Taking the Ouch out of Outlet Safety
Hairpins are perfect for holding certain hair styles in place, but these slender, metal objects are also easy for children to manipulate, making them the dominant household item improperly stuck into electrical receptacles. Each year, approximately 2,400 children – an average of seven a day – receive emergency room treatment for injuries caused by inserting conductive material into electrical outlets, according to a 10-year report released by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). And nationwide, there are approximately 5,000 residential fires reported as attributed to receptacle failure. To help prevent many of these dangers, here are some safety precautions for electrical outlets.
- Replace receptacles that are broken, no longer hold a plug securely, feel hot to the touch, spark or make noise when inserting or removing a plug.
- All outlets should have a faceplate to prevent accidentally touching a plug to a live portion of the receptacle.
- Never alter a polarized plug to make it fit into an old unpolarized receptacle. A polarized plug has one blade wider than the other and can only be inserted one way into the electrical outlet.
- All unused outlets should be covered with safety covers, especially to prevent children and pet access. Also, the covers prevent dust and static electricity.
- If plugs seem to fit loosely in a particular outlet, the outlet may be worn and could overheat; a qualified electrician should check it.
- All outside receptacles where water and electricity may come into contact should be protected by ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs). GFCIs are electrical devices designed to detect ground faults. Ground faults occur when electrical current is “leaking” somewhere outside the path where the current is supposed to flow. If your body provides the path to ground for this leakage, you could be burned, shocked or even electrocuted. GFCIs can switch a circuit off before injury occurs.
- Outdoor receptacles should also have weatherproof covers to help protect against shock hazards. Close the covers on all unused outdoor receptacles.
- Avoid overloading a receptacle – fires can occur when wires become hot.
- If you need receptacles replaced, contact a licensed electrician to install them and consider the new tamper-resistant (TR) option. These types of outlets include a shutter mechanism to protect against harm from inserting foreign objects. The spring-loaded system only allows electricity to flow when you apply equal pressure to both sides of the outlet, as when you plug in an electrical device. During unused conditions, both shutters are closed. Tamper-resistant receptacles are an important step to make the home a safer place for children. The cost is as little as $2 at some retailers and can easily be incorporated into older homes.
Practicing electrical outlet safety in your home will keep you and your family safe from fire and shock hazards.
The Importance of GFCIs In Your Home
What’s the difference between AFCIs and GFCIs? As previously discussed in this safety article, AFCIs help prevent fire hazards caused by arcing faults in damaged or deteriorated wires and cords. But when it comes to electrical-shock hazards, that’s where GFCIs play an important role.
According to the Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI), GFCIs have cut the number of home electrocutions by half. By detecting ground faults–an unintentional electric path between a source of current and a grounded surface; essentially, current leaking to the ground–a GFCI protects you from severe or fatal electric shocks.
If you have ever experienced an electric shock, it probably happened because part of your body contacted an electrical current and provided a path for the current to go to ground. If your body provides the path, you could be seriously injured. For example, if a bare wire inside an appliance touches its metal case and that case is then charged with electricity, you would get shocked if you touched the appliance with one hand while another part of your body is touching a grounded metal object, such as a water faucet. If the appliance is plugged into an outlet protected by a GFCI, the power will be shut off before a shock can occur. A GFCI does this by constantly monitoring electricity moving through a circuit. If it detects a difference in the electrical current, the device quickly switches off power. They are typically installed around areas with water hazards such as bathrooms or kitchens and are also appropriate in outdoor spaces near pools, gardens and garages.
According to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) and the Electrical Safety Foundation International, a portable GFCI is easily installed with little effort at a low cost ($12-$30). Electricians however, should be consulted to guarantee proper installation. To determine if you already have GFCIs in your home, look at your outlets. The standard U.S. socket with three prong holes is 120-volts. The left vertical slot of an outlet is “neutral” and slightly larger than the right vertical slot, which is “hot.” The bottom circular hole is referred to as “ground.” A GFCI outlet can be identified by its test and reset button in the center. When the reset button is pressed on, power can freely flow to the outlet. Pressing the test button disconnects or interrupts the current and shuts down the circuit to the outlet. The test button will automatically trigger when the GFCI detects that a decrease in current has shifted the flow of power out of balance.
Having GFCIs in your home is an important way to keep you and your family safe when it comes to the dangers of electric shock.
Arc Circuit Interrupters
In order to hang a heavy framed picture above your couch, you find a stud in the wall and hammer in a large nail to support the size and weight. But hidden behind the wallboard is a wire that provides electricity to a wall outlet located in back of the furniture. Your nail penetrates the wire, tearing the insulation and shorting the electrical circuit to the room. The wall quickly becomes hot, as a fire explodes behind the wall. This is an arc fault which generates high temperatures in excess of 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit, igniting nearby combustibles such as wood, paper, wallboard and carpets. An arc fault is a dangerous electrical problem often caused by damaged, overheated or stressed electrical wiring or devices.
In the U.S., arcing faults cause many of the estimated 67,800 electrical fires in homes every year, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). To help reduce the number of electrical fires in homes, an arc fault circuit interrupter (AFCI) is a type of circuit breaker that replaces standard circuit breakers in your home’s electrical service panel and provides a higher level of protection by detecting dangerous electrical conditions and shutting down the electricity before a fire has a chance to ignite. These devices are equipped with advanced internal electronics that detect arc fault hazards – which traditional breakers are not designed to recognize.
- The most common conditions that usually trigger arc faults include:
- Loose or improper connections, such as electrical wires to outlets and switches
- Extension or appliance cords that are damaged or have worn or cracked insulation
- Natural aging, and cord exposure to heat vents and sunlight
- Cables that are improperly nailed or stapled too tightly against a wall stud
- Wires located behind walls that can be accidentally punctured by a screw or drill bit
- Cords caught in door jams, deteriorating the cable insulation through the action of opening and closing the door
- Furniture pushed against or resting on electrical cords
Arc fault circuit interrupters can be purchased at any local electrical distributor, hardware store or home improvement center for approximately $35 – $45 each. Make sure to have a certified electrician install them for you, ensuring its compliance with the U.S. National Electrical Code (NEC) requirements while meeting your home’s needs.
Electrical fires can be a silent killer occurring in areas of the home that are hidden from view. Use of AFCI technology could prevent between 50 to 75 percent of these electrical fires, saving hundreds of lives, reducing thousands of injuries and nearly $1 billion in property damage annually.