When Shockingly Shoddy Workmanship Can KillNovember 26, 2011
My pool light hasn’t worked for a while. Eventually, I pull out the globe to have a look. It looks normal, but just to be sure, I give it a quick continuity check with the multimeter. It’s fine. So I flick the switch a few times and notice that occasionally the lamp glimmers on for a second before lapsing into inactivity. A quick inspection of the switch wiring reveals nothing loose and nothing broken. Right, I think, the switch poles themselves have arced over one too many times. Time for a new switch.
The usual in-stock/out-of-stock lottery at Ace Hardware rewards me with a win – a Chinese-made outdoor switch assembly which looks perfect. Until I get it home, that is, because it’s a factory discard that has obviously been eagerly bought by the store because it’s cheap. It’s cheap because it has a manufacturing defect – the case has been meticulously welded shut after assembly. There is no known method of disassembling it in order to wire it into the circuit. I try to remember my mantra from my meditating days, without success.
My pool man, Dewa, is aware of the problem and offers to have a look. He thinks it might be the wiring loom in the pool’s pump room, a chaotic mess of cables which acts as a sort of switchboard for the pool electrics. In true Bali fashion, there has been no reluctance on the part of the building contractors to mix water and electricity at my villa. I tell Dewa to be careful. Two minutes later, there is a yell from the pump room and Dewa staggers out with his hair standing up on end and scorch marks on his hand. We isolate the power and call an electrician.
I tell this worthy to replace the switch, install an earthing point, check all potentially dangerous wiring and make sure the pool light works. He does the universal Bali thing and asks for money for parts before he will start. So he finishes the job, asks for an exorbitant amount for labour and tries to get out of the door in record time. “Wait”, I say. “Is the switch working?” He assures me that it is, so I try it. The pool lamp stays dark. “It’s the globe”, he says, “I check – broken!” That’s funny, it wasn’t broken before. “Did you check the wiring where Dewa got a shock?” I ask. “Ya, ya – everything fixed. Just need new globe”. I’m busy with other stuff, so I don’t check immediately (silly me), and the electrician practically does a wheelie leaving the villa to spend his ill-gotten booty.
Next day, I check the globe and it is intact. Grrrr. Dewa arrives and climbs into the pump room to check the electrician’s work. There is a louder yell, a thump, and Dewa emerges, quivering and smoking slightly from the ears after yet another shock. After isolating all power again, I check the pump room myself and find that a transformer appears to be the culprit. We haul it out and carefully plug it into a power point in the kitchen, making sure that we touch no part of the case or its cable before switching on the power, carefully using an insulated screwdriver. We are only alive because we did that.
My trusty multimeter shows 220 volts on the transformer’s metal case, and 90 volts on most parts of the outer insulation of the power cord itself. I don’t know what rubbish the manufacturer used for the cord insulation, but he should be in jail. Dewa is alive only because he grasped the power cord, the dodgy insulation of which fortunately still had some resistance left. If he had touched the metal casing of the transformer while standing in five centimetres of water, he would not have survived.
My ‘electrician’ – a barely qualified amateur at best, and a lethally incompetent charlatan at worst – does not accept any responsibility. “I checked!” he screams on the phone. “No you didn’t”, I tell him. He is incensed. “You did not see me! You were on phone!” Oh, so I have to prove it to him now? “Not my fault!” he yells. No, it never is here, is it? Deny, lay blame, justify and invent a story – the four mainstays of the incompetent’s defence. Not a hint of an apology, or of accepting responsibility for his actions. I resolve never to use him again, but wonder uneasily how long it will be before he kills either himself or one of his customers.
I think of other times and other villas, where shocks are the norm and the quality of electrical work is abysmal. I ride past villas under construction and see bare electrical cable being laid in concrete slabs without the use of conduits, cabling with savage kinks being pulled tight in walls and roofs, and metal boxes with fragile wiring poking through roughly-drilled holes without the protection of tape, much less a grommet. I see rat’s nests of wiring on poles and main boards of shops and houses. I think of the number of fires here caused by electrical faults, and people risking their lives through contact with live wires.
I dismantle the jerry-built, lethal transformer and find bell-wire gauge conductors carrying mains voltage, their insulation perished, and rubbing up against sharp pieces of metal casing. A decomposing mains switch is not even properly insulated from the case. Bet it was cheap though.
And just as I reflect on how lucky Dewa and I were not to be killed, I hear the tragic news. A young man, trying to negotiate piles of construction material blocking the footpath in Legian Street, grabs a pole carrying a neon sign outside a cafe to steady himself. With his other hand, he grasps another metal pole in the footpath. It is the last thing he ever does; the casing of the neon sign is live. An electrical authority official says, “… the cable to the neon box was scraped”, meaning that bare wires were exposed. He said that wiring safety is the cafe’s responsibility.
The blame game starts immediately. The manager of the premises denies responsibility, saying that tourists were to blame. He was quoted as saying, “Most of night people got very drunk and he banged the sign,” he said. “Something broken inside of the sign.” Right. Not our fault. It’s those terrible bules again.
But you see, denying responsibility does nothing to bring back a life. Blaming others or justifying is futile after the event. When we are talking about electrical energy and its safe use, we aren’t just talking about typical Bali inconveniences. It’s a potentially lethal form of energy. The true responsibility for its safe use lies with governments and training institutions, who must insist on Grade A standards for everybody who has anything to do with electricity – and this includes component manufacturers and importers, electrical design engineers and all those who claim to be ‘electricians’.
As long as amateurs and incompetents are allowed to play at being ‘electricians’, people will continue to die. I was lucky. Dewa was lucky. An unfortunate young man who did nothing wrong except walk down a street today and touch a harmless-looking fixture, was not so lucky. And that is just not good enough.