It’s never nice to have to tell a customer that they’ve wasted hundreds of dollars and hours of shopping time, but with more and more people buying on the internet, it’s becoming all too common. It happened to one of our regular customers, and she wanted us to tell her story so it wouldn’t happen to you.
Two Wrongs—Nothing’s Right
The client, a real estate investor, recently had us come out to install a ceiling fan and some sconces she bought online for one of her properties. They were sleek, beautiful, and she got them at a great price. They were also illegal.
There wasn’t anything wrong with the fixtures, and it was perfectly all right for her to have them—as long as she didn’t install them. Doing so would have resulted in code violations and possible disasters.
In the case of the ceiling fan, the good folks at the building department decided long ago that people should be able to live in a space without fear of having their scalps removed, so they require that fan blades be a minimum of seven feet above floor level. While this may still pose a risk to a handful of basketball players, the vast majority of people are well served by the rule. Unfortunately, the pendant for our client’s fan was designed for higher ceilings and couldn’t be adjusted, so its blades would be a hazard to persons even slightly taller than a munchkin. As a result, she had to repackage and return the fan at her expense and pay a restocking fee to boot. Plus she had to go through the shopping and ordering process all over again.
Most U.S. electrical codes require that wall sconces be securely attached to a 4” round metal junction box for safety. Her European-designed fixtures were made to fasten to 3” boxes, and while that may be OK half a world away, they’re too small to fit the larger US boxes. Back to the drawing board. And the return department.
What Can Go Wrong
Electrical systems and safety standards are not uniform around the world. Some of the differences are obvious—120 vs 240 volts, for instance. And plugs are designed for specific voltage and wiring systems with different pin sizes and configurations, so you may find yourself trying fit a round pin into a square hole.
But other differences can be more subtle, the mounting box difference for the sconces, for example. And even things made for similar voltages and plugs can operate improperly if they’ve been designed for a 50-cycles-per-second supply instead of the 60-cycle system used in the US. Many 120-volt, 50-cycle appliances will work okay on a 60-cycle system, but if it has an analog clock (they use the cycles per second to measure time), it won’t even be accurate twice a day. Cycles also can have negative effects on some motors and fluorescent lamps. Check the product specifications before you order.
How to Avoid Trouble
Most manufacturers take these things into account and make their products in multiple versions suited to different systems. Some appliances, notably most computers, have built-in transformers that will operate on 120-240 volts and 50 or 60 cycles.
Regardless, before ordering, you should verify that the item is made to operate on the US standard of 120 volts and 60 cycles. If it’s a plug-in item, verify that it comes with a US-compatible plug, too.
Hard-wired items—the sconces above, for instance—also need to conform to US electrical codes and specifications, including junction box sizes and wire types.
Play It Safe
Electrical, building, and fire codes are designed to make structures and products safe. Unfortunately, they’re not always observed, especially by people trying to make a quick buck, and if a licensed contractor or building inspector finds a non-conforming product, they won’t let you use it.
Look for products that have been tested and approved by reputable agencies recognized by the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). They include Underwriters Laboratories (UL), SGS North America, Intertek, Canadian Standards Association (CSA), or FM Approvals (FM). Also check to see that your item conforms to local building codes if it’s to be permanently installed.
Still Confused? Call a Pro
The pros at Allstar Electrical Services have been serving homes and businesses since 2000. If you need help choosing the right products or with any other electrical issues, call Allstar Electrical at 303.399.7420 or visit our website. Then use our handy on-line forms to request an estimate or set up an appointment.