We go to great lengths to make homes safe electrically.
The truth is, for both electric shock and fire, we have actually done a very good job. With all we have done however, our home’s electrical systems are only “safer”---not “safe.”
The reason why they will never be 100% safe is because all electrical components are subject to failure due to age, wear, fatigue and abuse. Sometimes components are just “lemons” as well. It seems almost weekly we hear about some recall of the electronic components within our homes.
In order to add a layer of protection to systems that experience age, wear, fatigue and abuse, we create safeguards that can themselves be subject to the same issues.
While installing AFCI devices or GFCI devices or Tamper Resistant Receptacles to our electrical systems to create layers of safety, we still must be aware of their limitations.
For example a GFCI that never gets tested until you wished that it worked has not made you any safer at all.
Manufacturers recommend that AFCI devices and GFCI devices be tested monthly and yet a study done by the CPSC showed that nearly 1/3 of persons surveyed indicated they did not know how to test them. In many cases the only time they likely get tested is when they have to be reset or when the home is part of a real estate transaction.
But every problem has a solution waiting to happen, so the next generation of GFCI’s will test themselves. It is becoming a question of who tests the tester testing the tester’s tester?
Now we come to obviousness.
Like I said, it is implicit with electrical components that we can only make them safer---not safe. Far more important to the failure of electrical components than “age, wear and fatigue,” is ABUSE. Under abuse we lump all the things homeowners and other unqualified, untrained, inexperienced persons do to their electrical systems.
It is not practical to design safety features that will cover every single thing that these creative geniuses can come up with. Sometimes it is simple "mechanical damage" to an electrical component that makes the wiring a hazard.
Can we really expect some electrical gadget built into our electrical system to protect us from the damage present in the picture above? Why did it not register with the person that damaged this receptacle, who then picked the pieces up and threw them in the trash, that perhaps a danger existed that should be addressed?
I am not a fan of the concept of “common sense.”
I think common sense is largely an illusion made up by those that think they have common sense.
I see it entirely as a failure of our educational system, a failure of the educational system to teach us the basic things we need to know to be safe in the world we live in. In the past it was easier to stay connected to the basics because we grew up in a more natural type of educational system—the world around us was our educational system that was more in sinc with the classroom we also went to.
There was someone standing next to us advising against feeding a horse a lump of sugar from our finger tips. It should not have been a “blood-sacrifice” for Tom Hanks to make fire in Castaway, but I bet for most of us it would be. Few of us would have the type of common sense it would take to survive as a feral child in Brazil. We are lucky for that. So you see, common sense is “relative.” Few of us would need, or want to need, the “common sense” of a Rambo—but amongst his peers his skills would be essential.
But let’s come back to the broken receptacle pictured above.
Come on people!
Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle
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WA State, Home Inspector Advisory Licensing Board