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Near miss…

We lost power in the night. We’ve had some weather (did I mention we got four inches of snow? That’s something for us) and there’s utility work going on in the neighborhood, we didn’t think much of it.

Eventually, Uncle B traced it to, um, this. That’s a normal British power socket on the left, and a melted smoking nightmare-fodder near-death experience on the right. Ke-rist, that was close.

It’s the greenhouse socket. A heater runs on a thermostat and keeps everything from dipping below freezing in the night, so it wasn’t in the house. But the whole thing is lined with bubble-wrap in Winter for insulation, so that could soooo easily have gone horribly wrong.

You’ll remember the Brits run this macho electrical system where every little lamp plug is the size of a dryer plug. Nearly all plugs have fuses built in, but somehow the fuse didn’t blow. The electrician (we have a tame electrician, thank god) said moisture got into the plug and started it all.

It’s a greenhouse. Duh.

Lucky for us, we have an RCD in the house. It’s an ultra-sensitive safety switch that knocks out power to the whole house if it senses a dip. Ours is ultra sensitive, anyhow — we lose power if a light bulb blows. Seriously.

Oh, the evenings we’ve found ourselves in a pitch-black house hissing, “sweetheart, do you have a fucking flashlight?”

Still, I suppose it saved our lives last night. Good thing I remembered to slather the lamb’s blood on the lintel.


Comment from Mitchell TAFKAEY
Time: February 7, 2012, 10:06 pm

Yikes! Glad y’all are safe. And I belive they’re called “fucking torches” in Ol’ Blighty.

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: February 7, 2012, 10:16 pm

There are certain Britishisms you have to adopt, or nobody knows what the hell you are talking about. Petrol, for example. If you insist on calling it gas, everyone thinks your car runs on propane.

But torch isn’t one of them. I refuse to call it a torch. That’s just stupid.

Comment from Mono The Elder
Time: February 7, 2012, 10:19 pm

Yep. Fun. Glad your greenhouse didn’t explode. Would’ve been messy.

Comment from Uncle Al
Time: February 7, 2012, 10:22 pm

Whoo-boy! Glad you’re safe and your house unburnt.

Aside: I would be a rich man if I got a dollar every time the $1,000 piece of electronic gear blew up to safeguard the $0.25 fuse. (But only if the gear were insured.)

Comment from Mike C.
Time: February 7, 2012, 10:27 pm

Happened to us once living in Qatar – the socket melt-down, that is. That’s the kind of crazy stuff that happens when you decide to run 220 volts to everything, all the way down to the Christmas tree lights.

Comment from Uncle Badger
Time: February 7, 2012, 10:31 pm

To be fair, I don’t think the mustelids’ lives were at risk – but my bloody geraniums were! Um, and also a very expensive greenhouse.

The curious thing is that I am very cautious about electricity and had paid to have all the correct splash-proof, damp-prof gear professionally installed.

Not sure I’ll feel safe going to bed with the washing machine running now. 🙁

Comment from Oceania
Time: February 7, 2012, 10:48 pm

We had 6 inches last week … and it is summer

Comment from Satan
Time: February 7, 2012, 11:00 pm

I heard you have 6 inches every night, Oceania.

Comment from Some Vegetable
Time: February 7, 2012, 11:16 pm

Wow- very scary! I’m glad that the mustelids are OK. That’s the ugliest thing I’ve seen in a long time. Oh, and I certainly understand Stoaty’s refusal to use the word ‘torch’ lightly. Given what she’s shared about herself and her family just in this century, I suspect that the neighbors may have come by her ancestor’s abode carrrying torches at least once. Such stories get passed down among the survivors. I mean booze making and banjo playin and God knows what all musta-lid gone on between the Hatfields and the Weasel clan.

Comment from Some Vegetable
Time: February 7, 2012, 11:17 pm

Am I banned yet, or will my house just mysteriously have a really scary electrical fire too? 🙂

By the way over here it isn’t washing machine, but the dishwasher that’s been burning down houses at night recently. (Seriously)

Comment from Uncle Badger
Time: February 7, 2012, 11:27 pm

Dishwashers have a bad rep here too, Some Vegetable. I console myself with the thought that it’s the expensive kind that use fan heat to dry the contents – we’re cheapskates, ours doesn’t. I’m not sure it’s true, though. Scarily, Badger House is ancient, wood-framed and tinder dry.

Comment from Redd
Time: February 8, 2012, 12:20 am

It could be worse. It could be a $40,000 plus car that burns down and takes your house with it.

