Electrical safety is a shared, ongoing responsibility and while you may not be an electrician, inspector, facility manager, or engineer, or have a copy of the National Electrical Code®, NFPA 70, you can play an active role in helping to ensure electrical systems safely provide power for the myriad of uses we so heavily rely on.
The theme of this year’s National Electrical Safety Month is “Understanding the Code that Keeps Us Safe”. This “Code” of course is the National Electrical Code® or the NEC, the most widely known acronym in the electrical industry. Since 1897, the Code has provided electrical installation requirements that safeguard persons and property against the “hazards arising from the use of electricity”. Every time you flip a switch, turn on an appliance or plug in the power supply for your computer or phone, the expectation is that electrical power will be delivered safely. On a daily basis millions of people interact with electrical systems in their homes and workplaces with the vast majority of these interactions occurring without incident. The safety record is so good that most people take the use of electricity for granted and do not fully appreciate all of the work that is done “behind the curtain” nor do they realize that they can play an important role in ensuring that the system remains safe.
Trained installers, qualified inspectors, certified electrical products and the NEC installation requirements are all factors in providing the end user with a safe electrical system. However, once the end product of the installers, inspectors, product testing organizations and standards development organizations is turned over to the property owner in the form of a properly functioning, safe electrical installation, their work is complete. Now the responsibility to ensure that the electrical system remains free from hazard is that of the property owner, whether it is a single-family home, a high-rise commercial building, a hospital or a manufacturing plant. In the commercial and industrial sectors, insurance, accreditation, and occupational safety requirements help drive the ongoing safety of the building’s electrical system, but regardless of the occupancy type, the property owner is a stakeholder in electrical safety whether it is for employees or family members.
The first section of the NEC speaks to the purpose of the Code. It states that the Code “contains provisions necessary for safety” and then goes on to say that “compliance therewith and proper maintenance result in an installation that is essentially free from hazard.…” Compliance is most typically the result of the work performed by a trained installer and inspected by a qualified inspector. The next piece of that statement concerning the proper maintenance is where the property owner becomes part of the safety equation.
The electrical system in your home, if installed in accordance with the most recent edition of the NEC, is highly reliable and is equipped with the most up-to-date safety features. While a large part of the system is behind the wall coverings and cannot be accessed for observation, there are devices protecting that wiring that are accessible for observation and periodic testing.
Since the 1971 edition of the NEC, devices known as ground-fault circuit-interrupters (GFCIs) have been required to protect receptacles (commonly referred to by owners as "outlets") in various locations inside and outside of a home where there is a higher vulnerability to electrical shock. These locations include bathrooms, kitchens, garages, laundry areas, basement, outdoors, swimming pools and other locations where there is a greater risk of electrical shock. GFCIs can be recognized by the “Test” and “Reset” buttons on the receptacle type and by a “Test” button on the circuit breaker type. The instructions provided by the manufacturers of these devices indicate that in order to ensure they are functioning properly the test button should be operated on a monthly basis. After pushing the test button ascertain that there is no power at that GFCI and at any other devices or equipment protected downstream from that GFCI. Determining that there is no power can be accomplished through the use of a small cord-and plug-connected appliance, lamp or tool that gives you clear indication that the power is off at that outlet. The reset button is then used to restore normal operation. This test is a simple procedure and can be done by anyone, but is essential in making sure your electrical system continues to provide the enhanced level of shock protection that GFCIs afford.
GFCIs are not limited to residential occupancies only, there are many other NEC required locations where GFCI protection is specified. So the question is, if the subject matter experts who participate in the NEC development process have determined that this protection is needed, don’t you owe it to your family, friends, employees or customers to make sure these devices continue to provide the same enhanced level of protection against electrical shock as the day they were first installed.
Another protective device for homes, dormitories and the guest rooms and suites of hotels and motels is the arc-fault circuit-interrupter (AFCIs). Also found in the form of receptacles and circuit breakers these devices are similar in appearance to GFCIs but provide an enhanced level of fire protection due to electrical arcing rather than shock protection. The test protocol for AFCIs is essentially the same as with GFCIs…push the test button, make sure power to all protected outlets is interrupted and then reset to restore power. The test interval for these devices is also monthly. As with GFCIs, this testing is simple and does not require any special electrical knowledge. It is really no different than making sure your smoke alarms are functional by pushing the testing button.
Visual observation of damaged electrical equipment such as enclosure covers that are missing or do not close properly, cords that have a missing ground pin and damaged outer covering, receptacles that will not hold the plug end of the cord tightly are typically items that indicate the original level of safety afforded by the equipment has been compromised. And always remember, if the complexity of the repair or replacement is at a level where you do not have the proper training or equipment, get a professional to do it. You owe it to yourself and others using the system to make sure repairs restore the equipment to the same level of safety as when it was first installed.
So in parting, I urge you to be an active participant in National Electrical Safety Month not only in May, but every month of the year, and to share this information with friends and family. There are a lot of things that you, even if you are not an electrical professional, can do to be proactive about electrical safety. Most of us have others that depend on what we do to ensure their safety. So use this month as a reminder that your electrical system, likely the most heavily used system in your home or business (24/7/365), requires certain levels maintenance and/or periodic testing in order for it to provide the same level of safety as when it was first installed. Think of it as something you do on a regular basis, like maintaining your car!
The NEC statement on maintenance is vitally important to making sure that people and property continue to be safeguarded from electrical hazards long after the inspectors have given the certificate of occupancy to the property owner. Remember, just because electrical equipment is working, does not necessarily ensure that it is working safely!