It's time to decolonise our plugs
The plug-and-socket system we have is based on something the UK chucked out nearly 70 years ago
Millions of home and business owners are living and working daily with a deadly British colonial legacy: the common three-point round-pin plug and socket.
Professor Christo Viljoen, Stellenbosch University’s former deputy vice-chancellor and former dean of engineering, said if SA wanted to talk about decolonisation, “we need to talk about decolonising our electricity system”.
Used to boil kettles, keep the lights on and power TVs, computers, air conditioners, fridges, washing machines and garage implements, this household tool has now become persona non grata in SA.
Since January 1, every new house or building has to be fitted with an adaption of the three-point round-pin plug.The plug, which is based on a former British plug-and-socket system, was introduced to the country and the UK’s former colonies in the 1920s.
But shortly after World War 2, the British government realised the danger of its plug – which was caused by severe overheating because of poor contact within the socket – and withdrew it from circulation.
In the 1950s, that country’s government ordered the replacement of its entire round-pin plug-and-socket system with a square-pin system.
The colonies, however, were left to their own devices.
While India, also a former British colony, changed its three-pin plug to include a fuse, many counterparts, including SA, left their plugs as they were, making only minor adjustments to the insulation.
“The system we have is based on something the UK chucked out nearly 70 years ago. They abandoned their plug-and-socket system for good reasons and went over to a much safer plug,” Viljoen said.
He said that while the plug was not dangerous per se, it was poorly designed and prone to overheat.
“In two years’ time the plug, which is in every South African household and business, will be more than 100 years old. It has not changed much during this time.”
The problem with pins
Viljoen said the problem with the plug lay with its round pins.
“With round pins you develop problems when it comes to making electrical contact in the socket, which leads to overheating as the contact points are much smaller. Square pins have a better and bigger contact points.“The other problem is that even with the latest South African version of the three-point plug, it does not have a fuse system in place, like the UK and Indian plug, which trips if the plug overheats.”
He said that in March it became compulsory for all new buildings to have different sockets, which could accommodate SA’s new and safer three-point round-pin plug, along with a two-pin plug like those found on cellphone chargers.
“This plug-and-socket should have been done away with 70 years ago, but back then South Africa was under National Party rule. They didn’t even want TV. They were never going to do away with a plug which the British said was unsafe.”
Viljoen said the problem facing the country was that given the number of structures that have the three-point round-pin plug, it would be virtually impossible and uneconomical to replace them with the latest version.
“The only hope is installing the safer version in future buildings.”
Hole lot of trouble
Forensic electrical engineer Professor Ian McKechnie, CEO of Engenamic, said there were several safety issues with the traditional plug and socket, including that the socket holes were rather large, so the shuttering mechanisms (which stop things from being pushed inside) are easily compromised.“Some of the older plugs are also not properly shrouded with insulation material, so one can easily be shocked pulling it out of or pushing it into a socket.”South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) spokesperson Bjørn Buyst said the dangers of the plug lay in the ease with which children can push their fingers into the sockets, and it overheating.
“Twenty years ago things were not as well thought out as they are today.”
He said that while from January it was compulsory under regulations that govern the wiring of buildings to install safer plugs, the SABS could not enforce this in older houses.
“We are a design compliancy agency, not an enforcement agency.”
Buyst, while expressing concern about knock-offs of the three-point round-pin plug coming into the country, said the danger did not lie in the level of South African standards.“It lies in the knock-offs, which are not to the compulsory standards. We have standards and we test the devices, but if people don’t keep to them we cannot regulate as it is not our mandate.”
Pierre Northard, former chairperson of SAFEhouse, an electrical safety association, however said in the last 15 years since he had been involved in the electrical industry, this was the first time he had heard of a flaw in the design of the plug and socket.
“What I can say though is that there are millions of electrical products on the country’s shop floors which do not comply with the necessary safety specs laid down by the safety authorities.
“Maybe these are the issue and not the plug and socket, which conform to the necessary safety standards.”