Don’t let electricity slip your mind

Electrically-powered lights, appliances, TVs and other technology are so commonplace now that most people don’t even think about electricity much, except perhaps during a power failure or when the monthly municipal bill arrives.

So it is no surprise really that most homeowners are unaware of potential electrical hazards around their houses, or of the personal and financial losses they can cause.

According to Eskom, most of the hundreds of people who die or suffer serious injury from electric shock every year in SA do so as a result of illegal activities such as cable theft, unlawful connections and vandalism. However, many also die because of negligence or carelessness around electrical wiring, plugs and appliances.

Meanwhile, according to the Fire Protection Association ( about half of the 10 000 house fires that occur in SA each year are caused by an electrical short. These fires, including the terrible infernos that rage through informal settlements, result in at least 300 to 400 more deaths a year, and in literally thousands of people having to be treated for burns and smoke inhalation.

Consequently, homeowners do need to be more alert to the following warning signs that all is not well with their electrical system, so that they can switch off the mains as soon as possible and call in a qualified electrician to rectify the problem.

  • Receiving a shock from any appliance, such as a toaster, stove or washing machine.
  • The smell of burning metal or plastic which may indicate a loose or broken connection, a malfunctioning switch or light fixture, overheating components, arcing or sparking inside the walls or damaged wire.
  • Flickering or dimming lights, which could also indicate a loose connection, overloaded circuits, improper wiring, or arcing and sparking inside the walls.
  • Hot, discoloured switch plates, cords or plugs, which indicate an overload or product malfunction.
  • Overloaded wall outlets. Too many appliances plugged into a single outlet could indicate that your home does not have enough electrical outlets – or capacity – to need your current needs.
  • A wavering picture on the TV or computer screen when a large appliance such as the stove is turned on. This could mean you have too many appliances plugged into one circuit, or that your home needs additional electrical capacity.

Even better, responsible homeowners will take precautions to avoid electrical problems from occurring in the first place, beginning by having the electrical system properly inspected. The International Electrical Safety Foundation recommends an inspection for any house more than 40 years old and for any house more than 10 years old that has had any major renovation or major appliance added. It also says all homes should be inspected at the time of resale, as is compulsory in SA.

In addition, you should never:
  • Tamper with appliances while they’re plugged in, sticking a knife into the toaster being the classic example.
  • Touch any electrical appliance – such as a hairdryer or shaver – if you’re wet.
  • Keep using any appliance – such as a kettle or a heater – that causes the power to "trip".
  • Use power tools for anything other than their original purpose, or without wearing shoes.
  • Have bare feet while using an electric lawnmower.
  • Use electrical cords or extensions with exposed wires.
  • Try to move a fallen outdoor power cable – rather stay well clear and call in an expert as soon as possible.

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