Using or installing any electrical and electronic equipment improperly can create electrical hazards, as can cheaply made or unauthorized alternatives to legitimate devices.
With new technologies come new potential electrical dangers. Because of their novelty, though, many people are complacent or aren't aware of these hazards. Electrical contractors are a good source for consumers to rely on for information related to electrical products and practices that pose a threat to electrical systems in homes or business occupancies.
As National Electrical Safety Month gets underway, many organizations are placing increased emphasis on due diligence with electricity use.
"Organizations like the Electrical Safety Foundation International [ESFi] and the National Fire Protection Association [NFPA] have extensive campaigns about electrical safety, not only during the proclaimed electrical safety month, but all the time," said Michael Johnston, executive director of standards and safety at the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA). "NECA has a strong relationship with these organizations and also runs similar support campaigns during Electrical Safety Month."
Here is a high-level look at a few modern technologies that can pose electrical hazards and how consumers can minimize the associated risks through proper installation and use. Electrical Contractors can also be a good resource for information about safely installing and use of new smart technologies and equipment.
Mobile device chargers
From smartphones to tablets to laptops, consumers today have more electronic devices at home than ever before. Often each of these devices have a different charging cable, which has an alternating current (AC) side and a direct current (DC) side. The AC side of these power supplies and chargers can present a fire hazard if cords become worn and frayed. Electrical contractors should advise their customers to replace charging cables as soon as possible after they notice damage to them.
Damaged supply charge cables can affect the normal charging process for many smart devices and can create a fire hazard.
"While the DC side of these chargers is essentially safe, damaged charge output cables should be replaced," Johnston said.
Fake or counterfeit charge cables are often missing protective electronics (micro-chips) in the charge connectors. Without this protection that can be a fire threat.
Even if only the outside layer is damaged, this is a sign the inner layers could be broken or may soon become damaged. In such an instance, Johnston said it is best to take it out of service and replace it.
"Electricity does not give too many chances and can take a life—quickly," he said.
Once the electrical insulation on any cord becomes compromised, there is nothing between the consumer and the electric current. Shock hazards are high. It’s advisable to replace a cable before this occurs.
Some may be tempted to use electrical tape as a temporary solution; however, Johnston said it is never advisable to make home-made repairs using electrical tape and call it good. In the event one of these cables or chargers becomes damaged, it is best for a homeowner to remove the it from use and replace it.
Another risk comes from off-brand chargers, which in some cases might even be counterfeit products. Often, one can find replacement cables for a cheaper price from off brands other than the device's manufacturer. There is often a question as to any guarantee these devices meet all proper specs and minimum product safety standards, even if the company claims they will work with any device. Large electronic producers such as Apple take critical steps to warn its customers to be wary of third-party replacement and new parts, which it says could be counterfeit.
In the interest of safety, many fire departments are warning residents not to leave devices unattended while charging and not to charge them overnight.
The internet of things (IoT) refers to the quickly growing number of devices that connect to the internet, to each other and users' smart devices such as TVs, phones, tablets, appliances, etc.
Everything from thermostats to vacuum cleaners to traditional and electric vehicles to utility electric meters can be an IoT device.
Because these technologies are so new and so many more are arriving at such a rapid pace, there is still a lot to learn about how they operate and especially about any potential fire and shock risks associated with them. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) will hold a hearing on May 16 about potential safety issues related to consumer IoT products.
The commission will look at concerns involving remote operation, tampering and loss of safety functions. The CPSC cited, as an example of a potential safety issue, an oven someone could start remotely and thereby accidentally cause a fire.
The commission will also explore dangers that could occur if someone hacks into a device and changes how it operates. For example, researchers recently found a vulnerability in smart power switches that made them susceptible to hacking. Hackers could potentially cycle the device on and off so fast it causes a fire.
Consumers can take steps to ensure their place of business or residence is essentially free from electrical hazards. Electrical contractors could offer inspection services to verify all receptacle and lighting and other power outlets are in good condition and safe before attempting to pair them with IoT devices. ECs can help ensure systems can handle the added load of numerous IoT devices. However, there will always be limitations. It might also help to remind consumers not to plug in devices and equipment that draw too much current for a given power outlet.
Illicit devices are unregulated, which means they could present electrical hazards unbeknownst to the consumer.
"It is best to rely on devices that have been evaluated and tested to applicable product safety standards and have been listed and labeled," Johnston said.
Products that aren't listed and labeled may be dangerous. Before using these products, consumers should check manufacturer branding and verify that it bears a product certification mark from a qualified electrical testing laboratory such as Underwriters Laboratories (UL) or the Canadian Standards Association (CSA). OSHA's website contains a complete list of nationally recognized testing laboratories.
Although most modern devices are safe when installed and used correctly, they can present risks, especially without proper precautions in place.
It is important for society to understand that they have informative resources to go to. Electrical contractors can be a resource for consumer advice to help minimize electrical shock and fire risks by ensuring these devices and the electrical systems they rely on are properly installed and in good condition.
Electrical contractors can also improve consumer safety by keeping their customers educated about safe device operation and the warning signs to look out for related to new electrical products.
"It comes down to proper installation and use, meaning use the appropriate charger and cable for electronic equipment," Johnston said. "If damage is identified, the smart move is to take the damaged part out of service and replace it with a manufacturer’s recommended and safety compliant replacement."