You’ll remember the Brits run this macho electrical system where every little lamp plug is the size of a dryer plug. Nearly all plugs have fuses built in, but somehow the fuse didn’t blow.

What about your laptops?

Comment from Uncle Badger
Time: February 8, 2012, 12:22 am

Mine purrs and stares angrily at me if I try to do anything more energetic than read a book.

God knows what voltage she runs on.

Comment from Redd
Time: February 8, 2012, 12:27 am

So, your laptops don’t have funny looking giant plugs?

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: February 8, 2012, 12:42 am

Oh, yes they do. My *electric toothbrush* has a dryer plug.

Comment from EZnSF
Time: February 8, 2012, 1:17 am

Dishwashers, Washers, Greenhouses.
Just think of all the huge bonfires we’ll have when everyone’s got their car plugged into the garage outlet.

Comment from Frit
Time: February 8, 2012, 1:43 am

Glad you and UB are both safe and sound, Stoaty! And the greenhouse & contents also.

Down Under we also run on the oversized 220 outlets for everything. Had to re-wire a few items I’d brought along that I was unwilling to leave behind in the USofA in order to use them here. (One being a lovely bedside table lamp with a bronze-looking dragon as part of the stem. The laptop could already handle the 220, just needed a plug-size/shape converter and it was all good.)

P.S. May you all continue in excellent health and prosperity, this year of the Dragon!

Comment from Nina
Time: February 8, 2012, 2:12 am

Well, that don’t look right, do it?

I’m glad nothing serious happened–my daughter bought her laptop in the UK and had to specifically order the US plug for it, which she evidently then plugs into a convertor. My Norwegian kids travel quite a bit over yonder, and they have a multi-configuration convertor that looks positively obscene. As far as I know, no fires or even close calls…yet, anyway.

Dun dun dunnnnnnnnn

You never know.

Frit, my other daughter, being a dragon fan (and being born in the year of the dragon), would heartily approve of you bringing along and rewiring your dragon lamp. She would also be jealous of you having it. I’d tell her that greed is bad, but she would tell me that anything with a dragon on it is fair game for envy. We can go back and forth like that for days, weeks, before we need to sleep.


Comment from SCOTTtheBADGER
Time: February 8, 2012, 5:58 am

If you can get CR123 batteries in the UK, I can send you a proper flashlight. The kind Badgers use when making a felony traffic stop, or clearing a building.

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: February 8, 2012, 10:56 am

I bought Uncle B a LED Lenser for Xmas last year, Scott. Godawlmighty, that thing’ll blind you if you aren’t careful.

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: February 8, 2012, 11:02 am

Oooo…in my inbox, Laguoile, the spectacular French pocketknife people, have a new website and a little sale to go with. Ten percent off.


Sale code LFN-NEW-2012

Some bastard stole my Laguiole while I was showing the house in Rhode Island.

Comment from Deborah
Time: February 8, 2012, 11:11 am

Not the geraniums! Don’t they live for a long time? (if they don’t freeze to death?)

Husband was a Scout Master for a ten years, so that whole Be Prepared concept is ingrained in the household. There are strategically placed flashlights all over our house, plus a whole shelf of them in Husband’s office. If your portfolio includes Duracell batteries—you’re welcome.

Comment from Steamboat McGoo
Time: February 8, 2012, 12:02 pm

GB – like several other countries – chose to go with a 220V system instead of the 110V standard common in the US and elsewhere.

One reason? The 220V service requires half the copper in the lines because the current requirement is basically half that of the 110V service to deliver the same amount of power. Less copper equals cheaper, lighter lines.

But 220V is soooooo much more dangerous. You can almost always let go of a 110V line if you grab it. Not so with 220V. Its “just right” to cause your muscles to seize up, preventing you from letting go of that which is killing you.

Also, if rectified into DC, 220V is a high enough potential that it can inductively arc across many common switches on turn-off, causing them to NOT turn off, but instead to sit there and arc and cook while continuing to conduct until they catch fire. That’s why switches commonly have both a “VAC” rating and a “VDC” rating. The ratings are usually significantly different.

Comment from Oceania
Time: February 8, 2012, 12:22 pm

Oooh Ahhh 240 ACV @ 50 Hz is dangerous? lol! That’s Ignorance!
Americanisms … of course it is dangerous … however it is not the voltage that kills, it is the current.

Comment from Redd
Time: February 8, 2012, 12:58 pm

My *electric toothbrush* has a dryer plug.

