Consequences of overlamping

Master Electricians Australia
By Malcolm Richards, CEO
Monday, 08 September, 2014

The inquest into Australia’s deadliest house fire has highlighted the role of the electrical industry in guiding public safety.

Every Australian wants their family to be safe, but the issue of ‘overlamping’ has been in the spotlight after it was raised during an inquest into the nation’s worst house fire tragedy - named as a possible cause behind a shocking blaze that killed 11 people near Brisbane three years ago.

Former scientific police officer Brad Bardell reportedly told the inquest that a desk lamp could have been a viable ignition point for the 2011 inferno. Those of us in the industry may be amused at the invention of a new term, ‘overlamping’, to describe putting a bulb with wattage that is too high into a lamp that cannot provide the required electrical output. The heat can melt the socket and the wiring insulation - greatly increasing the risk of arcing.

Bardell had discovered during his investigations into the fire, that at the time the family bought the desk lamp they would also have been able to buy 60 W bulbs for it. But the lamp was only rated to use a bulb for up to 40 W. The 60 W bulbs, suitable for that particular lamp, have since been removed from sale. However, Bardell reportedly tested the same model lamp with a 60 W bulb he’d managed to get from importers and was able to ignite standard printer paper ‘within minutes’.

But it is rare - this is the first time I’ve heard of it being the possible cause behind a fire. It is so uncommon it piqued the interest of the media, and I was invited onto ABC radio to discuss the issue with Brisbane breakfast presenter Spencer Howsen and onto 4BC’s Drive program with Ben Davis the following day. An ABC listener had texted an interesting comment, “I would think it’s getting harder to overlamp now that low-wattage bulbs are just about all you can buy these days”. It is a valid point, but unfortunately it isn’t that cut and dried just yet. Many older appliances in people’s homes can be used so infrequently that they could still be fitted with bulbs with wattage that’s too high.

While many safety hazards are glaringly obvious, the concept of ‘overlamping’ may be quite easy for everyday people to overlook. But they could be violating Australian standards - putting their property and the lives of their loved ones at risk.

A tragedy such as this has again focussed attention on how important it is for industry professionals to guide the community when it comes to electrical safety. While the possible ramifications of ‘overlamping’ have been a topic of discussion this week, hundreds more fires are caused by dichroic downlights every year.

While the 2012 phase-out of incandescent lamps was initiated as an energy efficiency measure, the side benefit is that the new bulbs are much cooler, and far less likely to overheat. Contractors should take this opportunity to encourage discussion, and to direct customers to change over to new, efficient and energy-saving LED bulbs, and substantially reduce the risk of house fires.

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