RCDs: The electrical safety switches that a third of homes go without

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Residual current devices (RCDs) have been mandatory to some degree in Australia for decades, but electricians say the life-saving safety switches remain missing from more than a third of homes.i

RCDs also known as residual current circuit breakers (RCCBs) or simply safety switches are designed specifically to prevent electrocution, and work in addition to fuses and circuit-breakers by monitoring circuits for signs current is leaking out - potentially through a person's body.ii,iii

A Residual Current Device (RCD) can cut off power quickly to reduce the risk of electrocution. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Residual_current_device_2pole.jpg

Should a current leakage be detected, RCDs disconnect the circuit within 300 milliseconds, fast enough to significantly reduce the risk of serious injury or deathiv

Across Australia, industry estimates show that 15 people are killed and about 300 seriously injured each year in avoidable electrical accidents in homesi

Patchy regulation

Laws governing the use of RCDs in homes vary from state-to-state.

Your average home has two power circuits, two lighting circuits and a number of appliance-specific circuits for hot water, air-conditioners and so on. However, RCDs have only been mandatory in any new or extended domestic power circuits since the early 1990s, and in any new or extended domestic lighting circuits from 2000i. They are not mandatory for all circuits.

In addition, owner-occupiers of older, unrenovated homes are not legally required to retrofit their circuits with RCDs, but housing investors and sellers face stricter requirements in certain states.

Queensland vi requires rental and sale properties to have RCDs installed on power circuits, while Western Australia vii requires RCDs on power and lighting circuits of all rental or sale properties, regardless of age.viii

There are no laws that require RCDs to be retrofitted in rental or sale properties in New South Wales, South Australia, the Northern Territory, Australian Capital Territory, Victoria and Tasmaniaix, although many government bodies recommend their usex.

Balancing regulations and costs

According to the Master Electricians Australia (MEA), some 3.4 million Australian homes currently go without RCDs, representing 35 percent of all homesi.

Of the remaining 6.3 million homes, the industry body estimates that 2.5 million have only a single RCD installed on their power circuit, while 3.8 million have two RCDs - one for power, and the other for lighting.

This falls short of MEA recommendations of four RCDs per home, to cover all power, lighting and appliance-specific circuits.

The group is among several to have lobbied Federal and state governments for more stringent RCD laws.

Many older homes don't have RCDs, only relying on devices like these ceramic fuse holders with fuse wire for safety. Source: Charles Haynes, Flickr user haynes, https://www.flickr.com/photos/haynes/, under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC by-SA 2.0), https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode.

Many campaigns have called for RCDs to be mandatorily retrofitted in all homes and workplaces, like the Western Australian grassroots campaign run by the parents of 18-year-old electrical trade assistant Jayden Zappelli who was electrocuted on the job in 2013xi.

In response, WA Attorney-General Michael Mischin said requiring that RCDs be retrofitted in all houses would be too expensive for homeowners, and too costly for regulators to police. Such laws could also inflate the price of RCDs, he warnedxii.

RCDs currently cost about $200 to install, according to the MEA.

iMaster Electricians Australia 2015-16, Switch Thinking, viewed 20 November 2015, http://www.masterelectricians.com.au/content/Document/Switch_Thinking/15340%20ECA%20Switch%20Thinking%20Report%20J%20LR.pdf

iiWorkCover NSW, Residual Current Devices,viewed 25 November 2015, http://www.workcover.nsw.gov.au/health-and-safety/industry-safety/electrical-and-power/residual-current-devices

iiiAll Things Electrical 2013, RCD Electrical Safety Switches, what you need to know, 24 September, viewed 20 November 2015, http://www.allthingselectrical.com.au/blog/entry/rcd-electrical-safety-switches-what-you-need-to-know

iv Government of South Australia 2015, Safety Switches, 31 July, viewed 21 November 2015, https://www.sa.gov.au/topics/water-energy-and-environment/electrical-gas-and-plumbing-safety-and-technical-regulation/electricity-and-gas-safety-for-consumers/electricity-safety/safety-switches

vWA Department of Commerce 2009, Energy Bulletin, September, viewed 20 November 2015, https://www.commerce.wa.gov.au/sites/default/files/atoms/files/energy_bulletin_48.pdf

viReal Estate Institute Queensland, Safety switches mandatory in rental properties, viewed 21 November 2015, http://institute.reiq.com/REIQ/Consumer_information/Consumer_cols/Rentals/Safety_switches_mandatory.aspx

vii ABC News 2011, Property owners warned to install RCDs, 2 August, viewed 21 November 2015,http://www.abc.net.au/news/2011-08-02/rcds-legally-required/2821344

viiiBuild.com.au,Safety Switches, viewed 21 November 2015, http://www.build.com.au/safety-switch-laws-and-requirements

ixMaster Electricians Australia 2015-16, Switch Thinking, viewed 20 November 2015, http://www.masterelectricians.com.au/content/Document/Switch_Thinking/15340%20ECA%20Switch%20Thinking%20Report%20J%20LR.pdf#page=29, p23

xNSW Department of Fair Trading, Electrical safety, viewed 21 November 2015, http://www.fairtrading.nsw.gov.au/ftw/Consumers/Product_and_service_safety/Electrical_safety.page

xiWynne E 2015, Safety switches needed in all homes: Electrocuted teenager’s parents, 12 February, viewed 22 November 2015,http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-02-12/parents-of-electrocuted-trade-assistant-want-safety-switches/6088670

xiiNewey L 2015, Call for safety switches in older Busselton homes, 22 April, viewed 22 November 2015, http://www.busseltonmail.com.au/story/3029086/call-for-safety-switches-in-older-busselton-homes/