Annually, thousands of accidental fires in UK homes are caused by faulty electrical systems. In a typical year, around 7% of fire-related fatalities are due to issues with ‘electrical distribution and appliances’, a figure which rose to 37% in 2017-18 due to the Grenfell Tower disaster.
With households acquiring more electrical appliances than ever before, some domestic electrical systems eventually prove unfit for purpose - chiefly because they are unable to handle the electrical load, or use outdated technology.
Using a qualified electrician
Any electrical installation work in your home should be carried out by a qualified electrician. You can find government-approved electricians by visiting www.electricalcompetentperson.co.uk. Any individual registered with this scheme works to the British Standard for electrical safety (BS 7671). Entry requirements are strict and take into account a person's qualifications, knowledge, skills, experience and insurance policies. This scheme operates in a similar way to the Gas Safe Register for boiler engineers.
To make an electrical circuit function is straightforward, but to make it function safely with a view to future demands, requires a skilled professional.
Understanding your property's electrical system
You can turn off your home's entire electrical supply by flipping the main switch, located on the consumer unit (also known as the fusebox). However, in some cases, you may have more than one main switch. For example, if you have electric storage heaters, it may have a separate main switch. Because you may need to turn off the electricity in an emergency, the main switch is, or should be, easy to get to.
Older properties whose electrical systems have not been updated usually feature re-wirable fuses. These work by melting when an overload current flows through the fuse wire, protecting the circuit from overloading.
Circuit breakers are installed in newer homes and perform a similar function to fuses. However, they are more precise and when they trip, they can be reset. But crucially, the electrical fault must be pinpointed and resolved before a reset takes place.
Is your wiring getting too old?
Many electrical fires are caused by old or outdated electrical wiring and equipment. This includes cables, sockets, switches and other electrical accessories.
Older wiring and fuse boxes - the signs
- Black rubber coated cables (last installed in the 1960s)
- Lead- or fabric-coated cables (installed before the 1960s)
- A fuse box of partial wood construction, or featuring a variety of fuse components. Cast iron switches are another sign the fuse box is past its best.
- Brown and black (bakolite) light switches and sockets, some of which are fitted directly into skirting boards (pre-1960s).
- Sockets with round pin holes and round light switches (pre-1960s).
- Light switches fitted inside bathrooms. This presents obvious electrocution risks.
Reasons why a circuit breaker or fuse 'trips' or 'blows'
- Electrical circuit overload
Too many appliances drawing electricity from the system
- Short circuit fault
This is when there is contact between a neutral and a live conductor, drawing a current many times higher than the rated value. The applicable circuit breaker or fuse will 'trip' or 'blow', thereby preventing any damage to electrical appliances.
- Ground fault
When a live conductor connects with a conductive surface that is not inside the circuit.
- Incorrect breaker for the application
If a piece of equipment draws a current above that permitted by the given circuit breaker, the breaker will 'trip' and the appliance will be immediately disconnected from the electricity supply.
- Using welding machines and motor-powered devices
Sometimes an appliance is plugged into a system which draws far more current than the system has been designed for, casing the corresponding breaker to trip.
Signs your plugs, sockets and flexible cables are not safe.
- Check for burn marks on plugs and sockets. Call an electrician if they are present.
- Replace any damaged cables.
- Use plugs displaying the British Standard safety mark.
- Take care when removing plugs; pulling out plugs by the cable could damage the plug's wiring, which may overheat it, potentially causing a shock if the earth wire is not connected.
Adapters and extensions
Most modern homes have an adequate number of plug sockets. However, some households need additional outlets for the number of appliances they own. An adapter or extension appears to be the obvious solution, but in reality these can overheat, posing a fire risk. They can also lead to the overloading of circuits.
Use them safely:
- Never plug adapters into other adapters.
- Never buy low quality/cheap adapters.
- Never overload adapters. Use low-current equipment like TVs and PCs. Avoid irons and kettles, which draw much higher current.
Installing extra sockets
A safer and more convenient alternative to adapters and extensions is to install additional sockets. Once again, ensure any installation work is carried out by a qualified professional.
Electrical safety in rented homes
If you rent a property, your landlord is required by law to ensure wiring and any provided electrical equipment are safe.
Whether your landlord takes the form of a housing association, council or private property owner, this legal requirement stands.
Your landlord should arrange for an electrical inspection before you move in, and have regular checks carried out on the wiring and any appliances - such as cookers, washing machines, fridges and freezers.