Ice, Washing Machines and a Phone

Shutterstock/ Andry Suslov

Recently, my refrigerator stopped making ice. The manufacturer told me to get close to the fridge with my cellphone so he could connect electronically to troubleshoot. If you had told me 10 years ago, or even two, that I could solve an appliance problem using a cellphone connection, I would have said you were crazy. The manufacturer rep told me that there was something wrong with the electronic circuits in the ice maker. They sent the parts and a serviceperson over to fix it and, sure enough, I had ice within the hour.

Have you ever priced all the electrical equipment in your home to determine the value and do you know how to protect the electronics? Many appliances, such as such as refrigerators, dishwashers, washing machines, dryers, TVs and sound systems, have built-in electronics so electrical protection is necessary.

Within the past year, my sister- and brother-in-law in Topeka, Kan., had an electrical problem, and they called me to see if I could help them figure it out. Finding the problem using a cellphone wasn’t an option, but from my home in Peoria, Ariz., I could quiz them on exactly what they thought had happened.

There had been an electrical storm and the 20-ampere branch-circuit breaker supplying power to the washing machine was tripped. They smelled something strange in the laundry room, so I told them that they probably had a surge from lightning that hit a power line near their home. This was later verified by the power company.

I told them to unplug the washer and call a local electrical contractor to check the circuit before resetting the tripped breaker. The surge had damaged the electronics in the machine. I also told them to call their insurance company to report the damage, since there could be other damaged electronic equipment.

I recommended to have the EC check the rest of the electrical system to determine if there was any further damage and suggested that they have a whole-house surge-protective device installed. An individual surge-protective device built into the washing machine receptacle could be installed, but they should have a Type 1 or Type 2 device for the entire home.

The best protection would be the device at the service and receptacles with built-in surge protection at each appliance. The overall protection would be inexpensive compared to the possibility of damage to each individual piece of equipment.

When I was an electrical contractor in the Phoenix area in the 1970s and 1980s, I was also an electrical accident and fire investigator for an insurance company. I was asked to go out to a home where there had allegedly been a lightning strike. I was to confirm whether there was damage and the extent of the damage for the insurance claim. I determined that the lightning had hit the overhead phone line coming into the home and actually burned the communication cable from the point of attachment at the house and the cable coming into the home; it had destroyed a wired phone on the table in the hallway.

The homeowner had a huge smile on his face and told me that the lightning strike was the best thing that had happened to him in years. When I asked why, he said his 15-year-old daughter had just hung up the phone and walked down the hall when the phone blew up. Afterward she refused to go anywhere near it. In an era before cellphones, he now had the phone all to himself.

At that time, telephone circuit protectors were required for the phone lines, much as the protectors are required today, but for some reason the telephone circuit protectors did not function properly to protect the phone and the cable into the home. Fortunately, no one was injured, and there was very little damage to the house.

There are numerous lightning strikes every year, so the protection of electrical and electronic circuits are a necessary and worthwhile requirement in the NEC .

About the Author

Mark C. Ode

Fire/Life Safety, Residential and Code Contributor

Mark C. Ode is a lead engineering associate for Energy & Power Technologies at Underwriters Laboratories Inc. and can be reached at 919.949.2576 and Mark.C.Ode@ul.com.

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