Hmmmm….okay! lol

Comment from Stark Dickflüssig
Time: February 8, 2012, 3:30 pm

Few years ago was staying at my dad’s. I heard what I thought was his alarm at some ungodly hour, & soon found the humidifier was in flames in the kitchen. Right above it was the fire extinguisher. After a moment’s thought, I picked up the flaming humidifier and toddled outside (wearing only some undershorts) and tossed the flaming mess into the snow. Ah, the smell of burning plastic at 04:00.

Comment from mojo
Time: February 8, 2012, 4:10 pm

“…it is not the voltage that kills, it is the current.”

Actually, it’s the frequency. Your heart is not supposed to beat 50 times a second.

Comment from David Gillies
Time: February 8, 2012, 6:28 pm

Some misconceptions. In electrical engineering safety, 75V is generally held to be the ‘threshold of just-let-go’ i.e. the voltage at which the tensor muscles in your hands cannot be countermanded by the extensor muscles. It doesn’t matter whether it’s AC or DC. A current of 11mA across the heart is usually enough to cause ventricular fibrillation, which if not promptly reversed is invariable fatal (the slogan is “eleven mills kills”.) Again, DC or AC makes not a scrap of difference. 220V is more dangerous than 110V, because for a given resistance twice the potential across it means twice the current through it (this is Ohm’s Law.) Likewise, anything that lowers resistance will mean greater current. If the skin is pierced by a conductor, lethal currents can flow through the highly conductive blood with a potential of as little as 12V. In general, higher voltages are better for domestic wiring because power delivered (for a unity power factor) is VI whereas Ohmic losses are I^2R. The cord of an electric kettle will get noticeably warm on a 110V supply but hardly at all on 220V. The trade-off is in insulation. Arcing in switch gear is easily avoided with an RC snubber.

UK plugs are large, but they’re hands-down better from an electrical standpoint than the US version. There’s the whole 2-pin vs 3-pin issue (2 pin plugs should be outlawed.) The large size permits fuzing in the plug itself and, Weasel’s experience to the contrary, this is a very good safety feature. The large contact area and robust mating to the socket makes it very hard to pull out accidentally,

Comment from sandman says:nothing to see here…
Time: February 8, 2012, 7:42 pm

it is not the voltage that kills, it is the current.”

Actually, it’s the frequency. Your heart is not supposed to beat 50 times a second

Actually, it’s amperage(amperes) that kills. Actually about 100 milliamps will do the job under the right conditions. Your average USB runs at about 100 milliamps.

You’re welcome.

PS: Ohm’s Law states that the resistance of a given medium to the flow of electrons (electricity) through it is measured in ohms (of resistance). Hence, Ohm’s Law. Measuring his hatred of His wife’s mother, his mother in law, hence, Ohm’s Mother in Law, measured in frustrations (of the mother in law staying). Marital electricity, who knew it was so complicated?

Comment from Scubafreak
Time: February 8, 2012, 11:15 pm

“I had 6 inches last week … and it is summer”

Flash, we DON’T want to hear about your love life.. Although my co-worker wants to know if that makes you a tight end or a wide reciever…..

Comment from Ric Locke
Time: February 8, 2012, 11:27 pm

I hate, despise, detest, and declare anathema the whole-house RCD/GFCI. If they’re set to a point that’s safe in the worst case, you get nuisance interrupts when a bulb blows. If they’re set above the nuisance level, you can get zapped badly by any number of scenarios — it doesn’t have to be the electric fire in the bath, a damaged hair dryer is sufficient.

GFCIs (American term) or RCDs (British/European equivalent) should be installed at the points where protection is needed. Kitchen and bathroom outlets should all be individually the protected sort, set to “paranoid” levels (5 mA or less), and if you don’t have one on your dishwasher you’re extremely foolish. In the US, dishwashers are often installed with a wall plug under the cabinet and a male plug on the motor. That calls for a GFCI and careful, thorough, as nearly foolproof as possible ground/earth bonding. On a 220V circuit you should be four times as careful, not just twice.

With local GFCI/RCDs in the appropriate spots, a whole-house unit set to 30 mA or so (much too high for, e.g., bathroom safety, but fine for fire avoidance) can act as a backstop.

I understand why UB did it that way. Point GFCI/RCD units require very careful installation, most definitely including good ground/earth bonding (translation: expensive as all Hell), and the 16 or 18 gauge wire often used in European residential circuits is cheaper and more flexible, but the downside is that it’s ‘way harder to get good, tight, dependable connections. (It can be really weird for somebody used to North American wiring to watch a European wiring a house with what looks for all the world like extension cord!) US 12 or 14 solid may be crude and unwieldy, but you can grunt down with the screwdriver and count on it being OK for twenty years or so.

