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THE SENSIBLE HOME : How to Guard Against Electrocution

August 06, 1995|JAMES DULLEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; James Dulley is a Cincinnati-based engineering consultant

QUESTION: I hear many people are electrocuted by tiny ground faults that don't trip circuit breakers. I cannot afford an electrician. What can I install, that won't push up my electric bills, to protect my family?

ANSWER: More than 220 people are electrocuted every year and 70% of these deaths are caused by ground faults (tiny short circuits). Another 700 people die each year in residential fires caused by electrical problems.

Even though an old drill, hair dryer, etc. still runs fine, insulation may be worn inside. If your feet are grounded in a damp area, a tiny current leak can make your hand muscles uncontrollably grip the handle. This tiny current can also cause your heart to flutter. In minutes, you are history.

Ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCI) use virtually no electricity, so they will not increase electric bills. They work by detecting minute differences in the current coming into the circuit and leaving the circuit.

In a safe tool or appliance, incoming and outgoing currents are identical. If they are different, some electricity is leaking out through your body. Some high sensitivity, industrial quality GFCI's detect current differences as small as .006 amps and can shut off the current in .03 seconds.

There are several types of inexpensive sensitive GFCI's devices available that will protect your family. These include extension cords and trouble lights with a built-in GFCI and circuit breakers, plug-in GFCI outlets, GFCI receptacles and combination GFCI/circuit breakers.

GFCI's should be used in outdoor outlets, garages, basements, fans and lights above tubs, wet bars and bathrooms. Anywhere moisture is present, your body can create a grounded path through your hands, heart and feet.

Extension cords (from 1 1/2-100 feet long) with a built-in GFCI are most convenient for outdoor gardening use. If you are going to use large power tools with powerful motors outdoors, select an extension cord with a combination GFCI and 15- or 20-amp circuit breaker built into it.

Old GFCI's can lose sensitivity or become completely ineffective. Although GFCI's have built-in testing buttons, it is wise to purchase a plug-in tester and check each one monthly. The plug-in tester creates a slight current imbalance that should trip a properly working GFCI.

For added electrical safety, lower utility bills and fewer drafts, install child-safe wall outlet covers. The best ones have covers that slide up or to the side for access to the outlet. Some new ones are sealed to stop air leaks. One new design is built into a child's night light.

Write for Update Bulletin No. 905 listing 13 manufacturers of sensitive GFCI's including extension cords, trouble lights, plug-in outlets, combo cords, GFCI testers, current load limits, prices and child-safe wall outlet covers and night lights. Please include $2 and a business size SASE and mail to James Dulley, Los Angeles Times, 6906 Royalgreen Drive, Cincinnati, Ohio 45244.

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