricity ‘jumps’ between the two spaces. This potentially burns back on the cable and causes fire. This can occur where there are loose terminations or a breakdown in insulation.
Fires can also be sparked by halogen downlights, which run at about 300 degrees Celsius at the back of the roof can catch fire where they become covered by leaves, debris and insulation if not adequately protected.
All this raises questions about critical areas where home owners can come into contact with electricity in their homes, areas where practices fall down and strategies which home owners can adopt to protect themselves and their families.
At the outset, Greg Allan, Director of Perth based electrician company Response Electricians, Founder at the Electricians Success Academy and National Director of Master Electricians Australia, talks about the importance of residual current devices (RCDs), otherwise known as safety switches. These immediately switch off the supply of electricity when electricity leaking to earth is detected at harmful levels. This means that even where a cable’s protective coating or insulation breaks down and the electricity short-circuits to an earthing conductor, the device will trip within milliamps of leakage – well before the point of fibrillation of the heart (abnormal heart rhythm) and thus before the natural cycle of the heart is interrupted. This, he says, is the ultimate form of protection against the most frequent cause of electrocution – a shock from electricity passing through the body to the earth. It can also provide some protection against electrical fires.
These, he says, should be installed on all circuits and tested regularly.
According to Allan, the most common areas where people come into contact with electricity in their homes revolve around DIY electrical work as well as older and potentially unsafe cabling in the roof. As cables age, Allan says they break down and insulation no longer protects them from someone making contact with it. Accordingly, an older cable can literally disintegrate in your hand under the weight. As insulation breaks down, copper remains and that is what people come into contact with. Many accidents which occurred during the home ceiling insulation debacle, Allan said, were from either exposed live terminations or old cabling which was no longer safe.
In terms of risks, he says these revolve around several areas. First, there is the situation whereby DIY renovators or any electricians who are not suitably trained are performing electrical work on old premises and they replace old light fittings which had no earth with a metal light fitting. Where this happens, he says it creates a danger if there is a short-circuit from the active to the frame of the metal light fitting. In that case, the entire light fitting would become live. Moreover, there would be no path back to say that there was a fault (and no way anyone would detect a fault) until someone touches it and changes a globe.
This could happen, Allan says, where the RCD had not been appropriately tested at sufficient intervals and highlights the importance of regular RCD testing. Where this is not done, he says the RCD can seize in the open position and thus fail to turn off the electricity in the event of a fault.
Next, there is old and potentially substandard electrical wiring. In this regard, Allan urges residents to be wary of properties built before the 1980s when the earthing integrity of the systems was not as strong and fewer fittings were earthed. In cases where you have this happen and you do not have working safety switches installed on the circuit, Allan says electrocutions can happen when people make contact with exposed wiring systems or live parts.
On those RCDs, Allan says a problem at the moment is that these are only required on lighting and power circuits only. In the case where a householder after entering a roof space happens to work over a cable which is carrying power to an oven (unprotected by a safety switch), for example, that person could be electrocuted in cases where the cable breaks down and the person makes contact with it.
Fortunately, he says this will be addressed by changes in the most recent version of the standards, which will require safety switches on all circuits.
As mentioned above, halogen downlights are also a fire hazard and should be replaced by LED lighting.
In terms of where practices fall down, Allan says much of what goes wrong happens in the roof space. A common problem here, he said occurs where people get up into the roof without isolating the circuits from the main electrical power system. This includes tradespeople who conduct activities such as pest control and the installation of insulation or air-conditioners. It also includes home owners themselves who may attempt to use the roof space for storage.
Second, there is the purchase or cheap products and/or products being installed by those who lack the expertise to do so safely. Anything done on the cheap, Allan says, is done that way for a reason and is cheap because corners have been cut. Cheap products, for example, may have not gone through adequate checks such as the correct testing procedures – witness the Infinity cable debacle which saw thousands of deadly cable go into homes and businesses throughout the country. Those offering to install products on the cheap are also likely to cut corners in terms of issues such as testing procedures or safe practices of work. Whilst critical to ensure that home owners are kept safe, Allan says that testing procedures are time consuming (and thus costly) from the viewpoint of those conducting the work and are thus a common area where corners are cut. Getting the cheapest quote for an electrical job, Allan says, is a mistake which can seriously jeopardise safety.
In some cases, he says DIY shows can contribute to this problem by encouraging a ‘gung-ho’ attitude of getting work done quickly and cheaply.
Appliances, meanwhile, can cause issues whereby products purchased from overseas can necessitate use of overseas adapters. This, Allan says, can lead to loose connections and arching.
What can people do?
First, Allan says it is important to have a qualified electrician come into your home and perform a response electrical health check. This covers all aspects of the homes including cable safety, smoke alarm condition, light fittings and functionality as well as electrical equipment functionality. This should be done by an accredited person with the correct equipment. This includes a master electrician or somebody trained through his Electricians Success Academy.
On this note, Allan points out that whilst many other defects such as cracks in the wall are readily apparent, problems with electricity are generally not able to be detected without specialised equipment. In absence of that, the problem will not become apparent until it either kills somebody or causes fire.
Better quality products are important. Some products on the market now have automatically closing outlets which will close and twist the socket so that children cannot stick metal down the socket., Allan says. In addition, electrically insulated plastic plugs are useful as well.
Ensuring that smoke alarms are not expired is also important. These expire every ten years.
Nevertheless, he says the best line of defence is to have safety switches or RCDs installed on every circuit and regularly tested.
Finally, Allan says, under no circumstances should DIY renovators or anyone other that a licensed electrician touch anything which has a cable or piece of electrical equipment or which requires electricity to flow through it. There have been people where they cut leads off an extension lead which is fitted into a power point and seen the cable melt because it is not rated for that, he says.
More broadly, Allan says greater effort is needed to promote awareness about electrical safety. Along with the government, he says electrical tradespeople themselves could help. He is aware of cases where electricians had been called out to premises to perform a specific task and noticed a dangerous situation in another area altogether only to fail to inform the home owner about this.
He says a lack of awareness is devaluing the profession and helping people to cut corners.
“People need to be aware of it. It’s not only electricians but everyone whether in a home or business is surrounded by electricity every day,” Allan says.
“There are too many people focusing on the cheapest price. This is devaluing the industry and making it hard for the people who actually don’t cut corners to stay in business.”
“If the public was more aware of the risks and how cheaper electricians cut corners, if people had the attitude that I don’t want the cheapest electrician because they are going to be cutting corners, that is the attitude we want the public to have.”
Australia suffers from too many electrical accidents in the home.
If we are to reduce accidents and fatalities, households must adopt critical strategies to improve electrical safety.
(Note: An outline of critical strategies for household electrical safety is available on the web sites of relevant government departments and agencies in each state. In Victoria, for instance, guidance issued by Energy Safe Victoria can be seen at the Energy Safe Victoria web site.)