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Shocks, Electrocution and House Fires

Protecting Ourselves and Our Homes from Electrical Faults

Poorly designed and installed electrical circuits are probably the most serious danger we face in our homes, we can be electrocuted and our houses can burn down.

Here we look at electrical safety and steps we can take to protect ourselves and our homes from electric shocks, short circuits and fires.

Electric Shocks Kill People

There are regular events that serve as grim reminders of the dangers of inadequate electrical installation that can cause serious damage or loss of life.

In January 2016 a man who had only fairly recently bought a house in Bali was cleaning out his fish pond when a plug and socket in a power chord fell into the pond, he was electrocuted.

In February 2018 a 61-year-old man living in Bali was electrocuted in a household accident at his villa, he was using an appliance to clean the bottom of a pool when he picked up a live cable while standing barefooted on a wet surface.

These events were tragic but made all the more so when we consider that, had their electrical systems been properly designed and installed, they would both still be alive today.

These are by no means isolated cases, in fact, people are regularly being killed or injured by electrical problems in their own homes.

Electric Short Circuits - The Most Common Cause of Building Fires

Electric Short Circuits and House Fires

Add to this the fact that electrical short circuits are the most common cause of building fires in many parts of the world, especially Indonesia. The largest market building on the island of Bali, Badung Market, burned down twice in only a few years destroying hundreds of businesses in the process. In both cases, electrical short circuits were blamed.

Loose electricity can be very dangerous and, of course, we can’t see it. Electricity will always head to earth given half a chance and, if that means through you, you won’t stand much of a chance. When electrical cables are accidentally connected to earth, you get a short circuit, a high electrical current flows which can get very hot and cause a fire.

How vulnerable are we all in our daily lives?

Let us look at some basics of electrical safety. We all know that if you come into contact with live electricity the power will flow through you to find its way to earth and in our daily lives, this could happen in many different ways. Here are a few examples:

  1. Poor installations where bare wires are left exposed or where loose copper braids in wiring joints touch other wires or nearby metal creating a “short circuit”.
  2. Damaged wires that come into contact with the metal body of electrical appliances such as washing machines toasters, hair driers, fridges, kettles, microwaves, computer cabinets, cooking stoves, water heaters, pumps, etc.
  3. Poor quality or damaged extension leads.
  4. Electrical cables damaged by rats or abrasion that come into contact with steel structures or water systems.
  5. Garden wiring that is not properly insulated.
  6. Electrical installations getting wet perhaps due to flooding, heavy rain, overflowing water tanks or accidental spills.
  7. High electrical surges due to lightning strikes or large power switching somewhere on the electrical supply grid.

The list goes on and on.

How To Protect Ourselves From Electric Shocks and Fires

To protect you and yours we can take four important steps:

  1. We make sure that our electrical systems are properly designed and installed with connections properly made, no short circuits, wires fully insulated, joints installed in junction boxes and wiring protected from damage by rats or abrasion by enclosing them in conduit (plastic pipe).
  2. We install circuit breakers (miniature circuit breakers or MCBs) making sure they are large enough to suit the equipment being used but also small enough to make sure they cut out if there is an unexpected surge in power. We want those circuit breakers to trip out if there is a fault. In Indonesia, buildings are burning down all the time due to short circuits when circuit breakers do not cut out.
  3. We make sure that the electrical circuits are properly earthed (connected to ground) - very few are.
  4. We connect anything that could possibly become “live” to earth such as the bodies of household appliances. If there is a fault a surge of power will run to earth and should cut out a circuit breaker to stop the flow of power.
  5. We install earth leakage detectors, and we make sure that self-styled “electricians” don’t disable them. Earth leakage detectors will detect a leakage to earth (perhaps through you or some other poor soul) and will cut out before any injury or damage is caused.
  6. Install a surge protector on our electrical supply to protect our circuits from overloads due to electrical surges.

It isn’t rocket science but unfortunately, in many buildings in Indonesia (including newly built luxury villas) these steps are very rarely correctly satisfied, and that is why short circuits are the number one cause of building fires.

How Effective Are Circuit Breakers?

