I feel very strongly about electrical and fire safety at home. There are measures that can be put in place to protect your family from potential danger.
I have been an electrician for 13 years. I own and run an electrical contracting and have 14 people work for me. I am a member of the IET and have various additional qualifications to my name that I won't bore you trying to explain what they are.
Since the terrible Grenfell Tower fire, my phone has not stopped ringing and my inbox is full of emails asking for advice and for various works to be carried out. I feel we all need further educating on electrical and fire safety at home which is straight forward, and could potential save somebody's life.
1) How safe are your electrics?
How do you know your electrics are safe?
The truth is, nobody can just look at your electrics and tell you that they are safe. It might give you an idea, but the only way is to have them tested by a competent electrician. It is important to ensure they are safe because electricity can kill by electric shock and cause fires.
If your home was recently fully rewired, it is recommended to be checked for safety 10 years after the completion of the installation. But if your installation or part of it is older, it may be overdue for a check.
One way of checking for safety is to have an electrical installation condition report. It isn’t something that can be carried out by yourself. Electricity isn’t just a case of if it works, it's okay. It is more complicated than that.
This report consists of :
1. A Visual Inspection: The electrician will survey the electrical installation before they commence with the testing.
2. Dead Testing: Continuity testing to see if there are any badly connected conductors, Insulation resistance testing, and Polarity testing - to check that the connections are connected in the right sequence.
3. Live Testing: An Earth fault loop test to see what would happen if a fault did occur, and RCD testing to see how the system reacts when electricity is missing from a circuit (e.g. what would happen if a person was receiving an electric shock).
The test engineer will compile an observation list which will show you any defects. They will be coded C1, C2, C3 or FI depending on how unsafe they are.
- A C3 item is something that isn't necessarily immediately unsafe but doesn't meet current standards.
- C2 is something that is unsafe and requires attention.
- C1 is something that is urgent and highly recommended to be rectified straight away. FI stands for further investigation and this might be if you have a fault that requires fault finding works. You should consider having FI items rectified as the fault could potentially be dangerous.
If your report has any code C1 or C2 items, it is unsatisfactory installation. If it has just code C3 items, it can be satisfactory although I recommend you consider rectifying these items.
You can ask your electrician for a remedial quotation to repair all items. You aren't obligated to carry out any of the work but how can you justify being told that your electrics are unsafe and ignore it? You could ask for code C1 and C2 items only to be rectified and not C3 but I always recommend you consider all items.
Owning vs Renting
The frequency of testing in your home varies depending on if you own it or if it is rental.
If you own it, it is recommended that it is tested when you move in and no longer than 10 years. If your property is rented, it is recommended to be tested before you move in and every 5 years. However, this is a guide and the inspector may choose different period depending on the state of your electrics and circumstance.
Personally, I feel 10 years is far too long because a lot can happen in 10 years. Sockets and switches can be damaged, especially with kids running around. Lights can start slowly showing signs of deterioration. A landlord has an obligation to ensure the electrics are safe before you move in and for the duration of your tenancy. If you have any queries, you should contact them. They should also make the report available should you wish to see it.
Choosing an Electrician
When choosing to engage an electrician, please don't just choose anyone because they say they are an electrician. This is a common mistake. There are various certificating bodies such as the NICEIC, Napit and Elecsa who audit electricians work.
- Checking they are registered with a body is the first step.
- But also look for reviews by other people such as do they turn up on time, their professionalism, how tidy they are. These things are important because a good company will tick all the boxes.
- Testing also requires further qualifications such as the City and Guilds 2391 or 2395.
- An electrician who just installs may not necessarily be competent to complete your report. Ask for their qualifications. If you asked me for mine, I’d happily send them over to you via email.
How much does the report cost?
I always get asked how much an electrical condition report costs. It massively varies from where you are in the UK, the size of your house and how many circuits you have. As a guide near London, I’d say a ballpark for a 3-bedroom house would be £180 to £250 plus VAT. The work takes about 4 hours at your home plus a couple of hours typing up an electronic report that can be emailed to you.
Please don't think the cheapest company is the best, it usually isn't. You get what you pay for so use your initiative, recommendation from others and gut instinct when choosing a company.
I have found that in general, home owners tend not to have their electrics tested at the recommended intervals but just remember that you don’t know your electrics are safe to use just by looking at them. You can’t see electricity. I appreciate it is all additional cost which maybe a struggle for the average family, but you can’t put a cost on life.
If you have questions about how to choose an electrician, please feel free to contact me.
2) Do you have fire alarms?
It astonishes me how little number of UK homes I visit do not have sufficient fire alarm . Four out of Five homes I personally visited last year didn’t. Unfortunately, many people only seem to react once there is a problem. Often it is too late.
Why do you need fire alarms?
This may seem like an obvious answer, but many people seem to ignore this topic as if a fire wouldn’t happen in their home.
There are different grades and categories of fire alarm systems. Grades vary from a full blown commercial fire alarm panel that you’d see in a school to the battery alarms that you see in the local DIY store. The category dictates where the alarms should be sited in your property. The minimum is on escape routes only such as the top and bottom of the stairs to systems where there is detection in every room.