And if ’twere I, the whole greenhouse would be on its own private RCD, and the device would be set to “don’t rub the cat on a dry day lest you set it off”. Losing the plants would be tragic. Getting gay with the watering can and zapping yourself could just possibly be more so.


Comment from Oceania
Time: February 8, 2012, 11:27 pm

One of your co-workers had better by a geiger counter.
As of this morning, thick black smoke is pouring out of reactor number 2

And your government has taken the European rad network offline:


have a read of this:

Comment from Uncle Badger
Time: February 9, 2012, 1:16 am

I’m no more than a terrified observer, Ric, but I do take on board your comments.

In a perfect world, I agree. The greenhouse is an accident not so much waiting to happen, as just ticking off the days until…

But I know my (modest) limits and the guy I hire to keep us unfried is the best I can find (interestingly, he is a graduate electronics designer who is working as what we call a ‘sparks’ (British humour alert) to earn a living)

Scared the hell out of me, seeing how bad it can get before the RCD trips!

I’m taking his advice and listening carefully, in case there is more we can do – so I appreciate your comments.

The Weasel (let me add) is a bit more ‘muh? Paranoid badgers!’

Comment from Ric Locke
Time: February 9, 2012, 2:19 am

Well, UB, the RCD did its job. Unfortunately its job isn’t what you wanted or expected it to do.

You use Euro color codes, right? So you have a brown wire, a blue wire, and a green-and-yellow one. (Here in the US it’s black, white, and plain green, respectively.) And, although it isn’t strictly correct, you could think of it as power coming out of the brown wire and back into the blue one (electrons always have to go back home; that’s why it’s called a “circuit”). The RCD checks to see that all the electrons that went out came back. If the amounts don’t match, it trips.

So, you had a short between the power pins of that outlet. But as far as the RCD was concerned, all was correct. Power was going out the brown wire and coming back through the blue one, and the amounts matched. There was no way for it to “know” that the power was being used for frying the plastic on the outlet instead of, say, keeping the geraniums warm. Electrons went out, electrons came back, all tickety-boo.

That continued until carbon buildup connected the circuit to earth. When that happened, some of the electrons said “Oi! We’re free, chaps!” and sloped off through the ground instead of the blue wire, taking the scenic route and perhaps a stop at the seaside before going back to the generating station. Power out no longer equalled power in, and the RCD said “oops!” and shut the system down.

Ask Sparks about individual RCD outlets for the greenhouse, and installation of a separate, well-bonded earthing electrode with wiring to ensure proper connection to all the electric items; I don’t know if your electrical code allows that, or requires a single earth near the place where power comes in to the house. It might be worth your while to install a small separate load center for the greenhouse, with breakers or fuses for the circuits there. It won’t be cheap.


Comment from Cobrakai99
Time: February 9, 2012, 2:51 am

Comment from SCOTTtheBADGER
Time: February 8, 2012, 5:58 am


Comment from Oceania
Time: February 9, 2012, 5:13 am

Anyway Scube … why are you interested in my sex life?

I’m not the one hanging out with paedophiles on the Cornfield whom are trading kiddy porn images? You might want to think very carefully about that for a moment …

Comment from Uncle Badger
Time: February 9, 2012, 3:06 pm

Thanks, Ric – sadly, yes, we do use the EU colour convention. I was brought up on the far more logical (to me) black, red and green.

Would it be effective to plug the heater in via a standalone plug-in RCD? I have one kicking around.

I really appreciate your advice 🙂

Comment from mojo
Time: February 9, 2012, 9:02 pm

“A current of 11mA across the heart is usually enough to cause ventricular fibrillation, which if not promptly reversed is invariable fatal (the slogan is “eleven mills kills”.) ”

Hence the “one hand in your pocket” rule. You can take quite a lot of DC if it’s not transiting the heart. I’ve pulled 300 volts DC, myself, at low amperage. Up the arm and down the leg, quite a tingle.

Comment from mojo
Time: February 9, 2012, 9:05 pm

Can’t say the same for the guy who latched on to the anode of a klystron tube, though. 20KV at an amp and a half will do ya, no problem at all. Hell of a sizzle, and the smell…

Comment from Ric Locke
Time: February 9, 2012, 10:40 pm

UB — as you may imagine from my earlier essays, I’ve been bitten by electrical problems enough that the phrase “too much circuit protection” is a semantic null. Yes, if I had a spare RCD I would use it on the heater circuit, but keep in mind that it will only protect against failures of the heater; that’s worth doing, but it would have done nothing for the problem you had. It also requires that you have a good ground/earth connection on the greenhouse outlets.

