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Publisher's Letter

The Electric Wiring Debate - have your sent in your "Statement of Will"!?

By Leo Simpson

The electrical wiring debate goes on. But while most people agree with the campaign, the number who have responded positively by sending in their signed "Statement of Will" or copy of their "MY WILL" letter to their parliamentarians has been pretty underwhelming. Have YOU sent yours in? In effect, we have plenty of "Noddies" but most seem unable to pick up a pen.

I suppose this fits in with the general picture of Australians being apathetic but this is an issue which affects us all – all people who want to be able to work on electrical equipment. The campaign is really two-pronged. We’re not just campaigning that people should be allowed to do their own home-wiring. There also should be no restrictions on people working on mains-powered equipment.

Let’s get right down to the grass roots. For example, this issue also involves anyone who wants to work on vintage radios – they are mains-powered aren’t they! Not only in Queensland, but now in most other states, you can’t legally work on your own vintage radios. Happy with that? And amateur operators? Sorry, you can’t touch a mains-powered transceiver.

In fact, we’re talking about anyone who wants to assemble or service mains-powered equipment, whether it is a DIY project described in SILICON CHIP, servicemen working on TVs, VCRs, microwave ovens, photocopiers and printers, PCs and their monitors, and so on. Yes, if you’re a tech, this law stops YOU earning a living!

It also embraces people working in the broadcast industry working on studio equipment and transmitters, technicians servicing medical equipment in hospitals and doctors’ surgeries and so on. Even if you have a PhD in electrical engineering, your career is over.

Presently in Queensland, all these people are working illegally if they connect or disconnect non-live mains-voltage wiring and do not at least have a restricted licence. And even if they have a restricted licence, they can not legally construct or modify mains-voltage sections of any electronic equipment, nor troubleshoot such sections when they are live.

That such a situation could exist and spread to other states is utterly ludicrous.

Now don’t be apathetic. You will be stopped from doing what you presently do now, which is to work on all forms of mains-powered equipment. Maybe you don’t care if you are never legally allowed to do your own home wiring. But you WILL CARE if you are eventually stopped from building a kit because it’s got a mains powered transformer and/or other mains-voltage circuitry.

This is the situation in Queensland RIGHT NOW. If we don’t do anything, it WILL become the same right across Australia.

Actually, if you take the present law in Queensland, it probably means that no-one can even open up their own computer to change a card or insert more memory. After all, most PCs are mains-powered.

Furthermore, as outlined elsewhere in this issue, no electrical or electronics engineer, no matter how highly qualified or experienced, can ever get a licence to do wiring. If he lives in NSW, and if he is a power, protection or control engineer, he has a slight chance of being able to get one, but only after he has been approved so he can do the prescribed TAFE course.

So we have the situation where engineers can design large and complex electrical installations but they can never touch the wiring. They can’t even work on the ordinary domestic fixed wiring system in their own homes!

Now come on – let’s get REAL.

As part of getting REAL, let us acknowledge that at the very least, home-owners should be legally able to replace defective light switches and power points and install light fittings. They should also be able to temporarily unscrew light switches and power points from walls and tape them up, so that they won’t be painted over during re-decorating. After all, that is what a lot of people do now and surely no one can argue that this is a significant source of fatalities – it clearly isn’t.

But we are going even further. We are campaigning so that home-owners can legally do any domestic wiring right up to the switch-board, just as they do in New Zealand and most other western countries. In fact, in New Zealand home-owners can design and construct their own switchboard. They can also bolt it up and connect the house wiring to it under the supervision of an electrician!

Concurrently, we are campaigning to have all the silly restrictions on people working on all mains-powered equipment removed.

OK, so how have electricians reacted to this campaign? On the whole, they have been utterly negative. They generally refuse to accept the fact that most western countries: (a) permit home-owners to do mains wiring and appliance repairs; and (b) have a better safety record than Australia’s. While denying these facts they go on to claim that conditions in Australia are somehow more dangerous than elsewhere.

