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Electrical hazards homeowners need to watch out for

26 Sep 2019

As spring arrives, we all tend to worry less about load shedding and rolling blackouts, but actually the ageing infrastructure in many areas, as well as vandalism, cable theft and lightning storms mean that South African homeowners regularly have to deal with power outages in summer as well as in winter.

Homeowners should regularly check for light bulbs that are the wrong wattage and overloaded plugs or circuits that are often a sign of insufficient capacity.

Gerhard Kotzé, MD of the RealNet estate agency group, says the effects can be more than annoying - they can be dangerous too, and put families at greater risk from electrical hazards and fires.

If the power goes out while you’re cooking, for example, and you forget to turn off your stove, it could overheat and start a fire when the power comes back on and you’re not at home.

Similarly, Kotzé says the surges that are common when power is restored or when lightning strikes could ‘blow’ any appliances that are plugged into an unprotected wall socket and cause a spark, or could even cause an electrical short in your roof, especially if the wiring is old or frayed.

This is why you should always have surge protectors for things like TVs, computers and fridges, and why you should have your electrical system inspected every couple of years to keep your Electrical Certificate of Compliance (ECOC) up to date and valid.

“You really shouldn’t use candles as an alternative light source either, as we have seen all too often how easily they can tip over and start a devastating fire. If it is at all possible you should rather use a torch or rechargeable lantern,” he says.

In addition, you need to check that your security systems will not be disabled during a power outage. Electric gate and garage door motors and burglar alarm systems usually all have backup batteries, but you need to check these regularly to see that they charge properly when the power is on, and replace them if they don’t.

Something else that homeowners don’t always think about during a power outage is the danger of eating food that has spoiled in the fridge or freezer. This will usually not happen if the electricity is only off for a couple of hours, but it could if the outage lasts a few days. In any case, homeowners should try to open fridge or freezer doors as little as possible until the power comes back on.

In addition, Kotzé says it’s a good idea to keep cell phones charged as much as possible when the power is on and use them as little as possible when the power goes off. You may also want to invest in a couple of power banks that will recharge at least one phone during an extended outage. A phone could be your lifeline if an emergency arises.

He says, meanwhile, homeowners should regularly check for other signs of an electrical accident ‘waiting to happen’. These include:

- Receiving even a mild shock when you use any plug, switch or appliance. This indicates that at least part of the system is not properly wired and grounded.

- Flickering or dimming lights - this could indicate a loose connection, an overloaded circuit, improper wiring, or arcing and sparking inside the walls.

- Any plug box, switch plate, cord or plug that is hot or discoloured. If you can't keep your hand on it for more than five seconds, you may have an overload or product malfunction.

- Any smell of burning metal or plastic as this may indicate a loose or broken connection, a malfunctioning switch, overheating components, arcing or sparking inside the walls, a damaged cord or any one of several other potential hazards.

- Any frayed or overheated electrical cords, light bulbs that are the wrong wattage and overloaded plugs or circuits that are often a sign of insufficient capacity.

It’s worth remembering that the SA Occupational Health and Safety Act requires all homeowners and landlords to hold a valid ECOC for the electrical systems on their properties at all times - and to obtain a new one every two years or sooner if any additions or alterations have been made to the electrical system, says Kotzé.

Owners are also required to hold separate safety certification for any electric fencing on their property, and while it is common practice to only obtain these certificates when the property is about to be sold, the potential consequences for those who don’t have them all the time can be very serious.

If a property incurs any damage as a result of an electrical fault, for example, the owners will be required to produce a valid ECOC to validate the claim against their homeowner’s insurance - and could obviously face major financial losses if they do not have one. Failure to obtain an electric fencing certificate, on the other hand, could result in a hefty fine, or even imprisonment for up to a year.

“And of course the worst thing of all would be if someone were injured or killed on your property because your electrical installation was not safe - and you were not even aware that it was dangerous because it had not been properly checked and certified,” says Kotzé.

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