Most people see circuit breakers and assume that these provide protection - in most cases, they won’t. In virtually all installations you will find the PLN master circuit breaker will cut out before the individual circuits do. This is not good, if you have an electrical fault and a circuit breaker trips out you know you have a fault and you know which circuit the fault is on. Unfortunately, this is often too much trouble for the average seller of carved chess sets who solves the problem - not by finding and correcting the fault but by installing a larger circuit breaker so it won’t cut out.

Will a Circuit Breaker Save My Life?

No, not in the case of a serious shock.

Even if a circuit breaker does cut out, it will not stop the flow of electricity quickly enough to save your life. You get a shock, and the shock stops your heart.

Earth Leakage Detectors (See Here)

To safeguard your life, we need an earth leakage detector - a switch that detects even a very small power leakage through you to earth and instantly, faster than you can say “Oh” (as in “Oh bugger me, that hurts”), it cuts out.

Coming back to our opening story, properly earthed circuits with earth leakage circuit breakers (RCBOs as they are called) would have detected the short circuit as the extension lead fell in the fish pond and would have saved our Australian friend’s life. Unfortunately it is highly likely that he would not have been aware of the inadequacies of the electrical installation in his house.

Electrical Standards but a Lack of Training or Awareness

For people born and brought up in countries where electrical safety (and all safety for that matter) is fully understood we can rely on well defined and properly enforced government regulations to keep us safe, we just take it for granted and probably become complacent to it. (It has to be said that in some countries, where you need a certificate of compliance for your finger nail before you are allowed to pick your nose, the Health and Safety people do seem to be going a tad too far).

Foreigners coming to Indonesia can be forgiven for assuming that tradesmen are capable and that systems are regulated but unfortunately, most “electricians” have never had any sort of electrical training.

Here in Indonesia, there is a well defined electrical standard (SNI 04-0225-2000 known as PUIL 2000) which is based on the European electrical standards and compliance with this standard is mandatory. Unfortunately, with no formal training system for electricians (there are degree courses in electrical engineering but these are not suitable for electricians) the people that install and maintain electrical installations in buildings have very little, if any training at all and are not aware of the legal requirements to comply with PUIL 2000.

It goes without saying that we need to be particularly careful with anything that can conduct electricity. We have already mentioned the usual household equipment, but there are some areas that perhaps we don’t pay much attention to.

Earthing of Steel Roof and Wall Frames

These days lightweight zinc-plated steel is being used for roof frames (much cheaper than timber) and in some cases wall framing. We also find steel tube being used to build carports, awning frames and marquees.

If we install lighting, plug sockets, fans or electrical switches on these steel frames we have the potential for the steel frame to become live which could be very dangerous. It is a good idea to make sure such frames are connected directly to a good earth.

Swimming pools and Pump Rooms

Swimming Pools can be particularly dangerous and there is a history of people being electrocuted in their swimming pools in this country. This is why it is required that swimming pool lights are 12 volt rather than 220 volts so that if there is a short circuit people in contact with the water will be safe.

Even so it is well to remember that there are still plenty of sources of full 220 volt power around a swimming pool that could come into contact with your swimming pool water. In the pump room, there will probably be the pool pump, distribution box, pump timer, pump room light and switch, pool lighting transformers and chlorine equipment. It is good to make sure there are no leaks in the system, that rain cannot get into the pump room, that the balance tank cannot overflow into the pump room, that condensation build up is not excessive and that local flooding will not run into the pump room (all of these I have come across in the past). Some people install a sump in the bottom of their pump room (a square box formed into the concrete floor to collect any stray water) with a float controlled submersible pump that will pump water out of the pump room if it happens to flood.

Fish ponds can also be dangerous usually having a circulation pump and quite often underwater lighting. Inspect these things regularly and repair any faults.

Electrical Dangers of Water Heaters

Water heaters can also be dangerous and people have been known to die in their showers.

In the past water pipes were often made of steel which provided an effective earth for water systems. These days systems use PVC pipes meaning that the water may not be effectively earthed.

If the copper sleeve containing the electric element of a water heater corrodes (which they often do) and, if water comes into contact with the electrical element inside, your water can become “live”.

It is a good idea to make sure that the water in your water systems is effectively connected to earth.

So keep those very useful though somewhat cantankerous little electrons under control and you can increase your chances of living to a ripe old age.

Keep safe.

Copyright © Phil Wilson January 2016
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