On this last claim, the electricians MAY have a point! Not that our 240VAC electrical system is inherently any more dangerous than in most other countries. That is patently untrue. Some electricians have even tried to convince me that because we have so many migrants in this country, the situation is more dangerous because migrants don’t know or care about regulations and safety and just wire things up willy-nilly. Well, that is nonsense. Migrants are no more careless and/or lacking in the relevant knowledge about wiring standards than other Australians.

No, the reasons why the situation in Australia may be more dangerous are twofold. First, inspections of domestic wiring by the electrical authorities are now practically non-existent or cursory at best. Electricians generally feel that this is wrong and that it lets the "cowboys" get away with bad and unsafe practices. That’s fair comment. Of course, as far as letting home-owners do their own wiring, we are advocating that thorough inspection be mandatory for new installations and extensions. We have done that from the outset.

Second, there is no information available to the public on how domestic electrical wiring should be done. You can go into a hardware store and buy the cable, the conduit, the junction boxes and other fittings but nowhere does it tell you what cable should be used, how it should be wired and so on. This is a "chicken and egg" situation.

Because it is illegal, no information on how to do domestic wiring is available. Well, as soon as it becomes legal, the information on how to do it will become available.

In countries where it is legal for home-owners to do their own wiring, information on how to do it is freely available. For instance, the New Zealand government sells "code of practice" booklets to home-owners there (NZ$5 each), to provide guidance on various aspects of electrical wiring and appliance repairs. So while ever it is illegal in Australia for home-owners to do their own domestic wiring, the information on how to do it is likely to be unavailable.

Unless we change that, we will always have the potentially dangerous situation whereby home-owners CAN LEGALLY BUY all the electrical cable and fittings they want but never be properly informed on how it should be used.

Properly informing the public ensures that wiring done by home-owners will become safer. Add in the requirement for inspections, as in New Zealand, and the overall safety of wiring in homes must become much safer than it is now. After all, hundreds of thousands of Australians have illegally done their own "electrical work", and they will continue to illegally do it if the system does not change. So let’s replace the electrician instigated official "voodoo" with some REAL PUBLIC KNOWLEDGE and just make the domestic electrical environment much safer, as most other western countries have done!

Electricians can’t have it all their own way. If they are really concerned about safety, then they should be in favour of the changes we advocate. That way everyone would be much better informed about how safe wiring must be done.

Actually, we don’t think that electricians are all that concerned about safety. If they were, the electricians who control the state Licensing Boards, Electrical Safety Offices, etc, would do something about the trip current for domestic safety switches in Australia. Overseas research shows that child fatalities occur at currents as low as 8mA (see "Personnel Protection Devices for Specific Applications" by the Electric Power Research Institute, EPRI, Pleasant Hill, CA, USA).

New Zealand research indicates that current as low as 5mA kills very young children. In the USA, domestic safety switches have a mandatory trip current of no higher than 10mA. In Australia, the trip current for domestic safety switches is 30mA. 10mA trip current safety switches are available in Australia but are not mandatory. The electricians have clearly been napping!

By the way, what about this proposition: all homes should require an electrical wiring safety inspection when they are sold. That way, any dodgy wiring in older homes could be detected and fixed. After all, any home that is more than 40 years old probably needs a complete rewire anyway.

Why wait for injury or fatality to expose a wiring problem?

To summarise the campaign, we are appealing to the parliamentarians in each state to direct their electrical licensing authority to:

(a) remove any restrictions which may prevent people from working on mains-powered equipment, whether it is for the purpose of service and repair, restoration or assembly;

(b) produce legislation which is based on the New Zealand Electricity Act and Regulations, which allows householders to do their own "electrical work", including appliance repairs and the installation of fixed wiring.

You can do your bit to help by signing the "Statement of Will" in this issue and sending it to us. PLEASE DO IT NOW!

Leo Simpson

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