The impact of increased globalisation and travel, coupled with the amount of portable technology we now depend upon, has seen the growth in the use of portable wiring accessories and travel adaptors to provide continuity of use with the many plug and socket-outlet types used around the world.

In the UK there has been increasing use of fixed wired universal socket outlets that can accommodate a variety of plug types used in non-UK countries. These universal socket-outlets are a particularly attractive concept for specifiers and installers of electrical services in hotels and other locations with lots of international visitors.

Keith Smith, BEAMA’s deputy director – installation sector, warned: “The reality, however, is very different as a great many of these universal socket-outlets create potentially unsafe and hazardous arrangements with different plugs for the unsuspecting user. Furthermore, the installation of these universal socket-outlets could also be considered illegal in the UK, as they may not comply with the requirements of UK Safety Regulations.”

Plug safety across the world

The UK standard plug (BS 1363-1 compliant) and socket-outlet (BS 1363-2 compliant) system is designed to ensure safety of the user. The BS 1363-1 plug pins are sleeved and the BS 1363-2 socket-outlet is shuttered. This is to ensure that during insertion and withdrawal of a BS 1363-1 plug from a BS 1363-2 socket-outlet, the live pins of the plug are not accessible to the user. The shutter on the BS 1363-2 socket-outlet ensures that live parts of the socket-outlet are not readily accessible to the user when a plug isn’t connected to the socket-outlet.

Other countries also have unique plug and socket-outlet systems designed to allow only the correct plug to be inserted into the corresponding socket-outlet. Countries where unsleeved plug pins are used, such as Germany and France, usually have socket-outlet designs incorporating a recess in the front plate, ensuring plug pins are not accessible during plug insertion, and withdrawal from the socket-outlet. Universal socket-outlets, by design, don’t have this safety feature.

Universal socket-outlets allow the use of 2-pin plugs, and in doing so introduce a serious risk of electric shock. A number of European countries use unsleeved 2-pin plugs, which when used with universal socket-outlets, leave the pins accessible during plug insertion and withdrawal. These pins are potentially live and if touched would result in an electric shock.

Keith Smith continued: “Some universal socket-outlets do not have shutters, leaving live parts of the socket-outlet readily accessible. The use of un-shuttered socket-outlets in households and similar locations is prohibited by BS 7671 (IET Wiring Regulations 17th Edition) due to unimpeded access to live parts within the socket-outlet. Any un-shuttered universal socket-outlet in use should be removed from service and replaced with BS 1363 compliant products. Another safety issue is that some universal socket-outlet designs will accept plugs rated at 100 – 120Va.c. for the connection of items of electrical equipment having a similar 100 – 120Va.c. rating. Such electrical equipment, specifically those containing motors and heating elements like hair dryers, travel irons and kettles, will not operate safely at 230Va.c.. This could cause overheating and fire.  Again, BEAMA recommends that any universal socket-outlet that will accept a 100-120V a.c. plug should be removed from service and replaced with BS 1363 compliant products.”

Compliance and legislation

Research commissioned by the Electrical Safety Council and the ensuing test report found that the universal socket-outlets assessed did not comply with the UK General Product Safety Regulations 2005, the safely requirements of the UK ‘Plug and Socket Safety Regulations 1994’ or BS 1363 the UK’s specification for 13A socket-outlets.

Schedule 2 of the UK Plugs and Sockets Regulations 1994 states that socket-outlets with which standard three pin plugs conforming to BS 1363 may be engaged must comply with BS 1363.              

This means that suppliers of socket-outlets ordinarily intended for domestic use, and with which standard three pin plugs may be engaged, are legally obliged to ensure the socket-outlets meet the requirements of BS 1363, or an equivalent standard.

All universal socket-outlets in use should be risk assessed

Universal socket-outlets by their very nature create worldwide ‘dangerous compatibility’ by allowing plugs of many different configurations intended to supply appliances at different voltages, to be connected into potentially incompatible electrical supplies. This introduces serious potential hazards including risk of electrocution and risk of fire.

Universal socket-outlets that do not meet all the requirements of BS 1363 or an equivalent Standard contravene the requirements of the UK ‘Plug and Socket Safety Regulations 1994’, and universal socket-outlets that allow live pins and/or live parts to be accessible do not comply with the UK General Product Safety Regulations 2005.

BEAMA recommends that installations where universal socket-outlets are already in use should be subjected to a risk analysis to identify if these socket-outlets are electrically safe. All electrically unsafe universal socket-outlets should be removed from service and replaced with BS 1363 compliant products.

Furthermore, BEAMA calls upon Trading Standards to take appropriate action against the sellers of electrically unsafe universal socket-outlets. Specifiers and installers of electrical services should consider the legal implications of specifying and installing universal socket-outlets in the UK.

Similarly, distributors of universal socket-outlets have a responsibility under the General Product Safety Regulations to act “with due care”. Distributors should be able to substantiate that the universal socket-outlets they supply are electrically safe.