Electricity is part of all of our lives – but if it’s not used carefully, the effects can be fatal. Here’s what you and your family need to know about using electrical appliances and equipment safely around your home.
Why is electricity dangerous?
Electric currents are everywhere. In the human body, tiny electric charges enable the nervous system to function, sending signals to and from the brain and throughout the body, keeping us moving, thinking and feeling. In electrical appliances, electric currents take the form of electrons flowing through wires, powering our devices.
Electric currents flow through a loop known as an electrical circuit. Conductors – materials that electricity can flow through – allow these circuits to form. As an electric current flows through the circuit, it takes the path of least resistance to completing its loop.
The problem is that the human body is a conductor. In fact, our bodies are more conductive than the ground we stand on. This means that when we come into contact with live electricity, we can become part of an electrical circuit – and depending on the length and severity of the resulting electric shock, this can cause serious injury, and even death.
When an external electric current flows through us, the electric shock can cause burns to our skin and internal tissues. Sometimes, the burns to the internal tissues are worse than the injuries on the outside of the skin.
A sudden and large influx of electricity can also interfere with the normal electrical signals between the brain and our muscles, which can lead the heart to beat erratically or stop altogether. This can also cause muscle spasms, contractions, and even paralysis, which can also lead the person being electrocuted to fall and suffer further injuries.
You don’t have to directly come into contact with a live wire for electricity to be dangerous, either. Electricity from an exposed circuit can jump, or arc, through the air to a person standing on the ground, at which point that person becomes the path of least resistance for the electricity to pass through. The heat generated by an electric arc can also cause materials to catch on fire.
Faulty or damaged electrical outlets, appliances, cords and switches cause the majority of electrical fires, as they spit sparks that cause nearby combustible surfaces like floors, curtains and rugs to heat up and catch fire. Overloaded circuits, and light bulbs with higher-than-recommended wattages, are also common causes of house fires.
In short, there are plenty of reasons why you need to take good care around electricity – but if you follow these tips for keeping the electrical appliances and equipment around your home in good working order, you can protect yourself and your family from these dangers.
Buying electrical appliances and equipment
When you buy electrical appliances and equipment, make sure they have the Regulatory Compliance Mark (RCM). This includes plug-in appliances like TVs, washing machines and hair dryers, as well as hard-wired equipment like air conditioners and hot water systems.
If a product has the RCM, it means the product has been tested, is compliant and meets Australian safety standards.
For this reason, you should be wary of buying electrical appliances and equipment online – if it’s from an overseas seller, their products might not comply with Australian standards.
Not only do appliances without the RCM pose a serious risk to your safety, but you may not be able to get a refund or exchange if the item turns out to be non-compliant or faulty.
Another way to check if an item is compliant with safety requirements in Australia is to consult the Electrical Equipment Safety System.
If you’re purchasing used electrical equipment from a second-hand retailer, garage sale or social media, you need to ensure that the item’s been approved as safe for use in Australia, and that it’s been tagged and tested by a licensed electrician. If not, what seems like a bargain now could end up costing you more than you can imagine in the end.
Using electrical appliances and equipment safely
Before you use an appliance, you should take the time to check it for signs of damage. If you notice a frayed cord, a cracked or broken plug, or changes in colour that could be caused by overheating and moisture, don’t use it, and don’t attempt your own makeshift repairs – either dispose of it, or have it repaired by a licensed electrician or a qualified repair technician.
Similarly, if you use an electric blanket in winter, you should check for damaged wires, plugs, leads and hot spots at the start of the season, and dispose of it if there are any signs of damage.
If you use a heater, never leave it unattended, and make sure you don’t keep any combustible materials – including paper, paint, curtains, clothing, bedding and flammable liquids – nearby.
Only use appliances for what they’re meant for, and maintain them in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. Before doing any cleaning or maintenance, make sure you remove the plug from the socket first.
Regularly clean materials like lint and dust that can build up in the filter of a clothes dryer and around the electric motors of exhaust fans, because they can catch fire. Similarly, ovens and cooktops should be cleaned regularly to stop spilled fats and burnt food building up.
Don’t overload power points by piggybacking multiple adaptors on them. If you need more outlets, use a power board with a built-in safety device, or consider having more power points installed.
Whether you own or rent your home, safety switches should be installed on all circuits. Safety switches monitor whether or not the electricity flow through a circuit is even, and trip the power when a problem is detected. In Queensland, owners of domestic rental accommodation must have a safety switch installed in their rental properties.
Safety switches should be tested every three months (you should be able to simply push the test button to ensure the switch is working). If an appliance trips your safety switch, disconnect it, and don’t use it again until you have it checked by a licensed electrician.
On that note, no matter how much you love to DIY, you should always get a licensed electrician to do any electrical work that needs to be done around the house. Not only is this just common sense – why risk electrocuting yourself? – it’s also the law.
In Queensland, electrical work includes the following tasks under the Electrical Safety Act:
- Installing a new power point
- Moving the location of an existing power point
- Replacing a light switch
- Replacing a batten holder (a light fitting that is hard-wired to the wiring in your home) with a new light fitting
- Replacing a light fitting with a ceiling fan
- Repairing an electrical appliance
- Constructing an extension lead
- Replacing a plug on the end of an extension lead
While you can purchase electrical appliances and equipment that need to be hard-wired, they have to be connected by a licensed electrician.
