Electricity is a major cause of accidental fires in the UK. With our increasing reliance on electrical appliances, the risk of accidents and fatalities is also increasing. In 2016-17, there were 30,296 fires in the home, almost half of which were caused by faulty cooking appliances. Here’s our guide to minimising the risks in your home and avoiding costly property insurance repairs.
How can I stay safe within my home?
There are a number of things you can do to make sure you understand how the electrics work in your home and ensure that it is safe and properly maintained for you and your family. Here are our top tips:
1. Locate your mains switch and fuse box
Do you know where to turn your electricity off at the mains? The mains switch is usually in the fuse box, which is often in a cupboard in your hallway or under the stairs.
The fuse box, depending on the type you have, usually also allows you to switch off different circuits to different areas. For example, your lighting will be on a different circuit to your sockets and you may have separate circuits for upstairs and downstairs or for different rooms like the bathroom and kitchen. This allows you to isolate specific areas when having electrical work done.
2. Don’t overload sockets and extension leads
Have you got your Wi-Fi router, computer and TV plugged into the same extension lead? Do you use adaptors to connect or charge multiple phones, tablets, kitchen appliances or entertainment systems at once?
We use a lot more electrical appliances in the home than we did even 10 years ago but most of us don’t have enough sockets to accommodate them. If you’re connecting appliances with extension leads and adaptors, you might be overloading the sockets, which is a big fire risk.
Only use adaptors and extension leads for low-current appliances such as computers, radios or TVs. Keep high-current devices that use a lot of power, such as kettles, heaters and irons, on separate sockets and unplug them when not in use. Do not plug one adaptor into another.
Do your best to minimise socket overload and consider having some additional sockets installed by a qualified electrician. These days, you can even get sockets that have separate USB charging points in them, so you can plug in your portable devices separately.
3. Check portable devices
Your portable devices, such as hairdryers, vacuum cleaners, toasters and kettles – as well as phones and tablets – can get damaged through everyday wear and tear. Regularly check them to make sure they’re safe. Electrical Safety First recommends:
- Check the plug is not damaged
- Look for signs of overheating, such as discoloured casing or cable
- Check the plug is marked British Standard BS 1363
- Check the cable sheath is firmly clamped and that no coloured wires are showing
- Check the cable from end to end to see whether it is cut, worn or damaged in any way. Replace the cable rather than try to repair it with insulating tape.
4. Use a qualified electrician
We strongly recommend that you use a trained and qualified electrician to carry out any electrical work for you. Ideally, use someone who is registered as a ‘competent person’ with one of the industry bodies' Competent Person Schemes.
An electrician registered with one of these schemes is assessed regularly to show they have the knowledge, skills and experience to avoid electrical danger to themselves and those for whom they’re carrying out the work.
You can search the Registered Competent Person database on the Electrical Safety First website to find a registered electrician near you.
Some electrical work in your home is notifiable under the Building Regulations. This means your local authority building control must be told about the work. By using an electrician registered with one of the Competent Person schemes, they will be able to notify the work for you and give you the relevant certificate.
A special note about bathrooms
The bathroom is the most dangerous room in the house for electrical safety. Any electrical work carried out in the bathroom is notifiable under the Building Regulations (see above). The only socket allowed is a shaver-socket. Light fittings should be enclosed and you must have a pull-cord switch or a light switch located outside the bathroom door. Any type of heating must be fixed and permanently wired.
5. Have regular wiring checks
Get your property’s wiring and electrical systems checked regularly to ensure they are in good working order. Arrange a periodic inspection from a qualified electrician (recommended at least every 10 years if you are an owner-occupier or every 5 years for rented accommodation), who will look at the condition of the cables, switches and sockets and give you advice on whether they need to be replaced.
In between periodic inspections, keep an eye on plugs and sockets. If these are damaged they can cause shocks, burns and even fires. Listen out for unusual buzzing sounds, check the fuses and circuit-breakers and get damaged cables or plugs replaced immediately. Only use plugs with the British Standard safety mark. These are fitted with insulating sleeves which make them much safer.
6. Check the age of your wiring
Old wiring is much more likely to become faulty and is one of the main causes of electrical fire. Your electrician will advise on wiring age when he carries out a periodic inspection but it is easy to tell how old some electrics are just by looking at them.
Wall-mounted light switches in bathrooms, sockets in skirting boards, round light switches, braided flex and round pin sockets have not been used since the 1950s. Cables coated in fabric, leather or black rubber, or fuse boards with wooden backs haven’t been used since the 1960s.
If you have any of these, it’s time to get them checked as they may need to be replaced.
Other tips to avoid electrical danger
- Unplug appliances before attempting to carry out maintenance
- Never try to clear a blockage in a toaster using a metal knife. There are live parts inside the toaster which could cause an electric shock
- If drying laundry on an electric heater, check that water is not dripping onto any live parts. If ventilation openings are covered, the heater could overheat or cause electric shock
- Don’t drill into a wall unless you know what’s behind it. Electrical cables, gas and water pipes can be concealed there. You can buy a wire detector to check your wall for hidden wires and cables before drilling into it.
- When using electrical equipment outside, use an RCD (residual current device) to protect against risks, which will switch off the electricity supply automatically if there’s a fault.