Thursday 17 December 2009

Why do electricians swear so much?

Why do electricians swear so much?

This is one of the great philosophical questions of the day, I’m sure you’ll agree. It’s up there with the meaning of life (“Ice cream, give me ice cream!”), what happens when you die (big family party, with ice cream) and why combi drivers are so keen to find out as soon as possible whether there’s ice cream in the afterlife (who wants an afterlife without ice cream?).

Electricians swear so much is because they’re afraid. Deeply terrified. They’re profoundly afraid of killing either their customers or themselves. Unlike a plumber, a carpenter or a builder the material that an electrician deals with is a homicidal maniac, desperate to kill anyone nearby. Electricity is desperate to reach the ground as easily as possible and if you happen to be the easiest way to get there then you’re fried.

Last week we had a new air-conditioner installed. We used a perfectly respectable company to install it, a company we had used before and who we thought had done a fairly good job. By coincidence the next day we had our trusted electrician in to attend to something else. While he was here, we asked, could he please just check that the aircon was installed properly? No problem, he said.

That’s when the swearing started. I can’t tell you exactly what he said, Mmegi would only replace the words with ****, ****ed and ****ing. You Mmegi readers are imaginative, intelligent people, I’m sure you can imagine what he said.

What he’d found was enough to scare him. The aircon had been wired into the back of a wall socket, with no serious surge protection. What’s more, the cable that ran from the socket to the aircon was too small to take the power the aircon needed. There was, he said, a real risk that if the compressor in the aircon failed the socket could blow, damaging any other appliances coming from that socket. Given that one device that is often plugged into that socket is my precious Apple Macbook I was an unhappy man. That’s when I started swearing as well.

Then he told us that the inadequate cable was a serious fire risk. Then we all started swearing.

Of course we got the electrician to replace the offending cables, connect the aircon directly to the distribution board, install proper surge protection and make it all safe. We then deducted his costs from the bill the aircon installation company wanted us to pay.

If this had just been a poor plumbing job that leaked or a poor paint job that looked untidy I would just have been irritated. But this was electricity. This was potentially lethal.

Yes, you’ve guessed it, Consumer Watchdog is launching another rant about standards and the lack of enforcement.

Standards are great. Standards are really useful. You’ll have seen announcements in the papers from the Bureau of Standards announcing public consultation on the new standards for an endless range of things such as plastic pipes, manhole covers and even, most recently, onions. They’re all great but I don’t think they matter as much as standards that can protect our lives.

The tragedy, the infuriating thing is that we have more enforcement of trivial standards than we do of the ones that matter. If you buy an onion that doesn’t meet BOBS standards you’ll live. If you use non-BOBS approved plastic tubes then you’ll probably survive. If, however, you have an aircon installed by an amateur you and your loved ones could end up on the floor smoking.

I’m the last person to suggest that we need another level of bureaucracy and paperwork in our daily lives but I think it would be good if only trained, qualified and experienced electricians were permitted to do electrical work. I think it would be good if third-rate electricians could be stopped from risking our lives if they show themselves to be incompetent. We do it for doctors, accountants and lawyers so wouldn’t be good if there were penalties for incompetent amateurs who run the risk of frying their customers?

One irony that occurred to me is that electricians that take the time and effort to get trained can make serious money. The only genuinely self-made multi-millionaire I’ve ever met was an electrician. He started with nothing in life and ended up living in a massive house in a very select area of London, a house he bought for cash. The secret of his success? Standards. And exceptionally high prices of course. However, despite his high prices nobody complained because everything he did worked perfectly. Customers never needed to call him out again a week later to fix something he’d done incompletely or incorrectly.

The good news is that there are competent professionals out there. There are excellent electricians, plumbers and builders out there. The tragedy is that, as a nation, we don’t insist that ALL of the people should be as good as possible. We excuse incompetence, we permit mediocrity and we scorn excellence. If we, as consumers, want excellent service we need to insist that standards are created and enforced. When they’re not, we should do what electricians do. We need to start swearing more.

This week’s stars
  • My friend the electrician. He knows who he is and I’m not telling you. He’s mine.
  • Sylvia Moji at Broadhurst Executive for the excellent service.
  • Stuart and Lebo for their outstanding contributions to the recent President’s Concert.

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