By Heather Durante
Forget your iPod and PSP for just a second — all that old-school technology you learned about in physics class is pretty important. And what you were either told or just forgot about currents and paths could help prevent disaster.
Marina-Rae Nicholas was an up-and-coming actress. She was 35 years old and had numerous local film and TV credits to her name.
She didn’t have to die.
Nicholas’s apartment bathroom didn’t have windows, so she wanted to spruce it up with some plants. She bought herself a grow lamp and put it on the shelf in her bathroom, above her tub.
After taking a bath this February, she reached for her towel. It got caught on the lamp cord and, when she pulled it down, the lamp landed in the water.
She died instantly.
“She was beautiful, she was talented,” said her friend Laurie Few, a producer at CTV. But an already tragic circumstance — a rising star’s life cut short — was made much more difficult to handle when friends and family members learned that her death was completely preventable.
As volatile of a combination as water and electricity can be, there are steps one can take to prevent electrical accidents. Kitchens and washrooms should be equipped with special outlets, says Ted Olechna, a provincial code engineer with Electrical Safety Authority.
“A Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) is an outlet with an important safety feature,” says Olechna, “It could save your life.”
These outlets monitor the flow of electric currents to an appliance and can instantly sense what’s called an electrical ground fault. What that means is that it can sense, in a fraction of a second, whether there is a “leakage” of electricity.
Electrical currents seek the path of least resistance to a ground if it is allowed to leak. If an appliance were to hit water, for example, this provides electricity a chance to escape. Since water is a conductor, the electricity will use it to find the shortest path to the ground.
If an appliance plugged into a ground fault outlet comes into contact with water, Olechna says, “the outlet will cut the power.”
In Nicholas’s case, the outlet would have saved her life. “She would have merely felt a very minor shock,” Olechna says. “She would still be alive.”
So how can someone tell whether an outlet has an interrupter? Every ground fault circuit interrupter has a test and reset button on the plate.
Although it’s standard for all new bathrooms and kitchens to be equipped with GFCIs, it’s common for older houses and buildings — especially in Toronto — not to have them, says Cathy Chernysh, director of communications for the Electrical Safety Authority. It’s up to the owner of the house to update the outlets, and doing so can be costly.
Updating one’s existing abode is one thing; keeping electrical safety in mind while searching for new digs is quite another.
“It’s really important to know what to look for,” says Chernysh. While the presence of the interrupters are a good sign, there are other factors to keep in mind as well. Frayed wires, cords and damaged plugs or outlets are all indicators that something may be amiss.
Add that to the fact that these older buildings were meant to comply with old codes, which were instituted long before advances in electrical safety measures, and things become even more difficult.
“All buildings must be up to code,” says Dan McIntyre, program director for the Federation of Metro Tenants’ Associations, “But the problem is that there are very few laws around disclosure.”
In other words, while prospective renters are entitled to ask whether a building meets the applicable safety codes, landlords aren’t necessarily obliged to share that information.
But, McIntyre adds, anyone looking into a new apartment or house has the right to check out the wiring before moving in.
“They definitely have the right to see a place before they move in, to check the electricity and the plugs and all that good stuff,” he says. “If they find that the unit isn’t up to snuff, they shouldn’t enter the tenant agreement.”
But if problems arise after a lease has been signed, he says, the renter has the right to call in a city inspector.
And while safety devices such as the ground fault circuit interrupters are common in newer buildings, they can be expensive. And landlords aren’t obliged to install them.
The outlets themselves are costly, and they should be installed and inspected by an electrical contractor, Olechna says.
But those high prices often dissuade landlords from installing them.
In the event that a landlord won’t have GCFI or other safety devices installed, portable ground circuit interrupters can be purchased. They’re available in most safety supply catalogues and can be ordered online — usually for under $50.
“(It’s) not bad for the price of peace of mind,” Chernysh says.
Since Nicholas’s death, her mother has spoken at Electrical Safety Authority events so she can help prevent what happened to her daughter from happening to anyone else.
McIntyre agrees that the best solution is prevention.
“Never take a place without checking it out first,” he says. “It’s your right to check the electricity and the water supply.”