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Timed Testing

17 February 2009

New regulations for electrical safety launched a year ago, came into force on 1st July 2008. Six months on Mark Blanchfield examines the impact of the ‘17th Edition’ changes for testing of electrical installations and how to keep the costs down

ELECTRICAL SAFETY IS JUST ONE OF THE CRITICAL responsibilities for the FM and many are still getting to grips with the ramifications of changes made to safety regulations to bring the UK into line with European standards. The new regulations come from the IEE and are specifically ‘BS7671: 2008 (IEE Wiring Regulations 17th Edition)’, referred to as ‘the 17th Edition’ in the electrical market. Although these came into force without a great fanfare, they have introduced some dramatic changes in safety requirements. One of the key areas of update is for electrical safety testing.

As an indication of the importance of compliance with the new regulations and how they fit with mandatory safety legislation, the HSE has issued a very clear statement: “Installations which conform to the standards laid down in BS7671:2008 are regarded by the HSE as likely to achieve conformity with the relevant parts of the Electricity at Work Regulations 1989.”

Amendments to the Standard are numerous and, in some areas, the details are complex to interpret. There are changes to amendments and extensions to terminology and definitions (the new Standard includes 260 definitions compared to 170 previously) and changes to protection against electric shock and harmonisation. of bathrooms. There are more stringent EMC requirements, a new section on lighting and luminaires and eight new appendices to the Standard. Two special locations listed within the 16th Edition have lost their special status and are now being dealt with in the body of the Standard. However, seven new special locations have been added, many dealing with outdoor environments such as marinas, caravan and mobile units, plus some that add newer technologies that have become more prevalent such as floor and ceiling heating systems and solar power supplies.

Chapter 41 of the new Standard states that socket-outlets up to 20A for use by ordinary persons require 30mA RCD protection. Socket outlets up to 32A intended for general use, for mobile equipment or for use outdoors require 30mA RCD protection. Exceptions do apply, such as a socket that is labelled and used for a certain piece of equipment. This has implications for all installations, particularly large-scale changes for outdoor environments such as marinas, caravan parks and mobile units must now ensure that each socket outlet is individually protected with overcurrent and RCD protection.

Chapter 52 introduces a new series of regulations regarding cables concealed in a wall or partition - that’s the majority of existing hard wiring systems in Britain today. These changes introduce the requirement for RCD protection. It is now required to protect cables concealed a depth of less than 50mm by a 30mA RCD where the installation is not intended to be under the supervision of a skilled or instructed person, if the method of protection does not include an earthed metallic covering to or mechanical protection to 522.6.6.

Luminaires and lighting installations are dealt with in Section 559, which includes a series of regulations giving particular requirements for fixed outdoor lighting installations, extra-low voltage lighting installations and lighting for display stands. Additional requirements are now included for general lighting, including requirements for protection against fire and connection of luminaires to the fixed wiring.

Reg 135.1 now makes a positive recommendation that ‘every electrical installation is subjected to periodic inspection and testing’. Under the previous edition of the Standard it was presumed that if you conducted risk assessments, kept proper records and had planned preventative maintenance in place then you didn’t necessarily have to conduct periodic testing. However, the 17th Edition now recommends that testing is carried out.

When testing is conducted to comply with the 17th Edition it will undoubtedly identify a far greater number of departures than previously found due in part to a change in the way the coded faults are reclassified, and the scope of faults demanding remedial action has broadened. Code One is condensed to ‘serious life threatening’, Code Two requires ‘Improvement’ – faults reported in either of these categories now mean that a periodic certificate would be recorded as unsatisfactory.

More faults are also due to the obvious fact that existing buildings won’t have been wired to the 17th Edition, meaning that in many ways the installation won’t comply. This isn’t a problem in itself but will mean that more remedial repairs and improvements to the system will be required post-testing if it is chosen to bring it into line with the new Standard.

To estimate the scale of these extra faults is almost impossible and it is too early to see consistent patterns in the test data. No two buildings are alike. However, under the 17th Edition it is expected that the number of faults reported could increase by at least an additional 20percent. The extent of work and cost to remedy those faults can vary greatly but will certainly prove more expensive than before. One reason for this is due to the improved protection against electric shock. For example, a faulty circuit might previously been remedied by means of a cheap MCB at around £5 but now that same fault would require an RCD on the distribution board, likely to cost £45-50.

Where RCDs are introduced there is an increased likelihood of ‘nuisance tripping’. However, for critical or essential appliances (freezers, IT equipment, hospital machinery) it is possible to wire these into a labelled system without RCD protection to avoid loss of power.

The criteria for who carries out safety testing has also been tightened; testing must now be undertaken by a ‘competent person’, defined as ‘a person who possesses sufficient technical knowledge, relevant practical skills and experience for the nature of the electrical work undertaken and is able at all times to prevent danger and, where appropriate, injury to him/herself and others’. In practice this means that the whole electrical market has scrambled to get engineers trained and qualified to C&G 2382-20 or 2382-10.

There is still a shortage of places and capacity to provide this qualification and many companies are still struggling – several months down the line – to get their people qualified. This is potential risk for the FMs so special care should be taken to check and specify that testing staff you use have C&G 2380-20 or 2380-10.

Some FMs have asked how to achieve compliance in the face of current economic conditions, where budgets are being restricted. The obvious thing to do is to get competitive quotes or tenders but check that prospective suppliers are quoting for the same thing, or you could end up taking a cheap deal that turns out to be unsatisfactory in the long run.

A particular point of concern in electrical safety is a discrepancy in the market between inspection and testing. Some companies only conduct insulation resistance testing for a sample of circuits rather than them all. This means that although on first glance they seem cheaper, they are actually charging a much higher rate, effectively leaving most of your installation untested. Inspection is not the same as testing – don’t be mislead.

Thoroughly scrutinise the pricing structure for testing and remedials. Many suppliers that offer cheap testing load the resultant remedial fees to compensate. They use testing as a loss leader, to tempt you into a complete service contract. It’s better practice to use separate suppliers for testing and remedial work to avoid any bias. However, if you do single source, be sure to obtain comparison quotations from other sources for both elements.

Whilst testing is now necessary for compliance, you do have the option to extend the frequency between testing if you conduct a thorough Risk Assessment to establish that this is adequate. For complete confidence follow the recommendations of the IEE for frequency (see page 31). Another option is to phase your testing schedule over time rather than in one big project. This means you can spread the cost out and plan it to your budget. However, take care when scheduling that no element falls outside the IEE recommended frequency of test.

To drive down the price of testing you can use flexibility to your advantage. Unsociable hours cost the most and short timescales can also mean you pay more. Plan in advance and build all the timing and site access flexibility in that you can. Communicate that intention to your testing supplier and ask them to find a way to reduce their prices in return for considerations on your part. Just like buying a fixed price energy deal, negotiate a longer contract for testing that will span three, four or five years and you are sure to get preferential pricing. The supplier wants the business on the order book and hence you should be able to drive a deal on price. Another tip in the same vein is to link the buying of your periodic installation testing and PAT so that you maximise your buying power.

● Mark Blanchfield is managing director of electrical safety testing specialist, Epsilon, acquired by PHS Group in 2008.

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