In Queensland, you can check the status of an electrician by running their electrical contractor licence number through the Electrical Licence Register.
Electricity and water
It’s true what they say – electricity and water don’t mix.
Remember what we said about humans being conductors for electricity? Well, electric shocks received in the vicinity of a swimming pool are even more likely to be fatal, because bare feet, little clothing and wet skin all combine to reduce your body’s insulation and resistance, and make it even easier for electricity to flow through you.
You should take extreme care when using electrical appliances or equipment, extension cords, powerboards, sockets and plugs near a swimming pool or any other body of water. Think of them like Gremlins – don’t let them get wet.
Don’t immerse an appliance in water unless it’s been expressly designed for that purpose, and immediately dispose of any appliances that have been in the water.
If you’re building a pool, a licensed electrician must be responsible for installing and maintaining your pool wiring and electrical equipment.
If you have underwater lights in your pool, they have to comply with the Australian / New Zealand Wiring Rules, and you should check them regularly for cracks in the glass and defective seals.
Using decorative lights safely
Thinking of entering the Christmas Lights Competition this year? We wish you the best of luck, as long as you follow these important safety tips.
Like any other electrical appliance, make sure you buy Australian-compliant lights, as opposed to the non-compliant lights from overseas you might find online.
If you’re planning on using last year’s lights again, check they haven’t been part of a product recall since then, and make sure you check the plugs, leads and lamp holders carefully for any exposed wires or other signs of damage. If you see anything concerning, or anything you’re not sure about, have them checked by a licensed electrician.
As always, follow the manufacturer’s instructions and safety warnings. Make sure all your lights, leads and powerboards are actually suitable for what you’re using them for – for instance, indoor lights should never be used outdoors, as they don’t have the required weatherproof ratings.
Outdoor Christmas lights will have an IP rating on the packaging or on the light itself that shows how weatherproof it is. The higher the number, the more weatherproof it is – to be an outdoor light, it has to have a rating of at least IP23.
You should always turn off outdoor lighting in rainy and stormy weather, and if you have a real Christmas tree, make sure you switch off and unplug any lights that are draped on it before you water it.
And of course, you should always turn your decorative lights off before you leave your house or get snuggled up in bed.
If you’re doing work outside your home, like cleaning your gutters, you need to keep clear of overhead powerlines and service lines. They can be difficult to see, especially in low light, so be sure to check carefully for them. Service lines (the lines that connect directly to your home) are usually insulated, but this insulation can wear down with age, exposing live wires.
If you’re using a ladder, use one with rubber feet to reduce the risk of electric shock.
Powerlines can fall for a variety of reasons, including storms, floods, cyclones and bushfires. If you see one, call Triple Zero (000) and ensure you stay at least 10 metres away. You don’t need to come into direct contact with a fallen powerline to receive an electric shock – electricity can arc across the air, and can also flow through water and metal objects towards you.
You should always treat fallen powerlines as though they’re live. Often, there’s no visible sign that a line is live, so it’s best to err on the side of caution.
Using solar PV systems safely
If you’ve decided to invest in a solar photovoltaic (PV) system, it will require regular maintenance according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
You can conduct some basic visual checks by yourself from a safe distance – for instance, checking panels for discolouration, or checking for cracks and chips in the glass after a storm. When conducting these visual checks, take care to keep away from overhead powerlines.
But if you notice any issues, or the system needs any maintenance that involves electrical work or electrical installation, you need to contact a licensed electrician. Your solar installer is also required to be a licensed electrician.
Keep in mind, too, that even if the power to your home is shut off, PV systems will continue generating electricity as long as the sun is out, so you need to assume the system and its wiring are still live.
Keeping kids safe around electricity
Of course, all of the above precautions apply to keeping kids safe around electricity. But there are also some specific things you can do to keep little ones safe.
As any parent knows, kids can be very curious about new things, and their little mouths tend to be magnets for anything they can get their hands on, so it’s particularly important to keep power cords and leads away from small children, and never leave them dangling within a child’s reach.
If there’s a plug that you can’t avoid keeping within your child’s reach, use a power board with an in-built safety switch.
Button batteries – the tiny, single-cell batteries that power household products like remote controls and torches – are a significant risk. In Australia, one child a month is seriously injured after swallowing a button battery or inserting one into their ear or nose. If you suspect your child has swallowed a button battery, call the Australian Poisons Information Centre on 13 11 26 for 24/7 support.
Children also have an extremely unfortunate tendency to poke objects inside appliances and unused power points. To protect against this, insert childproof dummy plugs into all power point sockets when they’re not in use, so they can’t push anything into the socket. You can also get childproof power points with built-in shutters that automatically close when a plug is removed.
Electrical appliances should never be left unattended around small children, and should be switched off and unplugged when they’re not in use. Never leave appliances where they could fall into a bath or basin that a child might use.
When they’re old enough to understand, explain the dangers of electricity and pass these lessons onto your kids – so they can be as switched on as you are now.