Tales from the sharp end...

All of these stories are true and all have happened to me!
(names have been changed to protect both the innocent and the guilty...)

Stories and photos are the copyright of Mike Joseph. Please contact me should you wish to use them.

The Shower

This is the nearest I have ever been involved with an incident that should have killed someone. This was a really dangerous case - someone had really messed up the installation...

I get a phone call: " We are getting shocks when we use the shower..." she said.

"Stop using the shower! and I will be right over!"

Two showers in the property, up and down stairs, both installed about 30 years ago - no RCD present. I went to the upstairs shower (the culprit), took the head off, laid it into the tray and then turned it on - very carefully... There was a slight reaction from my voltage tester and I turned it off and replaced the head. I powered off, went to the isolator downstairs and carefully removed it.

Expletives, lots of them. As I removed the isolator the following became apparent:

1. The live and neutral cables on the shower side were loose and came straight out of their connections.

2. The live cable insulation was burnt crispy black due to arcing.

3. The shower side earth was not connected at all and had never been because it was too short.

4. The tip of the shower earth was adjacent to the worst bit of the burnt live hence the shocks!

I do not know why they were still alive!

As I was installing RCDs and new cable, I then discovered that most of the upstairs circuits were still wired with rubber cable.

I was there for a week sorting it all out.

The First Time

This is the very first time I have come across this one - rarer than it used to be - fortunately - since *mcb's are replacing re-wireable fuses. There are many stories of fuse wire being replaced by nails, silver paper and such like, fuses are there to save life and property.

Here, someone with more skill than wisdom had replaced the fuse wire with a piece of ordinary copper wire and very expertly done it was too. Just look at the state of the cable! The first that anyone would have known of a fault would have been a burning smell - this was in a church, used only a few times a week - chances are that no-one would have been there... AND it was set up for a 30A fuse when it should have been a maximum of 20A.

Burnt wire and fuse

I replaced the rewireable fuse with a plug in mcb rated at 16A.

* mcb
miniature circuit breaker - started replacing rewireable fuses in the 1980s and are much safer and more reliable.

Burnt Offerings - 1

I was called round to a house - the kitchen dimmer switch had failed - spectacularly!

The lady of the house, just before going up to bed, was making a cuppa and turned around to see the light switch on fire behind the front white translucent plastic panel! That was very, very lucky!

The first dimmer switch had actually caught fire and then burnt the second one (just above it). The third (in a different room) was about to burn out. The reason was that they (first and third) were controlling lights at their rated capacity - sort of. The lights were mini spots running at 12 volts via a transformer. So, when there are 10 x 50W lamps this does not equal a 500W load (the limit marked), it actually is nearer 600W because of losses in the transformer.

These units had not been installed by an electrician (or my customer) but by a builder and by a decorator. Say no more.

burnt offering 1 Burnt offering 2 burnt offering 3

Burnt Offerings - 2

This is what happens when a cable gets stretched - in this case to a heater. The cable inside the plug became partially detached, got very hot with arcing and burnt the socket as well as the plug.

Burnt socket

A Short Story

A customer calls me up and says that a ring circuit is continually tripping the mcb*. A dead short.

I ask the customer what has changed - "Nothing" he replies. Nothing has been added to or changed or removed from the circuit. Curious. Something had changed - we will come back to that later...

I took off all of the sockets in the ring - three downstairs in the lounge and the remainder upstairs in four of the six bedrooms and one landing socket (this house has had a lot of changes over the years). No sign of a loose cable, burning or smell.

Pooh. This means a damaged cable. Somewhere.

So I take off the cover of the consumer unit and I get faced with a densely packed mass of spaghetti. If one wire pops out, then it's 'Houston I have a problem'! So I carefully replace it and then split the ring into three and add bits until I find which section is at fault.

I end up with a complete ring and the fault is in a spur from a double socket going through the wall to the landing. Very odd - why? It is, after all, only a short length of cable.

I stood up, took two paces to the left, two more to get to the landing and then two to the right to the socket as in:

Landing & bedroom


Why two paces to the landing? Why was the wall so deep? It dawned on me that this was the chimney for the open fire below. Someone taking the shortest route had only taken the cable across a chimney!

And the customer was wrong: something had changed - they had moved in six years earlier and the difference was that the previous owners had not used the open fireplace and his family did so regularly. It had taken six years for the cable to burn through.

* mcb
miniature circuit breaker - started replacing rewireable fuses in the 1980s and are much safer and more reliable.

Hot Lighting

The customer wondered why her lights did not work...

Just two photos - what happens when a cable is not sufficiently tight in a connector block. The cable arcs and generates a lot of heat. The fuse or mcb does not break because there is no fault - if an RCD* had been fitted, it might have detected something before it all fused into a lump and popped the mcb.

A fire can always be a possibility when things get hot.

These photos are of what a connector block should look like and the horror that I replaced!

Fused connector block
Fused connector block

Residual Current Device - protects the human from electric shock (fuses protect property by preventing fire). They are very sensitive and reliable.

Tardis, or The House That Growed a Bit...

The house wherein this tale takes place is modern, 1980s built, on the side of a hill. The garage is at the front, facing the street and the front door is accessed by a passage along the side. Downstairs is the lounge and, under the garage, are the utility rooms.

Downstairs 1

The customer wanted extra lights and sockets in the basement utility rooms. Not a problem at all. At the start of the job, I asked him what was behind the panel at the end of the smaller of the two utility rooms. 'It's only a service duct' replied he.