It would be worth your while to find out where the moisture that caused the problem came from, and try to shortstop any repetitions. I don’t love British outlets as much as David Gillies does, but they have a remarkable amount of pin to pin isolation, even compared to the Continental “Schuko” system, and pure water is a good insulator. If the original problem was set off by water infiltration, the water was contaminated by something that acted as an electrolyte — that may have been dust or other residue on the outlet from spraying, or something in the water itself. I have several outdoor outlets that don’t give me problems despite being rained on. Of course I only have half your voltage, but American outlets have really lousy isolation, so it balances out.

We also have caps and covers for outlets in wet areas, either a spring-loaded cap that covers the outlet itself when not in use or a plastic shroud that shelters the whole thing, with slots to allow plugged-in cords to pass. You might look at electrical suppliers and/or garden supply places for something similar. I make my own, but I have access to fabrication equipment most people don’t have.


Comment from Uncle Badger
Time: February 10, 2012, 12:13 am

Thanks again, RL!

The socket in the greenhouse was designed for use in damp(ish) environments, but never felt all that good to me. Its replacement is a much better device with a lid that closes down, sealing the attached plugs inside. It’s going to be a pain to unplug and replug but I don’t do that often and, well. under the circumstances, I don’t think I’ll be complaining too loudly!

The question of where the moisture came from is moot. The rule here (and has been for a few years) is that devices have to be sold with moulded plugs but my heater (made by a specialist firm who exclusively make heating equipment for
specialist purposes – mostly professional horticultural applications – came without one.

I’d fitted a standard (but decent quality) 13 amp UK plug. The view seems to be that in an environment with high humidity and substantial temperature swings, enough condensation had got into it to cause the problem. I’m surprised, but can see how that could have happened. I guess salts from fertilisers and so on may have helped. And who’s to say the odd spider didn’t add to the cocktail?

I’m going to go back to our electrician with some of your comments and see what he can do.

Thank you.

Comment from Ric Locke
Time: February 10, 2012, 1:54 am

Installing replaceable or replacement plugs is a craft, especially if they’re to be used in a less than benign environment. The secret is to avoid “fuzz”, the thin strands that stick out around the screw when you tighten it. Better quality US devices, especially for damp environments or medical applications, have a slot or sleeve into which you put the bared wire; a screw then compresses the lot, leaving a good connection with no exposed sharp ends.

Electrons that find themselves at the tippy-tip of a sharp point may leap off of themselves, and certainly will if there is pressure (voltage) behind them. This was discovered by B. Franklin, among others, in the early going, and is the basic principle of the lightning rod, which utilizes the effect to tempt dangerous charges to earth themselves before they rise to a damaging point. The sharp tips of the wire strands do the same thing, but inside the plug the resulting current can cause problems.

One Secret Weapon for replaceable plugs is Pour-Plast. That’s a US trade name, but I’m sure you have an equivalent, a plastic material that pours freely and hardens, for the use of makers of artistic dragons and the like. Wire the plug, make sure it’s working, then mix the Pour-Plast and fill it completely. Even if you have fuzzy strand-ends, that will frustrate the adventurous electrons. Not quite as good as a factory-molded plug, but much better than one installed less than perfectly. You can’t re-use the plug, but you shouldn’t anyway.

And do tell Ms. Weasel that sensible precautions will be taken, even if ridiculed. Electricity really is Out To Get You.


Comment from Can’t hark my cry
Time: February 10, 2012, 2:32 am

And we would all Really Miss both Sweasel and Uncle Badger if, sensible precautions not having been taken, Something Bad Were to Happen.

Comment from Uncle Badger
Time: February 10, 2012, 5:45 pm

Ah! Now, I said exactly those words earlier this week and was told I was paranoid 🙂

It’s not possible to be too paranoid around ‘tricity if you ask Badger!

And thanks, Can’t Hark – only February and it’s been a funny year in that way already.

Comment from Bill (the .003% of your traffic from AfStan)T
Time: February 13, 2012, 9:20 am

GB – like several other countries – chose to go with a 220V system instead of the 110V standard common in the US and elsewhere.

It also insists on wiring hot-to-ground. Three people in my Iraqi digs were electrocuted in 2008, and sixteen barracks went up in flames (ever see a *metal* building burn?) between 2008 and 2009 because KBR subcontracted the electrical work in three construction projects to a Brit firm.

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