Hair dryers warn you. Toasters warn you. Even your cozy heating pad warns you. The bold-faced labels dangling from their cords practically scream to get your attention: Use this item improperly and you run serious risk of electric shock!
But there are many electrical facets of your home that don’t advertise their potential risks for danger. Wires run around, through, and over our houses. Each year hundreds are electrocuted in their homes, and thousands are injured in electricity-related accidents. These can be prevented with a little foresight and some common sense.
Your Home Wiring
Your home wiring is just a number of loops, or circuits. A "live" wire brings current to a light or an outlet. A "neutral" wire returns current to its source. Between inside wiring and outside power lines is a service panel, which usually is located in the basement, garage, or the exterior of the house.
Most service panels have a main switch. Use it to cut all power when changing a fuse or in case of fire or shock. If you don't have a main switch, turn off all circuit breakers. Don't tamper with your electric meter. You risk shock, explosion, or fire, not to mention ticking off your electric company.
Check the service panel for a label or tag with a date and signature, or initials to indicate when it was last inspected. If there isn't one, use the home's age as a guide. The National Electrical Safety Foundation says homeowners should inspect—and probably replace—wiring that's 40 years or older. If it's been 10 years or more since the last inspection, a new inspection by a licensed electrician is advised, especially if you've added high-wattage appliances, outlets, or find that you often use extension cords. Extension cords are dangerous, and if you use them often, it’s a sign that you likely need more outlets.
How Shock Happens
Electricity always seeks the easiest path to the ground. It tries to find a conductor, such as metal, wet wood, water—or your body. Your body is 70% water. So if you touch an energized bare wire or faulty appliance while you are grounded, electricity will instantly pass through you to the ground, causing a harmful—or fatal—shock.
The amount of electricity used by one 7.5-watt Christmas tree bulb can cause serious harm or even death if it passes through your chest. Avoid shock by learning how electricity travels, and how to stay out of its path.
Keep Your Feet on the Ground
If you look around your house, you’ll notice that just about every appliance with a metal case has a three-prong outlet. This may also include some things, like your computer, that have a metal-encased power supply inside even if the device itself comes in a plastic case. The idea behind grounding is to protect you from electric shock when using metal-encased appliances. The casing is connected directly to the ground prong.
When you use a plug with three prongs, the third prong connects inside the outlet with a "ground wire” that usually connects to the service panel and a nearby “ground rod.” As a result, in case of a short circuit, electricity should flow through the grounding system instead of through you.
Never remove the third prong from a grounded three-prong plug to make it fit into a two-prong outlet. This could cause electrical shock. If necessary, buy an adapter to use a three-prong plug in a two-prong outlet, but make sure to test the adaptor to ensure that it really does provide a ground connection. Inexpensive outlet testers are available at all hardware stores.
Get in the habit of routinely checking your electrical appliances and wiring. Replace worn, old, or damaged appliance cords immediately.
Use GFCIs for Extra Protection
Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters (GFCIs) are found in some outlets and service panels. They monitor the flow of current to and from appliances. If there's an imbalance in the flow, current may be traveling through you, and the GFCI quickly cuts power to prevent serious injury. Because a GFCI detects ground faults, it can also prevent some electrical fires, and reduce the severity of others, by interrupting the flow of electric current. Use GFCIs in bathrooms, garages, basements, near kitchen sinks, and outdoors.
It’s a good idea to test your GFCIs every month or so. Plug a nightlight into the outlet, and turn it on. Press the "test" button. If the light turns off, the outlet is working properly. If the "reset" button pops out but the light stays on, the GFCI isn't working. Press the "reset" button to return the outlet to normal. You may want to contact a licensed electrician to ensure your GFCI is working correctly and doesn't need to be replaced.
NOTE: If your outlets don't have GFCI test and reset buttons, check your main service panel. You might have some ground-fault-protected circuit breakers.
Remember the most important rule for appliances: Electricity and water don't mix. Here are some appliance safety tips:
- Keep electrical appliances away from wet floors and counters.
- Unplug an appliance before cleaning as wet skin increases risk of electric shock.
- Clean behind and underneath the fridge periodically to prevent dust and dirt buildup on coils and cords.
- Check light bulbs to determine that the wattage is appropriate for lighting fixtures.
- Never put metal objects in live parts of appliances or in outlets.
- Never force a three-prong plug into a two-slot outlet or extension cord.
- Do not run cords underneath carpet, rugs, or furniture.
- Don't overload outlets with cords. If your TV picture shrinks or flickers when major appliances go on, or if fuses or circuit breakers blow frequently, contact an electrician to check your circuits and wiring.
- Don’t overload individual circuits with too many high-wattage appliances.
- Use only appliances that are approved by a nationally recognized testing laboratory, such as Underwriters Laboratories (UL).
Electrical Heating Equipment
Portable electrical heating equipment may be used in the home as a supplement to the home heating system. Take these precautions when using portable heating devices:
- Keep them away from combustibles, and make sure they cannot be tipped over.
- Do not use them in bathrooms because of the risk of contact with water and electrocution.
- Keep clothes, curtains, and other potentially combustible items at least 3 feet from all heaters.
- Never cover an electric blanket in use with other blankets or tuck it into other bedding.
- Discard an electric blanket if there are cracks or breaks in its wiring.
- Never sleep with a heating pad—even if it is set on the lowest setting—because it can still cause burns.
Electrical outlets can be as inviting to a toddler as nectar is to a bee. Electrical safety needs to be taught to children early on. Take these safety precautions:
- Insert safety plugs into unused outlets when toddlers are in the home.
- Make sure all outlets in the home have face plates.
- Teach children not to put things into electrical outlets and not to chew on electrical cords.
- Keep service panels locked.
- Do not allow children to come in contact with power lines outside. Never allow them to climb trees near power lines, utility poles, or high tension towers.
It's easy to practice electrical safety if you understand the risks. Following manufacturer’s instructions for proper appliance use, keeping electrical items in good repair, and taking other preventive safety measures can help you avoid getting the shock of your life.
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