Monthly Image: Electrical Safety FAIL

Our room in a pretty good motel (pronounced “No Pets Allowed”) had the light on the wall above the beds plugged in thusly:

Motel outlet 1
Motel outlet 1

Next to the other bed was the outlet for the between-the-beds nightstand with lamp and clock radio plugs:

Motel outlet 2 - side
Motel outlet 2 – side

Which looked not-so-bad from the side, but not-so-good from the top:

Motel outlet 2 - top
Motel outlet 2 – top

It’s all fun and games until you grope for your metal-frame glasses in the middle of the night and they fall off the nightstand … hasn’t happened yet, but it’ll be spectacular when it does.

I think the original beds were narrower, with more clearance around the outlets, but we’ll never know. Those Panera Bread outlets pose similar problems.

27 thoughts on “Monthly Image: Electrical Safety FAIL

  1. I know some folks don’t like the new “ground prong on top” standard, but it makes sense to me.

    1. Aye! Looks odd, but that inert pin saved my bacon once and I’m now in favor of it.

      Short wires in old outlet boxes don’t work out about half the time, though. [sigh]

    2. While I prefer the American/Danish ground prong in the plug design over the annoying Belgian/French ground prong in the outlet design, a key part all of our European outlets share is that you can “never” touch the pins due to the outlet being recessed.

      As a user, this one is by far the best:

      Polarity probably can’t be that big of an issue if you look at how widely it’s used, but both the Danish design and presumably also the unused tackle that problem perfectly fine without any oddly (endearingly?) archaic American exposed pin situations.

      1. You folks have symmetric 240 VAC power at the outlet, so polarity doesn’t matter for you, but our outlets have asymmetric 120 VAC: polarity matters a lot.

        Nowadays, most appliances would be well-served by some reasonable DC voltage (more than 12, maybe up to 50 V) and an inverter; very few outlets deliver anything near their rated power, anyhow.

        1. Right, I forgot it wasn’t just the frequency and voltage. Anyway, that was just a remark on ease of use. The Danish plugs are almost as good with polarity to boot. In comparison, I don’t like the ones here in Belgium much at all. (They’re perfectly serviceable, of course.)

          The 1950s (Dutch) house I grew up in had pre-recessed outlets. Going to America feels a bit like time travel. The outlets and light switches have a distinct historical 1950s or earlier feel to them, even if they’re from the 2000s. Unfortunately I mean that in the bad way, not in the “back then they still built stuff that lasted” sense. :)

        2. But it would be perfectly possible to introduce recessed outlets in the US (and snug fitting plugs, where the plastic molding takes the forces and not the contacts..!) and still make them somehow backwards compatible.
          And heck even if it were not perfectly compatible, the US has a different outlet for every Amperage and twelveteen different 240 plugs. A recessed safety outlet (mandated for hotels, daycare centers, nursing homes, and places frequented by engineers) wouldn’t be the end of the world. Just as long as it isn’t coming from Europe.

          1. Makes perfect sense to me!

            IMO, we’ll start planning sensible electrical connections a few years after we measure their wall boxes in millimeters … [heavy sigh]

            1. Fitting recessed outlets with flush outer surfaces will need deeper outlet boxes. I don’t know if a standard 2 x 4 (20 x 100mm Ed [grin]) wall would take such without a fight.

            2. Exterior walls are typically framed with 2 x 6s around here. The manufactured house “standard” of 2 x 3 for interior walls makes for some headaches. When they get really cheap creative, they’ll finger joint small pieces to make longer stock. So, some of the outlets could be in deep boxes. Oh, for a stick-built place.

              I had some honest 2 x 4 framing in my 1935ish house in San Jose. Rough sawn and unplaned; my understanding is that modern 2 x X stock starts at the nominal when sawn, but when dried and surfaced, you get the smaller stuff. I’ve measured 2 x 6s at 1.5″ x 5.25″. I’ve had to measure this when doing electric through-holes in the pumphouse. Makes for some interesting fitting.

        3. Can you explain what do you mean by asymmetric? Not equally loaded phases? Why would polarity matter in a single phase outlet? Load always sees just the difference between the phase and neutral and doesn’t care about direction of current flow. Thanks

          1. Hereabouts, household utility power arrives as 240 VAC from a transformer with a grounded center tap: both “phases” are 120 VAC with respect to ground, but they have opposite polarity (180° out of phase).

