Just plug it in—if you can

The new outlets required by law are so safe even adults have a hard time using them

Toronto-area electrician Tony Krakovich likes it when his clients are happy. So he was dismayed to receive a phone call last month from a couple who, despite their best efforts, were unable to plug a light into the outlets he’d installed.

The pair had gone to check on the progress of their 6,000-sq.-foot home, which was a few months from completion. “They said, ‘You put in damaged [outlets],’ ” he recalls. They thought they’d have problems with every plug in the house. Well, his clients may be right. The outlets aren’t damaged; as Krakovich explained, they’re simply the new, tamper-resistant variety that must be installed in all new dwellings. And he concedes that they’re “very hard to use.”

Tamper-resistant outlets, currently being rolled out across the country (Quebec will be the last province to adopt the change this fall), are meant to be a little tricky. The change, mandated by the 2009 Canadian Electrical (CE) Code, is in response to concerns about children sticking everything from pins and keys to their fingers into outlets: in a six-year period, 365 kids were treated in hospital for electrical injuries, 37 per cent of whom required medical follow-up. As such, the new outlets come equipped with spring-loaded shutters, which won’t open unless two prongs are inserted simultaneously. The problem, however, is that adults are having a tough time using them, too—evidence, perhaps, of yet another childproofing measure making life more difficult for the rest of us.

As Krakovich sees it, the new rules are “a bit too much.” While requiring the new outlets in bedrooms and other places accessible to small kids makes sense, he questions whether it’s worth the hassle in kitchens, say, where many outlets are out of reach, or hidden behind large appliances. And as Toronto-area contractor Kevin Hernden points out, tamper-resistant outlets originated in Europe, where the voltage is two times more powerful (220 volts—enough to “knock you right out,” he says). On this side of the pond, the zap kids get from sticking something into an outlet is generally mild—and instructive. “Once your child has gotten an electrical bite,” he says, “they never do it again.”

The new outlets also cost more. Though they’ve come down in price in the last year, at $2 a pop they’re still more than double the cost of conventional outlets—a significant difference to contractors, who are often buying thousands at a time, says Frank Sardoletti Jr., who owns Hudco Electrical Supply in Barrie, Ont. Anticipating the difference in price, he says some contractors “were smart,” and obtained permits for new subdivisions before the change was implemented.

Since the regulation came into effect, Stephen Brown, director of energy for the Canadian Standards Association, which compiles the CE Code, says he hasn’t heard any complaints about usability. “The instructions are pretty simple,” he says, “so I don’t know what the difficulty could be.” At the same time, he says most people understand that the danger of electrical injury is “very real,” and the new outlets are “there for a purpose.”

But as Krakovich sees it, “You can’t protect against everything.” The sentiment, it seems, is being echoed by homeowners, some of whom are so fed up with the tamper-resistant outlets that they’ve requested to have them removed after their property passes inspection. (Citing possible legal ramifications, Krakovich says he refuses to switch them out.) And here’s the rub: despite the inconvenience the new outlets are causing, they’re not childproof. According to Colleen Driscoll, executive director of the International Association for Child Safety, they’re an improvement, but they don’t prevent kids from plugging in dangerous appliances, or sticking in two objects simultaneously. Says Driscoll, “We sometimes underestimate kids in terms of how quickly they can learn.” Apparently, the same can’t always be said of their parents.