'Shall we have a look?' There were only 10 screws holding it on.

'Why not?'

So after the screws, we started to prise it off and I nearly dropped this heavy chunk of MDF (as it turned out) because as it came away, behind it there were a pair of eyes staring back at me! This resolved into a face and then into my face! Nasty!

There was a large cavity with a mirror fitted on the wall and we looked in and it went around the corner as well! My customer looked stunned, as well he might and just said 'I got me a darkroom!' It squared off with the other utility room (about another 1.3m in depth and about 2.5m wide) and then ran under the passage to the front door. There were the remains of a badly built unfinished kitchen, a newspaper from about a month before the offer was made on it and some dangerous, live electrics (bare wires just sticking out!). Not only was there a brand new washing machine but the customer's was just about to give up. Lucky, lucky man!

The vendor had blocked it off just before it went onto the market, it does not appear in the architect's drawings nor on the survey...

And what it looked like afterwards:

Downstairs 2

At the end of that day, I asked him if he was going to show it to his wife and of course he said that he would.

'Why don't we put the panel back loosely'.

'That's cool' says he...

This was the house that just grew in size without so much as an extra brick! Maybe I should have charged extra...

The Extention Lead from Hell

"My brother-in-law put in this extension lead for me..."

There are a lot of faults here (and I think I have listed most of them, but I may have missed one or two):

horror photo
horror photo
And this is what I saw first! Wrong fitting used, no earth, no
grommet and look at that white cable coyly peeping out - this was the direct connection to the table lamp, (fused at 13 amps
- should have been 3 amps) and incorrectly rated cable. And finally, no cable restraint, meaning that the cable could be pulled out, leaving two live ends just waiting to be touched!

Six faults so far.

And a quick view of its' interior - no idea which of the cables
(feed) are live and neutral, not that it matters as we shall

Seven faults now.

horror photo
horror photo
Join number one - not using the appropriate fitting. And
using insulation tape? I suppose that we should be
grateful for a small mercy...

Eight faults

Is this a join or a repair? Otherwise as before.

Nine faults
horror photo
horror photo
And the same again!

Ten faults

A join! Using a completely unprotected connector block -

Twelve faults

horror photo
horror photo

Old plug - should have a sheath on the live and neutral pins.
Depending how long ago this 'cable' was created, then it
could have been legal, but not now. And if it was that long
ago this extention cable has been a fire or electrocution waiting to happen for a very long time.

Thirteen faults

And finally, no earth - incorrect cable for the service.

Fourteen faults in one cable...

Once Upon a Time There was an Electrician, Green and Still Wet Behind the Ears...

And I was looking up at some under-cupboard lights in the kitchen, I was. And there was a junction box too and it was all turned off at the fused outlet on the wall, it was. And I tested (just because on the Sparky course we were told to do so) that there was nothing live in the junction box before I started. It was still live wasn't it?! And the fused outlet was still switched off and yet it was live - and so, incidentally, was I and still drawing breath too.

I checked that there were not two feeds to the junction box and there was only the one.

I thought "it has been wired up incorrectly" and carefully unscrewed it from the wall. And lo, it was wired correctly. And I was mightily puzzled.

I put the tester across the neutral and flicked the switch a few times and it went on and off appropriately. Then I repeated across the live terminals. This time it remained live.


It meant that the lights were being switched on and off via the neutral, and still remaining live.


Either the fitting had been defective or the contacts had welded themselves.

Thank you my little circuit tester.

The Junior Electrician

A large house was being built.

I am the (very) junior sparky and when my gaffer tells me not to keep turning up on time, but to arrive not less than 20 minutes late (because I keep turning up before he does and embarrassing him) who am I to argue?

So I do this for quite a while and after a few weeks of getting ribbed by the others on site - "back problems again - couldn't get it off the bed?" and much less polite versions on the same theme, I had to do something. My main inquisitor was a roofer, a decent bloke otherwise but resembled a gorilla in looks, complexion and hairiness. So since the foreman had a very distinctive car, I wandered in one morning about my usual late time, (incidentally, still arriving before my gaffer), the joshing started and I cut in with "Pete's parked up the road and he's walking down". The guys all jumped up and started moving off to their work with various comments on Pete's ancestry, swearing and so on.

I stared at my main tormentor and said "I got you! I got you!" "You (******) " replies he, "Just wait, I'll get you for that!"

Come the lunchbreak, my workbox that I usually sat on had disappeared and so I just shrugged, sat on the ground and had lunch. At the end, he told me that it was on the scaffolding just out of sight. No problem and no more joshing either.

(******) - person of indeterminate parenthood. Building sites are not generally known for the use of restrained and elegant language and so the story above has been edited a little!


I was working with a mate (we will call him John) and we were scrabbling around with a cable under the floorboards. We had had the power on and off during that morning while we were repositioning sockets and other fittings and the back (fortunately) of my hand just touched some bare cable from a disused socket.

'OW!' said I because it was live and it hurts somewhat.

'Oh sorry!' said 'John' and he jumped up and killed the power that he had forgotten that he had livened up a few minutes earlier. 'That was very restrained' said he.

The boss came in a while later and 'John' confessed to what he had done.

'Did he hit you?'


'That was very restrained' said the boss...

I didn't know that I was allowed a free one!

Stories and photos are the copyright of Mike Joseph. Please contact me should you wish to use them.