            The main breaker panel distributes one of the 120 VAC phases to each outlet: one lug (“line”) is 120 VAC, the other (“neutral”) is connected to the grounded center tap, and an earth ground lug goes to an actual rod pounded into the ground at the service entry. Large appliances get 240 VAC and, nowadays, their outlets have both neutral (for a 120 VAC clockwork timing motor) and earth ground (for the metal frame) lugs. The electrician should set up the panel with a roughly equal number of 120 VAC outlets on each incoming phase, but there’s no assurance the total load will be balanced.

            Here’s the gotcha. The outer shell of screw-in lamp sockets must connect to the neutral conductor, to present (almost) zero volts with respect to “grounded” objects; the center socket contact goes to the 120 VAC line conductor. Two-wire lamp cords therefore must terminate in polarized plugs, with the wider blade connecting to the outlet’s neutral lug: it has an asymmetric connection to the incoming power.

            The bulb doesn’t care which way it’s connected to the outlet, but plugging the lamp “backwards” into the outlet connects the socket shell to the line terminal and presents 120 VAC to wandering fingers.

            With a properly polarized outlet & cord, if you inadvertently touch the shell while also contacting a grounded object, nothing much happens. Plug it in backwards, touch the shell, and you might just die.

            Distributing 240 VAC to all outlets, with just a safety ground connection, makes more sense, but we USAians got off on the wrong foot and it’s too late to change now …

            1. Well two different things:
              European power isn’t necessarily symmetric. You might get single phase 240V in an apartment. But larger panels for a house can have 3X240V (with a 120° phase shift, which gives you about 400V between each phase.)
              There are no polarized plugs, because two prongs are only used for encased appliances where all the outer parts someone could touch are non-conductive. Other appliances are three prong with the outer safety ground tabs connected to the case. The appliance electronic circuit has no way of predicting which of the center pins will be neutral and which one will be live.

              And safety ground and neutral are bonded somewhere down the line, so there can be a stray voltage on neutral. In the rotten olden days, there were only two wires like in old US houses, safety and neutral often got connected in the outlet. The wildest thing I’ve seen was in Italy, where the safety ground got connected to the sink drain next to the outlet. That is, I hope it was the safety ground and not both neutral and safety ground.

            2. Seems like yet another thing I know to be true that just ain’t so.

              I thought you folks used 240-ish VAC with neither side grounded: one winding of a delta transformer, plus an earth “safety” ground. Instead, it’s a wye transformer with 240-ish VAC to the grounded neutral, the three-phase version of our 240 VAC with a grounded center tap.

              The Wikipedia article gives an overview.

              Thanks for setting me straight!

            3. I might still be missing a point, but I don’t really see any practical difference. I know US homes use 2 phase 180 degrees standard but other then the fact it has one phase less, it’s just as symmetrical as EU 380 3ph. Of course, unevenly loaded phases can occur in both systems as only small percentage of loads are actually 3ph, with anything up to a few kW typically using only 1 phase. In houses with 3ph service it’s also common to distribute outlets and fixed loads over all of them.
              As far as I can tell, our lamps use pretty much the same bulb socket (E27 and a smaller E14). Outer shell is always non conductive (either plastic or ceramic) so changing a bulb should never get you closer then 5cm to any conductor. Socket geometry pretty much prevents you from slipping in a way that would be dangerous. Inner shell and the contact in the bottom of the socket get connected to live and neutral conductors randomly, so yes, poking around inside a plugged in lamp socket is not a good idea, but it still has nothing to do with network configuration… it’s just the convention that you consider the socket barrel to be neutral and therefore safe to touch and we consider the whole thing as a keep-fingers-away zone. The only difference then is that you use polarized outlets.

              While I would sometimes like to have a polarized outlet so I can be sure my power switch and fuse are actually on a live side of the circuit I’m building, having the faith that the electrician wired all the outlets correctly leaves me with less then warm and fuzzy feeling – I’d never trust them anyway (and judging by a few stories I picked up here and there, US citizens shouldn’t either). Even worse, having a polarized outlet implies that it must be true, leaving you just enough rope to hang yourself… or wire to electrocute anyway :)

