The 4 ways to use power supplies safely
Every single one of us does it every single day without giving it much thought at all: we’re talking about the use of power supply technology. Power supplies and adapters are the super-handy, super-affordable and super-flexible way to get power from its source – an outlet, a generator, or even a battery – to the device you’re using. Plug it in, flick it on, and that high-voltage Bob’s your uncle.
Although they come in all different forms, shapes, types and sizes, from a run-of-the-mill 12v DC power supply for your laptop to a complex high-voltage supply that can power just about anything under the sun, it’s the power supply that converts the source power into just the format and voltage required to get the job done.
But although safe when designed, manufactured and used properly, it’s crucial to never become complacent around electricity. At any voltage whatsoever, power can be lethal, resulting in electric shock, burns, psychological and neurological damage, ventricular fibrillation – and more. With enough current flow through your muscles or nerves – as little as 80 milliampere – you’re at risk of tissue damage, seizure of the heart muscle, and fatal electrocution.
So let’s use those power adapters safely! Here’s how:
The RCM mark
Every approved power supply sold in Australia is subject to strict state and federal electrical safety regulations, culminating in a physical stamp called the regulatory compliance mark (RCM). Previously, various jurisdictions would have all their own compliance markings, but from 2016 the system was standardised to make it easy to spot a compliant power supply – so watch out for that familiar tick in a circle logo.
While it’s true that many power adapters look fundamentally alike, the internal circuitry can be fundamentally and vastly different. For instance, get the polarity, voltage and current compatibility wrong between supply and device, and you risk damage to your adapter, power cord, device – or you! That’s because the typical power adapter is designed specifically for a prescribed AC input and DC output, so either use the exact adapter as supplied by the manufacturer, or learn how to read those AC/DC adapter labels on compatible units.
While power supplies are certified as safe before going on the market, that doesn’t mean you don’t need to use basic electrical safety guidelines whilst using them. For instance, always ensure your hands are dry when you’re using them, and keep those adapters dry at all times too to prevent short circuits. Power supplies also have ideal ambient operating conditions for temperatures, humidity and storage, while the presence of dust, liquids, corrosive gases, vibration and shock can also be dangerous.
While power adapters are used for devices like laptops, there is a huge range of other ‘power supplies’ that can provide the power required for just about any electrical device that either exists or is yet to be invented. For instance, some supplies are capable of converting hundreds or even thousands of volts for power-hungry devices like x-ray machines or electron microscopes, driving up the danger and the need to take extra caution in use or when installing. Even tiny metal clippings or conductors entering the product can cause shock or fire, and failure to ground the installation can be fatal.
So while those power supplies and adapters really are handy, the need to use them safely cannot be overstated. If you can avoid it, never make your own modifications to the adapter itself, watch out for signs of fraying, cuts or other damage, and provide your adapter with plenty of ventilation and use a light touch when installing or operating. Stay safe!