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If you are a do-it-yourselfer, there are a few high voltage electrical safety issues you should know about when troubleshooting problems with appliances such as televisions and microwaves. Tube-style televisions (which are still sold in stores) have high voltage hazards even with the power off. The same is true of microwave ovens. The chassis or frame of a television or microwave may not be safe to touch with your bare hands when it has been disassembled.
A component called a capacitor can store an electric charge long after the unit has been disconnected; those who don't realize the danger can wind up with a painful or lethal shock. Always work with rubber soled shoes while standing on a rubber mat for protection against an accidental shock. Remove all jewelry as it can conduct electricity if it accidentally comes in contact with part of the unit. If you are working with computer components, an anti-static wrist strap can help prevent damage to circuit boards through accidental static discharge. Appliances should be respected at all times--they can and often are lethal unless the proper high voltage electrical safety precautions are taken.
Electrical wiring is designed to be as safe as possible. The average user will never see long lengths of bare copper wire; instead most wire used in residential electrical systems and electronics is insulated to protect against electrocution, crossed wires and short circuits.
This safety feature does not mean that electrical wiring is safe to handle or work on without precautions. Never attempt to dismantle, repair or modify an electrical appliance or machine without completely disconnecting it from a wall socket or power source. Even when the unit is unplugged, there is still a danger of electrocution if you don't know what you're doing. Many electric devices contain something called a capacitor which retains an electric charge even when the unit is completely unplugged. It is important to treat all electrical wiring, appliances and other items which come in contact with live current with respect and the understanding that even when turned off and unplugged, there is still potential for electrocution.
Grounding is a physical connection to the earth, a frame or other external common area to help limit voltage buildup. Grounding protects users from defects in insulation in an electric device, and can also be used to prevent the accumulation of excessive static electricity. Electricity always takes the path of least resistance. If there is "stray current" it will follow along the ground wire and harmlessly flow out of the unit instead of back through the unit and into the person touching the device.
One type of electrical grounding is found in three-pronged appliance plugs. Some people are tempted to cut off or remove the third prong because they have a wall socket which only accepts two-prong inputs. Never remove the third prong--it is the grounding device for the appliance. Without the ground, if there is a short or defective wiring in your appliance you can potentially receive a dangerous electrical shock.
If you need to do repair work on your breaker box, electrical wiring or you want to install a sub panel, it is very important to turn off the power to the home before attempting the work. It's easy to assume that once the mains are turned off that you are now completely safe to start working, but experienced electricians know a volt meter should be used to test the electrical panel to make sure it is free of electricity.
Even if your volt meter test shows that no power is going to your circuit breakers, there is still a danger of electrocution. The main power cables leading into your circuit box remain energized even though the mains are in the off position. The big, heavy black cables themselves should never be touched under any circumstances. They are live, but simply are not feeding power to the rest of the circuit. When your mains are in the off position they keep the electricity from flowing through the circuit, but the voltage is still there in the cables, waiting to flow again.
Electrical code training is a growing industry. Many licensed professionals pass on what they have learned to those taking electrical code tests for the first time or to experienced professionals who must pass refresher tests. These programs are often found on the Internet, offered by private individuals and companies alike. Electrical code training is also available through colleges and technical schools such as DeVry University. These courses are designed to help people studying to become licensed electricians, and the required experience level may vary from course to course.
An introductory program may include code training as part of the curriculum, but students may not be eligible to sit for the licensing exam until they have a specific amount of experience. It all depends on the city and state where you live and the laws governing licenses for electricians there. If you have no experience but want to learn how to become an electrician, the local college is an excellent place to begin. More experienced students should explore options offered through local trade associations and NEC study programs.
The NEC electrical code test is given to certify the test-taker as a licensed electrician. Each state has different rules about certification, but you may be required to sit for a journeyman test or a master electrician test. Licensed journeymen can work unsupervised once successfully tested and certified, but each state has different rules for how much experience is needed before you can sit for the test.
A master electrician's license allows you to go into business for yourself, and obtain permits. In some states, certification isn't enough--you may be required to show proof of continuing education in order to keep your licence. You may also be required to recertify annually depending on the laws in your area. Electrical exams are often held at local colleges or government offices. Check with your local building department to learn where you must take the test and what the experience requirements are to sit for the exam.
The National Electrical Code or NEC is a set of standards designed to minimize the risk of electrocution when using electricity. This standard governs the configuration, installation and modification of electrical systems in homes and businesses. The NEC is updated regularly, but not on a yearly basis. Depending on which state you live in, the electrical code may be a year or more behind current NEC standards. Additionally, local governments have their own sets of amendments which also affect how the NEC is implemented.
Compliance to the electrical code is not optional, and any project which does not conform to local electrical codes is subject to interruption or cancellation by local authorities. Before you start a new project involving electrical systems or alterations to an existing system, check your state and local compliance codes to make sure you are authorized to start the project or what licensing may be required before doing so.
|Jennifer Mathes, Ph.D.|