We all use electricity in our homes every day without thinking about how safe it is. But the campaigning charity Electrical Safety First estimates that around 2.5million of us receive a mains voltage electric shock each year in the UK, with an average 28 fatalities a year.
Ensuring your electrical systems are correctly installed and maintained is an important part of electrical safety. Which? Trusted trader, Steve Daws of SMD Electrical Services Ltd said: ‘I find a lot of lighting products installed by DIYers or unqualified electricians, which pose a real danger of electric shock and fire. Just because something works, doesn’t mean it’s safe.’
Our article on electrical-installation condition reports looks at the regular checks a qualified electrician can perform on your electrical systems. Read on for more tips from our traders on staying safe in your home.
Ensure your fuseboard is up to date
Your fuseboard is the heart of the electrical installation in your home. If the fuses look old, the fusebox is brown or it’s an old plastic model, you may well need to install a new one. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Was your property built after 1990?
- Has your property been rewired within the last 10 years?
- Does your current fusebox have a residual current device (RCD)?
If the answer to these questions is no, then you probably need a new fuseboard (consumer unit). An NICEIC approved or Which? Trusted Traders endorsed electrician will be able to come and assess your fuseboard free of charge, to let you know whether it is safe or not. If you do need a new fuseboard, you should expect to pay around £500 – costs could be higher if the installation is complex.
Install and test your residual-current devices (RCDs)
What is a residual-current device (RCD)?
An RCD is a safety device that helps protect against electric shock or fire by interrupting the flow of electricity when it detects a fault. RCDs are very sensitive and should be installed on your fuseboard to provide the greatest protection. You can also find RCD switches on sockets, as well as on portable devices that can be plugged into standard sockets.
Fitting RCDs into fuseboards across all circuits has been part of the UK safety standard since 2008. Current regulations say all socket outlets should be covered by a 30amp RCD. If you’ve got any installations outside or in the bathroom, an RCD is essential. If you don’t have one on the circuit when you’re using a lawnmower or other electrical products outside, ensure there's an RCD on the flex cable to protect you if the cable is accidentally cut.
If your wiring was installed before 2008, or has not been checked recently, it’s worth getting a qualified electrician in to ensure you have the necessary RCDs on your circuits. You can find an endorsed electrician in your area with Which? Trusted Traders.
Testing your RCDs
You should test your RCDs yourself regularly.
Trader tip: Grants Electrical Services Ltd’s Martin Grant says: ‘The advice used to be to test once a quarter, but now we’d say test your RCD’s monthly, because they can fail if the contacts seize up and won’t open. '
- Press the button marked 'T' on the device.
- If it doesn’t automatically switch to the off position, you need to get a qualified electrician to check it.
Check your smoke alarms aren't out of date
Smoke alarms are only designed to last around 10 years, as they contain components that are unlikely to work effectively after that time. Which? Trusted trader Justin Bucknell, of Justin Bucknell Electrical, told us his team is often called out to service smoke alarms that are no longer in date.
He said: ‘You should look for a small white label with black writing on the side of the smoke detector itself, which gives the expiry date. On older models, you may find the date on the inside or under the battery. If you can’t find a date, get it checked by an electrician.’
N E Electrical Services’ Nigel Male recommends testing your mains connected smoke detectors every time the clocks go back. If there is a battery in the unit you should ‘change the battery every 12 months to ensure it’s always sufficiently charged.’
Don’t let lights cause heat damage
Several of our Which? Trusted traders mentioned installing LED lighting as a cost saver. Not only do LED lights use less energy than standard ones, but they also are less likely to overheat.
N E Electrical Services’ Nigel Male told us: ‘The old halogen downlighters can get very hot. If they’re not installed correctly, they can cause heat damage between the ceiling and floor above, or they can be a fire risk in a fibre-glass ceiling. LED lamps don’t get hot in the same way.’
Similarly, you shouldn’t put loft insulation too close to downlights, or over the top of them, as this can cause them to overheat.
Don’t do DIY on electrical systems
Most of us can manage to change a light bulb without causing too much damage, but it’s always advisable to employ a qualified electrician to fit sockets or undertake other electrical work. If you want to install metal light fittings or switches, ask your electrician to ensure the lighting circuit is properly earthed.
Grants Electrical Services Ltd’s Martin Grant said: ‘By law you have to be competent to fit sockets. It may seem straightforward, but having loose connections can compromise the safety of your installation.’
If you have an electrician visiting your home to check your electrical installation, ask them to check the sockets you use for your home appliances. Bear in mind that some home appliances are more vulnerable to faults than others – always unplug hairdryers and straighteners after use, for example, as regular handling of these devices make them more liable to short circuit.
If an appliance comes with a plug attached, don’t remove the plug’s sealed top. Martin Grant told us about a customer who had an electrical fire at the back of her washing machine because the installers had removed the original plug. Over time, loose connections in the replacement plug short-circuited and melted the socket.
Ensure plugs have the correct fuse for the power rating of the appliance. Simply putting a 13amp fuse in every plug doesn’t work if the fuse needs to be more sensitive. Check the manufacturer’s instructions if you are unsure. But as a general rule, fuses in plugs for appliances rated up to about 700 watts, such as table lamps, televisions, computers, mixers, blenders, fridges, freezers, power drills, jig saws and soldering irons, should have a 3-amp fuse (coloured red).
If you need any checks carried out on your electrical systems, remember you can get a no-obligation quote from a Which? Trusted Traders-endorsed electrician in your area.