Electrical safety and Christmas, do they go together?

christmas treeYet again another year seems to have slipped by, the Christmas tree has suddenly appeared in the High Street of Evesham, and the shops are starting to fill with all the paraphernalia one associates with the festive season. Look at the diary, and Hey Ho, “Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat, please put a penny in the old man’s hat.  If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do, if you haven’t got a ha’penny, a farthing will do.  If you haven’t got a farthing, then God bless you.”  I’ve also seen the first Christmas trees arrive in the Vale of Evesham, and I am sure you will all be seeing them soon over the coming days. Couple that with the early snow falls which have landed in Scotland, and there are the first glimmerings of a festive feeling starting to hit the local towns. Isn’t it exciting, the main annual retail therapy is about to start again? I have even booked a shopping day this year so that I can purchase loads of presents that might become useful to someone one day. Socks and hankies are high on the priority list.

The next thing you will be seeing is lots of lights being adorned over the tree to illuminate it during the early winter nights. During the initial stages of the festivities, many of these lights will be outside. Then the displays will move indoors as homes are decorated with trees and other Christmas decorations. Long strings of electric lights are draped over trees, combining with a vast array of other Christmas decorations. It’s a wonder the national grid can cope with the extra load.

Looking at the outside decorations, I was always told water, in the form of rain, and electrics don’t mix.  Obviously they do, because there are lights everywhere. Some houses go so far as to make enormous displays, not only with tree lights, but also with Father Christmas’s sitting on their sleighs, reindeer pulling the sleighs, with many others standing in the garden quietly grazing before shooting off to make the next delivery.

These displays look brilliant, and certainly brighten up the landscape during what at best can be described as a dreary start of winter.  But if you are installing them, please make sure you do so safely, particularly in this year when we seem to have had so much rain, and everywhere outside looks soaked.  It is essential that all outdoor electrically powered equipment be fitted with a residual circuit breaker (RCD), which cuts off the supply when a fault occurs.  Avoid trailing leads and extension leads that can become a trip hazard.

string of christmas lightsCheck all cables and leads for wear and tear before use. Quite often, these fittings can be several years old, if not older.  They probably have been stored in an outside shed, which is infested by rodents.  Sometimes, these little fellows can chew through a cable, leaving exposed wires.  If these are connected to the mains electricity, they can be lethal to human life, particularly if this happens in a wet environment. If the outer insulation material is damaged, or crazed by prolonged exposure to sunlight, ensure the cable is either repaired properly, or replace it. A proper repair must be waterproof. Water is a very good conductor of electricity, and can be lethal, particularly if touched by human hand when live.

If buying new equipment, or replacing old equipment, make sure you buy good quality electrical equipment from a reputable manufacturer, look for a manufacturers label, or kitemark safety symbol. If you are installing equipment outside, never use electric tools in wet or damp conditions.  If you are working on or servicing outdoor equipment, always make sure it is disconnected at the plug before you start. If you are connecting two extension cables together, make sure you use Industrial Range IP44 type plugs, they are waterproof. Are you burying cables around the garden? If you are, make sure you protect the cables from external sources of damage.  Small domestic cables can be sheathed in a hosepipe.  Permanent installations should either use Steel Wire Armoured cable, or if low voltage cables, jelly cable.  Both of these types of cable act to prevent you from being shocked if you accidentally try and cut the cable at a later date.  When burying a new cable in the garden, make sure you know what is in the ground already.  It is not much fun trying to put a spade or a pickaxe through an existing supply.

christmas lights display on a propertyIf you are putting a large number of light fittings out, try if possible to use low voltage lights.  If something does go wrong, and you accidentally receive an electrical shock, a low voltage shock will not kill you. Also, work out the total load required to run your scheme.  Is your mains supply large enough to cope with the extra load you plan to impose on the system, whilst still running the house electrics? Or will the fuses blow every time you put the microwave on?  If you have to put new fuse wire into the fuse box, consider upgrading and modernising the system with motorised circuit breakers (MCB’s). They will shut down an electrical circuit very quickly, thereby preventing harm coming to anyone who has the misfortune to make contact with the faulty electrical gadget. If you have to replace a fuse, resist the temptation to use bits of wire, nails or tin foil to effect a repair even if it is only a stop gap. Those fuses are designed to ensure that the electrical system works well within it safe limits. Take the fuse out, and you could easily overload the system without knowing it, the first thing that could happen is the house could catch fire. Not a good start to the festive season.

Moving to the inside electrical fittings, even low voltage lights give off heat whilst operating.  Christmas tree lights tend to be left on for weeks on end.  Make sure nothing flammable is put close by, especially the fairy normally put on top of the tree.  Do not try and put all the electrical lights on one plug, using a three-pin extension socket.  Try and spread the load over a number of plugs, and thereby preventing any one plug from becoming overloaded.

Make sure you can afford to run the lights you install.  Electricity prices have soared over the last few years, with the latest price hikes about to hit our pocket, it costs money to run these lights, and mostly that money comes out of taxed income, unless you are a business.

Lastly, if you are slightly unsure of what you are doing with regards to installing Christmas lighting circuits, do not hesitate to contact a suitably qualified electrician. A few pounds spent now, may save hundreds of pounds in the future, caused lets say by your existing electrical system heating up, burning out, and resulting in complete replacement.

Follow these rules, and hopefully like me, you will have a happy and prosperous festive season.  Good luck with the lights.

Tony Rowland SBK TLGTony Rowland BSc(Hons) MSc MRICS

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