Which grade and category do you need?
Good question. There isn’t a definitive answer to this because all properties have different risks. For example, the important thing when a fire occurs is for you to be alerted and for you to get out if necessary.
Obviously, a high-rise building sustains higher risk than a bungalow with several doors leading outside. Either way, you still need to be alerted there is a fire because you could be asleep.
- You can ask your local fire and rescue team for advice. They won’t just cover fire alarms but will also provide valuable information about general fire safety in the home.
- Your insurance company may also require a minimum level of fire detection. If you do not meet their requirement, your insurance could be invalid so make sure you check that.
- There are various guidelines on which category and grade you require but it often comes down a site-specific risk assessment.
Some publications recommend having as a minimum a smoke alarm on each level of the property but I personally do not feel this is enough. You should consider having them in kitchens, living rooms and even bedrooms.
You can of course buy battery smoke alarms from your local DIY shop but please don’t just buy the cheapest model. You can buy 10-year sealed battery units which will last longer but costs a little more. I personally do not recommend anybody fits a fire alarm system themselves as easy as it may seem because if you fit an alarm in the incorrect place, it may not function correctly when a fire occurs.
In this instance, I recommend you talk to a recommended fire alarm company in your area.
The difference between you fitting battery alarms yourself and a professional company carrying out the work is that the professional company will take responsibility of the and more than likely install a far superior system. You can have very simple systems that are fed off the mains electrical circuit with battery back-up and all alarms are linked together so when one is set off, it alerts everywhere oppose to just one sounding. This is vital because a fire can spread quickly so it will alert people within the building quicker. Some insurers and risk assessors will specify this. The low-cost battery alarms you buy from the local DIY store won’t have this function.
If you live in a rented accommodation your landlord will be responsible for your system and normally the requirements are stricter, particularly in HMO properties and blocks of flats. You are perfectly within your rights to ask for certification of the system installed and raise any concerns you may have.
Whatever the system you have, it is important to have it tested. Each system may be a little different to test but if it is either the battery alarms or main alarms with battery back-up you usually press the test button on the unit.
Make sure it sounds for a few seconds. If your alarm is interlinked to other alarms in the house, make sure the one you press sets the others off.
It is straight forward as that to make sure they work. Always follow the guidance on maintenance by the contractor who installed them as some more complex system require bi-annual and annual maintenance.
- If your alarm beeps, it may need a battery change or if it is a mains alarm with battery back-up, it may be that the power has failed. The beep is a warning. It is annoying to make you act.
- Please do not remove a smoke alarm from the ceiling, take the battery out and leave it. It won’t work if a fire occurs!!!
- Always ensure you keep instructions as they will give you a list of actions you can take yourself. The instructions will also give you maintenance instructions such as cleaning the alarms which will help reduce false alarms and contamination.
- If in doubt, contact either the manufacturer or consult a reputable fire alarm company.
Removing the alarm
One of the main reasons my clients have removed alarms is due to false alarms as frequent activation has been a nuisance and caused distress because let’s face it – they are LOUD!
This is further the case with parents with babies because we all want to sleep without annoying beeps or alarms. If your alarm is going off regularly, it could need replacing, cleaning or re-locating.
You wouldn’t fit a smoke alarm in a shower room or a kitchen. You would have a heat in the kitchen which isn’t activated by smoke or steam and you would place a smoke alarm outside of a shower room. There is always a method of reducing false alarms oppose to removing the alarm. Speak to your fire alarm company. A large part of maintenance is ensuring reduction of false alarms because it very simply creates complacency and complacency can kill. Apologies for the bluntness but if you knew a simple fire alarm system could save your life, you should take that option.
3. Are you using child safe plug socket covers?
Retailers market and sell little plug socket covers as child safe essentials but they can do exactly the opposite and make the sockets unsafe.
It seems like an obvious safety feature – you have a socket that is live - so you put a plastic cover in the socket to stop your child getting an electric shock.
However, sockets don’t need them.
The construction of sockets built to British standard BS1363 which was introduced in 1947 requires the socket to have shutters on the bottom two pin holes which are the live parts of the socket.
So, without anything inserted in the socket, these holes are closed. Nothing can enter. The only time something can enter is when the top pin hole has a pin inserted which opens the shutters. The plug is perfectly shaped and designed which is safe to use along with the socket. The socket just an open hole exposing live fatal parts.
Is there a safety standard to plug socket covers?
There is no British Standard that plug socket covers need to be made to. Therefore, they can be made to whatever size, shape or material.
There is no official organisation approving the manufacturing of them. Sometimes they are made larger than a normal plug. This can damage the socket by bending the metal parts inside the socket. When this happens, you get heat build-up within the socket which can lead to it burning out which in turn can cause a fire! If the plug socket cover is too small, it can open the shutters but still allow access to the live parts.
The Department of Education also recently advised against them. It makes sense, why would you use something that could cause danger if used, and not cause danger if not used?
I urge that that you don’t buy or use these as they are completely unnecessary. Carrying out electrical safety checks as per the above will highlight any dangers with any socket in your home so you can continue using your sockets like normal.
I hope this has been a useful read for you to keep fire safe at home.