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Electrical Safety Questions & Answers


General | Plugs | GFCI | Extension Cords | Circuit Breakers



What are the latest statistics on residential electrical injuries?

According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), statistics indicate there are 40,000 residential fires annually which are caused by problems with electrical wiring systems, claiming more than 350 lives, causing thousands of injuries from electric shocks and burns, and resulting in over $2 billion in personal property damage.

Additionally, electrical cords and plugs were involved in about 7,100 fires resulting in 120 deaths, or about 32 percent of all deaths associated with residential electrical system fires, occurring each year. By comparison, lamps and light fixtures were involved in about 8,900 fires and 60 deaths; switches and outlets are involved in 4,700 fires and 30 deaths. In addition, about 3,000 people are treated for injuries associated with extension cords.

How can consumers help protect themselves from electrical-related injuries?

Consumers should check for problems in their home electrical systems. Check outlets and extension cords to make sure they aren't overloaded. Examine electrical cords to make sure they aren't frayed, damaged or placed under rugs or carpets. Make sure that proper wattage light bulbs are being used in light fixtures and lamps. Consider installing ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs). One of the most important precautions consumers can take is to test their smoke detectors and replace smoke detector batteries semi-annually.

Consumers should always follow appropriate safety precautions and manufacturer's instructions.

If you have an old house – with old wiring – how do you know if repairs are necessary? How expensive and costly can such repairs be?

Electrical systems age and can be overloaded, particularly in older homes. Over the years as more lighting, appliances, and equipment are added, the electrical systems becomes overburdened and problems can develop.


If fuses blow or circuit breakers protecting branch circuits trip frequently, new branch circuits or other repairs may be necessary. Dependent on the condition of the equipment and the extent of the repairs, the cost may be nominal or could run into several thousand dollars. A qualified electrician can determine if repairs are necessary and can estimate the cost.



How does a three-prong plug work? What's the benefit of using it?

The third prong on a plug provides a path to ground for electricity that is straying or leaking from a product. This helps protect the equipment and can help prevent electric shock.

How does a polarized plug work? What's the benefit of using it?

A polarized plug is a plug with one large or wide prong and one narrow one. It ensures that the plug is inserted correctly in a socket and reduces the risk of electrical shock.




What is a GFCI?

A GFCI is an electronic device for protecting people from serious injury due to electric shock.

How does a GFCI work?

GFCIs constantly monitor electricity flowing in a circuit. If the electricity flowing into the circuit differs by even a slight amount from that returning, the GFCI will quickly shut off the current flowing through that circuit. The advantage of using GFCIs is that they can detect even small variations in the amount of current flowing through an electrical product, even amounts too small to activate a fuse or circuit breaker. GFCIs work quickly, so they can help protect consumers from severe electric shocks and electrocution.

If a GFCI is working, is there any danger of electric shock?
Even if a GFCI is working properly, people can still be shocked. However, a GFCI can act quickly to prevent electrocution.

Do all GFCIs work in the same manner?

All GFCIs work in the same manner to protect people against ground faults. However, unlike the receptacle GFCI, the circuit breaker type GFCI also provides overload protection for an entire circuit, which can consist of several outlets.

If an appliance has a built-in shock protector, is an additional GFCI necessary?

Appliances that have built-in shock protectors, as now required for hair dryers, may not need additional GFCI protection. However, other unprotected appliances still need GFCI protection.

Can consumers install GFCIs?

Consumers are encouraged to use a qualified electrician to install circuit breaker-type GFCIs. Individuals familiar with electrical wiring practices, who can follow the instructions accompanying the device, may be able to install receptacle-type GFCIs. Otherwise, these devices should also be installed by an electrician or other knowledgeable person. The portable GFCI requires no special knowledge or equipment to install.

What is the big plug now found on such appliances as hair dryers?
The large box-like device found on the ends of some appliance cords could be an appliance leakage circuit interrupter (ALCI), an immersion detection circuit interrupter (IDCI), or a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI).

They work in different ways; but they are all intended to shut off the power to an appliance under an abnormal condition such as immersion of the appliance in liquid. Just because you have an appliance with one of these devices, it doesn't mean that is okay to drop the appliance in water and retrieve it while it is plugged in. The rule that "electricity and water don't mix" still applies.

If the product has a three-prong grounding type plug, is a GFCI still necessary?

GFCIs are necessary even if the product has a third wire to ground it. GFCIs provide very sensitive protection for consumers against electric shock hazards. Under some conditions, a shock hazard could still exist even if a product has a grounding wire.




What size extension cords should a consumer use? How can you tell if an extension cord is appropriate for the intended use?

Before purchasing an extension cord, consumers should consider how the cord will be used. Make sure the rating on the cord is the same as or higher than the number of watts needed by the product that will be plugged into the cord. Extension cords should never be used as a substitute for permanent wiring.




Are there any benefits to using circuit breakers instead of fuses?

The main difference between circuit breakers and fuses is that circuit breakers can be reset while fuses operate only once and then must be replaced. If your breakers trip or fuses blow repeatedly, call an electrician because you may have a problem with your electrical system.




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