              Around here, I’ve never heard on anything similar to your “building codes”. While I’m sure there are professional standards and bigger contractors might have internal inspectors, I don’t think anybody actually goes poking around junction boxes and outlets to see how they are connected – I could be wrong but this is what empirical evidence points to :)
              Power company will take a look at you panel, install a meter and a current limiter (dunno I you have them, basically a very slow re-settable fuse to limit the power you can draw per your plan and a major pain in the a$$) and that’s it. My electrician actually had a hard time wrapping his head around wiring a bistable relay to allow 3 push-buttons to control light in a hallway… warm and fuzzy indeed :)
              Oh, something to make you cringe… most of our connections in junction boxes are just twisted ends of two or more conductors, wrapped with electrical tape. No wirenuts, no clamps :)
              Earthing standard is to have a earth conductor bonded to the neutral clamp at a local 3ph transformer (bit larger then yours, they tend to come in a shape of small freestanding buildings like this one )… I guess they might have an earthing rod there as well).
              One of my EE professors told us that in the (not so) old days it was not uncommon to have a 50V or more between earth and neutral on metal appliances. I myself got zapped as a kid in the 80’s in pretty much the same way – enough voltage to definitely feel it, but low enough to let go. Now that I think of it, I earthed myself through a painted metal post… might have been a lot worse if it was bare metal.

            4. I’m from Croatia. We do tend to be a bit more relaxed and treat rules more as suggestions as you go further down south :)

              But I did see electrical, water and gas installation in old Brussels house converted to apartments and I’m pretty sure no inspector went there (or lived to report about it at least) :)

              They had a U shaped frame made from three pieces of 1×6 pine board, turned upside down and just leaned against a wall at the bottom of the basement steps. Electrical meters were nailed to the horizontal board of the frame with wiring hanging left and right. Above that on the wall they had water meters and pipes and gas was maybe a meter away along the wall… I’m really sorry I didn’t take a picture.

              The guy that was showing us the apartment was Austrian and his comment was: You’re not in Croatia where everything was built by Austrians. This was built by the French :)

  2. Most houses and condo’s don’t have enough outlets. My condo bedroom has the same issue shown in the picture, was not an issue until I got a new cell phone and needed to move the cell phone and another item to the other side of the bed – just enough room for the safe use of the cords. Since my bed is a waterbed moving it two inches is not an easy option

    1. Once upon a time, I asked a builder at a home show why they didn’t install more outlets. The answer boiled down to: “We install exactly as many outlets as required by code, because doing more would reduce our profit.”

      Made perfect sense to me. [sigh]

      1. When I built my house, the electrician asked if I just wanted outlets to code. I pointed out all the post-it notes all over the walls, explaining that those marked where I wanted outlets, switches, and fixtures. He blinked at them and said “that meets code and then some”. As it turned out, only one had to be added to meet code, as I had a section of wall more than a foot wide between two doors, and the notion was that something might be plugged in there, and cords shouldn’t have to cross doorways. It was nice having outlets everywhere I wanted them.

        1. This place from the 1970s has practically no outlets. I don’t mean in the sense that each outlet that exists is all alone, which is also the case, but in the sense that there are literally two functional outlets in the living room. (Three if you count the one that’s obstructed by a later heating pipe.)

          1. When I bought that house, it didn’t have any outlets at all on the second floor, unless you counted the shaving outlet built into the bathroom mirror light.

  3. Just underlines the crappy fally-outy-ness of North American plugs. I mean, a plug you pull out of the socket by tugging on the flex? Eek!

    There’s a lot wrong with the UK right now, but the BS1363 three-pin ain’t one of them: can’t be pulled out by the cord, you can’t bend the pins, every plug is individually fused, almost every socket is also switched. Yes yes, symmetric 230 V AC, I know … but if the only thing that can be said against the good old three-prong electric caltrop is the Lego brick × 10⁶ pain if you tread on one in the dark, let’s change over now!

    (UK 3-pin plugs naturally flip pins up for maximum area denial. There’s also a [generational?] tendency to unplug everything if it’s not being used directly, so one tends to experience plugs roaming wild on the floor in the UK.)

    1. I used to pull plugs out by the mmmm plug, until I had one blow up in my hand due to defective wiring molded into the plug body. Left a nasty scorch on the outlet and scared the bajeezus out of me; I was picking shredded undies outta my rump for a week.

      Whereupon I swore a mighty oath on the bones of my ancestors to always pull plugs out by the cord: the next fireball will happen a few inches from my hand.

      There’s supposed to be strain relief somewhere in there; I’m just doing a function test.

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