Lemmings and Dead Cats


The earth is big, really really big, it is humungously big, in fact it is the biggest thing we can actually touch. While we may be rather ambivalent towards planet earth, for electrons it is home.

As we already know the electron was named after the Greek electron which, of course, means amber. Amber? Yes, amber and this is because when the ancient Greeks rubbed furry things such as dead cats on amber it upset subatomic particles which made them run around like idiots and these we call electrons. The collective noun for electrons is electricity. Down in the highways and byways of Surabaya thousands of people work night and day rubbing dead cats on pieces of amber sending hysterical electrons down large cables to Bali so that we can enjoy all the carnal (and incarnal) pleasures of electrical power.

In fact all those little electrons are doing is trying to find their way home to earth and, as certainly as a dog will pee on your car wheel, given half a chance earth is where those little blighters will go. If we have a fault such as a short circuit in our electrical circuits they will escape and, like lemmings jumping off the cliff, they will rush headlong to earth. So vigorous are they in their endeavour they will produce heat that may result in your house burning down or, if you just happen to get in their way, a well kicked bucket.

We need to protect ourselves against the dangers of homesick electrons.

Fires in buildings and electrocutions seem to be commonplace events here in Indonesia, mostly they are blamed on electrical faults and, tragically, most can be easily avoided.

It is all quite simple really. In their wisdom electrical engineers have, almost since electricity supply began, devised and used a safety system for all electrical circuits which depends on one basic feature – a connection to earth.

We put a 4 metre long copper rod into the ground and we connect this to the building circuits with a 1 cm diameter bare copper cable. Buildings should all have a network of wires (green and yellow striped) which go to all the electrical connections in the building, including every plug socket, and these are connected in the electrical panel to the earth cable.

All our electrical equipment with metal covers (such as computer cabinets, washing machines, dishwashers. refrigerators, water heaters, toasters and the like are all connected to the earth through the plug socket.

Now if a problem occurs and there is a short circuit the electricity can flow through the earth system and into the ground. The rush of electricity increases to such a extent that it burns out a fuse or makes a circuit breaker cut out thereby cutting off the supply of electricity. It is a simple system that saves lives (and buildings).

Well that is the theory. Unfortunately all too often we hear of buildings that burn down owing to an “electrical fault.”

The fundamental reason for this is that here in Indonesia there is no formal training or certification system for electricians; electrical engineers – yes but electricians – no.

Mistakes are made through a lack of knowledge, laziness or the desire to save money.

Here are some of the many problems we come across on a daily basis.

  • Most buildings have inadequate, and very often no, earth connection.
  • Contact breakers are usually too large to cut out when there is a problem, the building sets on fire before the power cuts off. If the main PLN circuit breaker cuts out before the house circuits then you know you have a problem.
  • Too many appliances or light fittings on one circuit. The rule is a maximum of 8 plug sockets or 12 light fittings to one circuit.
  • Poor wiring installations especially when there are joins in the cable. There should not be joins in cables, if there are these should be enclosed in properly designed small junction boxes.
  • Poor quality cable and fittings.
  • Many small power boards do not have the earth wires connected.
  • Neutral wires connected to the earth. This is a very common practice but it relies upon the government supply being properly earthed and with no power in it. PLN are constantly trying to manage an ever growing supply network with new connections being made all the time and so problems do occur. My advice is to keep your earthing system totally independent from the government supply and do not connect the earth to the neutral.
  • Voltage drops. It is very common for people to suffer voltage drops (we have come across voltages as low as 130 volts instead of the standard 220 volts). This can damage your equipment especially air conditioners. Electronics and pumps. Consider using a voltage stabiliser particularly if you are in Ubud, Jimbaran and Karangasem.

NOTE: Standard contact breakers will not save your life.

Finally it is very important to note that those standard miniature circuit breakers (MCBs) in your distribution panel will not save your life if you get electrocuted. By the time enough current has passed through the circuit breaker to trip it you are toast.

To protect yourself from electrocution your circuits require “Earth Leakage” circuit breakers which are compulsory in many countries. They detect the slightest leakage to earth and cut out instantaneously. Many “electricians” here don’t like them, they don’t know how to connect them up correctly and they trip when there is even the slightest mistake in the wiring which then has to be found and repaired.

Probably the best cutout switches to use are known as RCBOs (Residual current Circuit Breakers with Overload protection). These are a standard circuit breaker but with an earth leakage switch built into them.

Keep safe

Phil Wilson

Previous “Fixed Abode” articles can be found subject indexed on our website at www.mrfixitbali.com. Opinions expressed are those of Phil Wilson. He can be contacted through the website or the office on 0361 288 789 or 08123 847 852.

Copyright © 2020 Phil Wilson

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