Close encounters with electricity can be prevented

electrical box7Before Paige Koeppel had a close encounter with electricity, she never gave it a second thought. She is now a college student with a bright future and is sharing her experience to help educate others.

When Paige was 12 years old, she was drawing a bath and grabbed the metal towel rack to steady ­herself. Paige’s parents found her on the opposite end of the bathroom holding the towel rack. Her father ­immediately turned off power to the house and they took Paige to the ­hospital. Fortunately, Paige was okay. The level of electricity in the house ­easily could have stopped her heart or caused severe burns. Paige’s entire body was sore for days and she ­experienced weakness in her arm for around a year.

So how did this accident happen? When an electrician opened up the bathroom wall, he found the cause. A screw in the towel rack was in contact with an electrical wire. Over time, the insulation in the wire wore down and the screw and towel rack were charged with electric energy.

When electricity flows out of the path set for it by wires, it is known as an arc fault. This situation can also cause fires and contributes to ­approximately 26,000 electrical fires in the United States every year.

Safe Electricity offers the fol­lowing advice to help protect yourself and your loved ones from arc faults and prevent electrical fires:

• Check for wiring before nailing anything into the wall. A stud finder with an AC wire detector is a handy and inexpensive tool to check for live wires behind walls.

• Install arc-fault circuit inter­rupters (AFCIs). If they detect arcing conditions or an abnormal flow of electricity, they shut off power before a fire starts or someone gets shocked.

• Consider an electrical inspection. A qualified electrician will be able to assess the safety of your home’s electrical system and give you advice for improvements.

• Do not use water to extinguish an electrical fire. Use an extinguisher that is approved for use on elec­trical fires.

• Flickering lights and warm, cracked or sparking outlets all indicate electrical problems.

• If circuits trip, fuses blow or someone gets a shock, your home has an electrical problem. Get an electrical inspection.

• Do not overload outlets, use an extension cord as a permanent wiring solution, or use light bulbs that are not rated for the socket.

So what is an AFCI and how is it different from a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI)? They both contain the words fault, circuit and interrupter in the same order- so what is the difference? They do different things, but basically they keep you and your home safe from the ­dangers of electricity.

GFCIs help prevent burns, electric shocks and electrocution. A GFCI has sensors that measure the current going out and the current coming back in. Normally, the current is balanced as it goes out and comes back in. However, if the current is out of balance, something is wrong. The electric current has made contact with a human, or somewhere else it should not be. The GFCI senses this and instantly shuts down the circuit, stopping the flow of electricity. Since water is an excellent electric conductor, GFCIs are important in areas where water and elec­tricity could meet, such as bathrooms, kitchens, laundry rooms and garages.

Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters help prevent electric fires. Electricity can leak out of damaged or decaying wires and start a fire. These fires spread quickly in the wiring behind walls. Electric fires cause more damage than other types of fire and are twice as deadly. AFCIs sense that electricity is leaking from the electric system and shut electricity off before overheating happens.

Basically, GFCI’s prevent shocks, and AFCI’s prevent fires. Both can be installed by a qualified electrician to make your home safer.

For more electrical safety ­information, visit

Molly Hall is Director of Safe Electricity. E-mail Safe Electricity is a public awareness program of the Energy Education Council.