There is no doubt that electricity is one of Mankind’s finest invention. Before the nineteenth century, electricity was a phenomenon only seen in thunderclouds. Now we live in an age where we cannot imagine life without electricity.
Think about it!
From the moment we wake up to the end of the day; our alarm clock, our phone, our laptop, our television and our washing machine, almost everything is powered by electricity. But most people forget that electricity is a double-edged sword.
We are tapping into a great but still a very dangerous power source. While electricity powers almost all our machinery and devices, electric shocks and fires are one of the most widespread and common disasters all over the globe.
Physics behind Electricity
Electricity in its most basic understanding is just the flow of electrical charges.
Most know that all elements are made of electron, protons, and neutrons. Electrons have a negative charge, protons have a positive charge while neutrons are neutral.
Without going way over your head, I will try to simplify how electricity works.
Electrons having a negative charge and protons having positive charge works under the common phrase that “Opposites attract, likes repel”.
This means that an electron, when brought near another electron, will repel each other. In the same way, when a proton is brought near another proton, they will repel each other.
Inversely, when a proton and an electron are brought together, they will attract each other. Using this phenomenon as a basis, we can understand the physics behind electricity.
Current (I) is a measure of the amount of charge (electron) that flows.
Voltage (V) is the potential difference, ie the push behind the current.
Resistance (R) is the ability of any material to resist the push (Voltage) and slow the flow (Current).
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Why do shocks happen?
To understand the physics behind why electrical shocks and fire happens, we must first learn a very important physics law called the Ohm’s Law.
Don’t let the complex word fool you. Ohm’s law just means that the amount of current passing through is determined by the voltage while limited by the resistance.
This means that the more voltage there is, the greater the amount of electricity that is passing through.
Similarly, the more the resistance of an object, the less the amount of electricity passing through.
For those of you who are versed in mathematical symbols; the Ohm’s Law basically means:
I = V/R
So this means that when we get in contact with live wires, our body acts as a resistor with the high potential difference produced between the high voltage wire and the neutral ground.
This means that provided there is a high voltage difference, a huge amount of current is passing through our body from the wire to the ground.
This is the cause of electrical shock.
It is usually the high current passing through our body that is classified as the shock. Provided that the current is high enough, we can go to cardiac arrest or even instant death.
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How it causes Fires?
Now we have all seen movies where electrical short circuits cause an electrical fire. Well surprise, surprise, this is not true. Most cases of electrical short circuit results in just a faulty device, not sparks and fires. Most electrical devices have a circuit breaker with magnetic safety. This ensures that the electrical device circuit is broken before current reaches a high value.
Without going too much into the physics behind the specific instances where electrical circuits cause electrical fires, just know that all electricity, when met with resistance, produces heat.
This is the reason why your chargers, refrigerators and television becomes hot to touch after prolonged usage.
So, Electrical fire only happen when an electrical source delivers enough energy to cause sufficient overheating to start a fire before any protection elements (circuit breaker) breaks the circuit.
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Prevention Method :
The best prevention for electrical shock and electrical fires is to have proper maintenance for all your electrical plugs, outlets, and cords.
- Ensure that all your electrical outlets are fitted tightly to the wall
- Please do check all the electrical outlets you have in your home. Make sure that they are all tightly fitted to the wall with no loose plugs or broken wall plates.
- These loose plugs and broken wall plates are high shocks and fire hazard. Call your local electrician to have these fixed ASAP.
- If you have young children at your home, it is a great idea to invest in protective covers for your outlets. This will prevent any potential accidents.
- Do not tamper with your electrical plugs
- Please understand that there is a reason why your electrical plugs are designed the way it is. There are numerous cases of people removing the third pin of a plug to fit into their outlet. Never do this!
- Do not bend or twist the pins of a plug. If your plug pins are bent, it is high time for you to invest into a new plug.
- Do not force your plug into the outlet. Also do not pull on the cord as it may lead to tear and wear. This increases the risk of electrical fires.
- Place high attention to the state of your wires
- Ensure that all electrical cords and wires in your home are not frayed or cracked. If they are, stop using them and replace them with new cords as soon as possible.
- Please make sure that the your electrical cord and your plugs are connected properly with no wear or tear.
- Do not place wires near/under your carpet. Broken/frayed wires can cause fire when in contact with your carpet.
- Ensure that your electrical wires are placed in low traffic area, where there is less probability of them being stepped upon.
- Make sure you are using your appliances the way they were meant to be used
- Please do follow the manufacturer’s instruction on safe usage of electrical appliances. Never use defective appliances and get them inspected on a regular basis.
- Make sure you use the right bulb that matches the watts of the socket. Most fail to check these minor details but they are high electrical hazards should you use bulbs improperly.
- Proper maintenance of old houses
- Most people do not know that all electrical wirings should be checked every 10 years. So if you are renting/bought a new home, make sure that all your wirings have been checked.
- Ensure that you hire qualified electricians to do the checking of your electrical wirings. Check if your circuit breakers and fuse are working properly, check for loose wire as well as confirm your electrical service capacity.
In the UK, more than half the cases of house fire is due to electrical fires. While the prevention tips I have mentioned covers most of the common reasons for electrical fires, do remember that proper vigilance is your best bet.
Do take note of any flickering/dimming light bulbs and have them checked. As long as you pay attention, you will find that the highest fire hazards usually have a tell. Whether it be switches that are hot to the touch, sparks and buzzing sounds from certain outlets or fuses that short constantly, be vigilant and you will be able to prevent electrical shocks or fires.
Complacency is the enemy of safety. Be vigilant and be safe.