International

Iraq: An Electrical Storm

Baghdad wires

hide captionA mess of electrical wires hangs from utility poles in front of the Abu Hanifa mosque in Baghdad's al-Adhamiyah district, March 2008.

PATRICK BAZ/AFP

The photos of electrical wiring in Iraq certainly make it seem that in addition to sending an army of trigger pullers to Iraq, we should have also sent an army of electricians.

It's clear the region of the Middle East that gave us Hammurabi's Code would definitely benefit from a stronger electrical code.

Iraq may be no worse than much of the rest of the developing world and is probably a lot better than much of it.

Still, the photos tell us that the dangers faced by Iraqis aren't only from bombs and guns. (There's a great picture of Iraq's electrical spaghetti that ran with a post by David, my blogging colleague, earlier today.)

Faulty electrical wiring was suspected in a fire in northern Iraq that killed 28 people last month, including foreigners.

The electrical problems that received the most attention in the U.S. were those of its service members, some of whom, because of poorly installed electrical circuits, received fatal shocks while in the shower or power washing a Humvee.

An article on the Electrical Wholesaling website provides some details of Iraq's electrical safety issues:

“There's a saying that Iraqi buildings conform to a ‘seven codes, plus one’ standard — seven for the rough number of nations that built the Iraqi infrastructure over the years and applied the electrical codes of each, and the ‘plus one’ being no code whatsoever,” says Col. Jeff Gabbert, commander of the Defense Contract Management Agency - Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan as well as a SAFE member. “In many of the hardstand buildings, grounding and bonding, which of course is fundamental in most codes, is absent or inadequate. We've found many metal pipes with no bonding whatsoever.”

Yet even in cases where systems have been installed to more mainstream codes, fundamental considerations appear to have been overlooked. According to Jim Childs, a Task Force SAFE master electrician employed by a military contractor, many hardstand buildings have electrical systems employing a TT earthing system that is permitted in the British Standards, which he says dictated the construction of many Iraqi structures. In a TT system, the protective earth connection of the consumer is provided by a local connection to earth, independent of any earth connection at the generator. It is, however, uniquely unsuited to Iraq

“The problem is to install that to the British code either a residual current device must be used, or a second method involves maintaining a permanent and reliable low-resistance ground path through the earth. That's impossible to reliably achieve in the sandy soils of Iraq,” Childs says....

... Some electrical safety problems can also be traced to the Iraq electrical infrastructure. Power frequency surges, combined with haphazardly designed and constructed service to buildings and substandard fixtures, are partly being blamed for hundreds of fires. Childs, who prior to joining the SAFE effort was a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers employee working on Iraq electrical transmission system upgrades, says an unstable grid has caused power fluctuations that have a probable link to many electrical fires.

“Generators going up and down — and problems with steady voltage — have led to a lot of lighting ballast issues,” he says. “At many fire scenes, we've found ballast problems to be the cause. Part of the solution will involve putting in-line fuses to the fluorescent lighting so when there are spikes, instead of a transformer heating up the fuse will blow.”

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