Chris Moller in Ghana with primary school kids in front of the vocational college he is treasurer of

Engineer calls for machine-readable labels to boost electrical safety

Image credit: Chris Moller

An engineer and director of a UK-based energy consultancy is campaigning for better labelling of electrical appliances to inform families reliant on exotic off-grid electricity systems about which off-the-shelf gadgets and gizmos they can plug in without endangering their lives.

Chris Moller - pictured above with primary school children outside the Ghanaian vocational college for which he is the treasurer - wants there to be a global, standardised system of machine-readable labels and an associated smartphone app which would together furnish information in layman’s terms about the safety of particular electrical products and the systems used to charge them.

His vision is of QR codes, which can be read via smartphones, being attached as standard to all electrical appliances - from toasters to DVD players - and a yet-to-be-developed app designed especially to compare these devices’ specifications with information read from a similar code attached to the electrical supply.

The nascent app would have the ability to relay a simple, non-technical statement to users. For example “You will need an adaptor to use this appliance safely” or “This appliance is now safe to plug in”.

Moller, the director of the Evonet energy consultancy and a member of the International Electrotechnical Commission’s Low Voltage Direct Current Systems Committee, said the idea could save lives in parts of the world where electrical standards are poor.

A press release advertising the endeavour states: “Every day people around the world are getting electrocuted and even killed because they don’t know what a grounded electricity outlet is or why they would need one. 

“Fires are caused by overloaded systems that are not adequately protected against. Equipment is permanently damaged through connection to the wrong voltage or because the supply is seriously over-voltage.

“Users do not know what they should and should not connect. Whether the plug fits the socket is not a reliable guide, though most people think it is.”

Moller told E&T it was likely that a working group would be established later this year to turn his plan into a reality, but he added, “Unfortunately that doesn’t actually give the work group any resources to make it happen.”

“My view is that this is an opportunity for domestic appliance manufacturers worldwide to access the off-grid market”, he said.

“At the moment there is no off-grid retail domestic appliance market because it has to be sold as a complete system. If you’re a retailer wanting to sell fridges to the off-grid part of the world, at the moment you have no way of doing it.

“This is an opportunity for them. There are 1.1billion people out there who do not have electricity. That is a huge market because none of them have any electrical appliances at the moment, so I think the prize here is enormous.”

He said his experiences in Ghana, which has a national grid that reaches 80 per cent of the population but suffers from “wicked” load-shedding where the power is turned off for long stretches of time, had taught him there was a “considerable incentive” towards people having their own standalone electricity systems in countries like this.

He contrasted the situation in Ghana to that in the UK, where “electricity companies see fit to allow us the capability of drawing somewhere between 10 and 25 times the amount of electricity we normally use. That means we can go into town and buy anything we want and bring it home and plug it in and we can be pretty confident it’s going to work fine.”

However, he said his scheme for a machine-readable system “that works for non-technical people” could have applications in the UK and other rich countries, too, because of moves to decentralise electricity generation and distribution as part of a move towards a “smart grid”.

Under the system proposed by Moller, labels would encode information about the following specifications:

  • Power and energy available or needed, as a function of time
  • Voltage delivered or required, against time
  • Stability criteria
  • Plug compatibility
  • Safety criteria (earthing, fault current)
  • Where applicable, information on other optional or mandatory proprietary protocols, for example authorisation for contractually limited applications, e.g. pay-as-you-go
  • Optionally, an encrypted test house certificate

Moller said solar panels were increasingly being used by people in the developing world, saying, “These solar homes systems, some of them work at 12 volts DC [direct current], some of them work at 48 volts DC. People don’t understand the difference between the two, so there’s obvious scope there for damage.

“If you are a researcher travelling around the off-grid part of the world, what sort of adaptor will you need? The answer at the moment is you take a large suitcase and some solar panels because there’s no other answer. You go to some hotel in some off-grid part of the world and it’s got some kind of socket on the wall. Well, how do you know what you can and can’t do with it?

“Part of the information in the label on the supply will say, ‘Yes, it’s grounded’ or ‘No, it isn’t grounded’, and the appliance will say ‘I need grounding’ or ‘I don’t’.”

Martyn Allen, from charity Electrical Safety First, said the usefulness of such a scheme could be limited, however, as it relied on people in some of the poorest parts of the world having smartphones in the first place. He added that it “put the onus back to the consumer” to check the level of safety and compatibility of an appliance with the relevant electricity system.

The International Federation for the Safety of Electricity Users, also known as Fisuel, has long been pushing for greater electrotechnical standardisation globally, but manufacturers often seem unwilling to cooperate fully.

A good example is in the emerging market in electric vehicles, where efforts to develop universal socket interfaces early on have failed, meaning any British motorists wishing to embark on a European road trip in their electric car will face lugging along a giant adaptor in the boot.

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