Gone are the days of stuffing silver foil from a cigarette packet into the fuse box to get the lights back on, but electricity hasn’t stopped being dangerous. Government statistics show it still causes 20,000 fires in the UK annually and about 70 fatalities.
Just 25 years ago, a typical home had a TV, fridge, iron, vacuum, and washer. Today, there will be several TVs and attached boxes, games consoles, toasters, computers, microwave, dishwashers, kitchen gadgets, mowers, power tools, kitchen extractors and heaters. The age of the wiring is a common cause of fires. Older wiring was not intended for such heavy usage in the first place, and after a few decades, the plastic sheathing of cables that is often embedded in walls and ceilings simply crumbles away and allows wires to short.
The rules for safe installation of wiring and appliances have become much more complicated. It is far safer, but it is no longer a DIY job. Electricians are highly trained, so you should only use those that are professionally registered and listed on sites like http://www.electricalsafetyfirst.org.uk/find-an-electrician/.
Understand your supply
The old fuse box has been replaced by a “Consumer Unit”. Circuit-breaking switches automatically detect abnormal loads or spikes and trip off. Be sure you know where yours is. They provide better protection and are more convenient, but wiring them is not for an amateur; it’s vital the right breakers are installed for the wiring and appliances on each circuit.
A master power switch is located within the main consumer unit. If there’s an electrical fire, discharge or flood in your home, switching off the power is a sensible reaction. To protect important or expensive equipment like alarms and computers from circuits tripping, use an Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS). You can see a whole range of options on sites like Eaton UPS (http://www.cppsales.com/Eaton_UPS_Systems___Accessories-catid17).
Modern homes can also contain residual current devices (RCD). These give greater protection to people and sensitive equipment from shorts, shocks and spikes. They can be installed in wall sockets or extension leads.
Knowing your wiring is old is good enough reason to be concerned. Shocks from switches, burning plastic smells or scorch marks on plugs should never be ignored. Regular tripping may also be a sign that something is wrong. Many accidents are also caused by plugs with frayed or insecure wiring.