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Electrical Safety

What size extension cords should a consumer use? How can you tell if an extension cord is appropriate for the intended use?

Before purchasing or selecting an extension cord for use, consumers should consider how the cord will be used. Make sure the rating on the cord is the same as or higher than the number of watts needed by the product that will be plugged into the cord. Extension cords should only be used on a temporary basis and unplugged and safely stored after every use. Outside the home, use only cords rated for outdoor use, and consider using a portable GFCI.

What is the device now found on the plugs of such appliances as hair dryers?

The large box-like device found on the ends of some appliance cords could be an appliance leakage circuit interrupter (ALCI), an immersion detection circuit interrupter (IDCI) or a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI). Though they work in different ways, they all protect the user against accidental electric shock and electrocution by acting immediately to shut off power to the appliance upon the detection of a “leak” of electric current as may happen when a hair dryer falls into a sink full of water. Even with these de-vices, if that happens, unplug the device or shut off power to the circuit before reaching in to retrieve the appliance.

How does a polarized plug work? What is the benefit of using it?

A polarized plug is a plug with one large or wide prong and one narrow one. It ensures that the plug is inserted correctly in a socket for proper flow of electric current, and reduces the risk of electrical shock. Consumers should never force a polarized plug into a non-polarized outlet, or shave the wide prong down to fit. Use an adapter or find an appropriate polarized outlet.

How does a three-prong plug work? What is the benefit of using it?

The third prong on a plug provides a path to ground for electricity that is straying or leaking from a product. This helps protect the equipment and can help prevent electric shock. Consumers should never remove or bend the third prong to fit a two-slot outlet. Use an adapter or find an appropriate three-slot outlet. Note that GFCIs are required in some places, recommended in others, even if the product has a third wire to ground it. Under some conditions, a shock hazard could still exist even if a product has a grounding wire.

The CPSC and ESFI recommend electrical inspections for the following:
  • Any house more than 40 years old,
  • Any house 10 years old and older that has had any major renovation or major appliance added, and
  • For any home at the time of resale, by the new owner who can then begin their relationship with the new home with a clear understanding of the home’s electrical system’s capacity, limitations, potential hazards and opportunities.

An “electrical inspection” is different from a “home inspection” in that it comprehensively covers only the electrical system, whereas the home inspection goes skin-deep on the structure, plumbing, electrical system and other aspects of the house. Your local city, county or state should have an electrical inspector’s office, or a qualified, licensed electrician can do the inspection. The inspection will help identify problems like frequently blowing fuses or tripping circuit breakers, loose connections at outlets, older and deteriorated wiring, and outdated and overburdened electrical service. Repairs could be minor and nominal in cost, such as the cleaning and tightening of connections or the addition of outlets, or more involved running into several thousand dollars, such as the addition of circuits and sub-panels, replacement of degraded wiring, or, particularly with older homes, a “heavy-up” — that is, upgrading the electrical service from, for example, 60 amp or 100 amp service to the home to 200 amp service better able to handle today’s electric demands. A qualified, licensed electrician can determine if repairs or upgrades are necessary and can estimate the cost

If you have an old house with old wiring, how do you know if repairs are necessary? How extensively and costly can such repairs be?

Electrical systems age and deteriorate just like any man-made product, and as they get older need to be monitored more frequently. As homes grow in their dependence on electricity with the addition of rooms, appliances large and small, and entertainment and computer equipment, electrical systems designed to handle lower electrical demands expected at an earlier point in time can be-come overburdened and problems can develop.

How can consumers help protect themselves from electrocution and electrical-related injuries?

Consumers should check for problems with their home electrical systems, and be ever vigilant for electrical hazards around the home and the workplace, like cracked or fraying cords, overheating cords and wall plates, and the presence of overhead and buried power lines when working outdoors.

Check outlets and circuits to be sure they aren’t overloaded. Make sure to use only the proper wattage light bulbs in light fixtures and lamps.

Use extension cords only on a temporary basis, and be sure they are properly rated for their intended use. And always follow appropriate safety precautions and manufacturer’s instructions on all electrical items.

Make sure GFCI protection covers all circuits that come near water sources, such as bathrooms, kitchens, and outdoors, and consider it for whole house coverage. Consumers should also remember to test their smoke alarms and ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) monthly. Replace smoke detector batteries twice a year.

Consider also having arc fault circuit interrupters (AFCIs) installed in your home’s electrical panel, particularly for older homes.

Consumers can use ESFI’s In Home Electrical Safety Check and Out-door Electrical Safety Check booklets to conduct an electrical safety audit of their homes. And visit www.electrical-safety.org for all these and other electrical safety tips.

What are the latest statistics on residential electrical safety injuries?

The latest figures from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Com-mission (CPSC) indicate that there were 440 total accidental electrocutions in 1999, 170 related to consumer-products. Twenty-nine of those related to household wiring, and another 29 related to small appliances. Twenty-two electrocutions involved large appliances like air conditioners, heat pumps and clothes dryers, 15 involved power tools, 13 involved ladders, 12 involved garden/farm equipment, 9 involved lighting, 3 involved antennas, and 38 involved a variety of other products such as pipes, poles, fences, wires, chains, pliers, tree stands and flying toys.

But that is only part of the story. According to the latest statistics from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), there is an annual average of 111,400 home fires caused by faulty electrical distribution systems, electrical appliances and equipment, or heating and air conditioning systems, taking an average of 860 lives, injuring 3,785, and causing nearly $1.3 billion in property damage.