A Guide to Using Safety Switches

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We’re so accustomed to using our electrical home appliances in our daily life that we rarely stop to think for a second that they could cause us harm. Accidents do happen, but more important to remember is the fact that faulty wiring or faulty appliances can cause serious catastrophes, leading to electrical fires, property damage, and injury or even death.

When you get an electric shock, electricity flows through your body to earth. If exposed, it can travel through your heart, interfering with the natural electric impulses that keep it beating, which causes the heart to stop.

Safety switches can prevent these types of accidents from happening and are an easy way to keep you family and children safe, so don’t think twice about installing them.

What are safety switches?

Safety switches are your insurance against electric accidents.

They interrupt excessive current, and are designed to immediately switch the power off when dangerous levels of electricity leak through faulty switches, wiring or appliances to the earth. This provides a high level of personal protection from a possible electrical shock.

It should only take 10 to 50 milliseconds for a safety switch to operate: quick enough to save your life and help prevent costly fires or damage to your property.

According to the Electrical Incident Safety Report of Western Australia 2012-13, published by the Department of Commerce, in a period of 10 years (since 2003 to 2013) there were 195 serious electrical accidents and 11,526 shocks reported in the WA area only. Even though 46% of these accidents occurred at workplace environments that include electrical work, the group found to be most at risk was the home-based public, including children, students and seniors.

The most common accidents registered were related to fixed wiring (32% of fatalities) and tools and home appliances (29%).

Installing safety switches

Installing safety switches is easy and inexpensive, considering the protection they provide. Since 1992 and according to Australian law, all homes must have safety switches installed on all power circuits.

If you’re renting a home in Australia that falls under a residential tenancy agreement from after March 2006, the owner of the place must provide safety switch installation if there are not already present, not later than 6 months after the agreement.

If, however, you’re renting an older home, you may want to consider installing them at your own cost.

If you’re renovating or building a new home, you should make sure to install proper safety switches on both the power and lighting circuits no later than 3 months after the property transfer. And if you’re selling a property, you also need to establish if safety switches are installed or not, declaring it on the standard sales contract.

In Victoria it is mandatory to install safety switches on both the power and lighting circuits in all new properties or older properties when being renovated.

If you’re renting out your property as a domestic residence, same principle applies: you have the legal obligation to get an electrician to install safety switches. If you don’t, you could be liable for fines of up to $1,000.

Types of safety switches

There are three types of safety switches you should be familiar with:

  • Switchboard of meter box units
    Installed on the main switchboard, they can provide either complete protection or selected circuit protection.
  • Powerpoint units
    These safety switches are inbuilt in a single power point, providing single circuit protection.
  • Portable units
    These switches are suitable for use with extension cords and portable power tools.

Safety switches vs. circuit breakers and fuses

It is important not to confuse safety switches with circuit breakers and fuses.

Circuit breakers or fuses are present in all homes, and are designed to cut the power off when the electrical wiring in a building has too much current flowing through it, which could potentially heat the electrical appliances’ wires and cause a fire. They are designed only to protect the wiring and appliances in your home, not people.

All three of them (circuit breakers, fuses and safety switches) will interrupt excessive current, but only safety switches will do it to a greater scale, protecting you against electric shock, serious injury or death. They are an additional form of protection, which can be used with circuit breakers and fuses, but they do not replace them.

Regular checks

Even though safety switches are made to keep you safe, if they don’t work then they cannot protect you. That’s why testing your safety switch regularly is a good idea, ideally every three months.

You can do this yourself by pressing the TEST button. If working properly, doing this should automatically trip the switch to the off position. You can then reset it by pushing the switch back to “on”.

If for some reason it doesn’t work, contact a licenced electrician and get it fixed as soon as possible.