Advice Direct Scotland’s ‘Energy 23’ campaign runs from the 23rd to the 29th of January 2023, encouraging Scottish consumers to stay safe during the remaining winter months.
We have joined forces with the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) to offer guidance to households struggling with energy bills.
The cost of energy has increased significantly, and with the majority of us facing hikes in bills, many are looking at ways of keeping costs down and alternative ways to keep warm and light our homes.
For some, this is reducing the amount of energy we use by putting on an extra layer of clothing and limiting the length of time we have the central heating on. For others, this may mean more extreme measures including some that could pose risks to health and safety.
‘Heat the Person’
Many agencies are encouraging people to ‘heat the person’ as opposed to the home. This advice appears to work for many in reducing the amount spent on energy, however it is important that we are doing this safely and avoiding any potential risks.
We have looked at the different things that Scottish consumers may be doing to reduce outgoings on energy costs; how to avoid the risks and stay safe; and the alternative sources of support that are available when we need them.
Electric blankets can be a good way of warming up beds before we get into them, offering a shorter blast of heat at a lower cost to run than central heating or small portable heaters.
With any electrical equipment, it is important to consider the products themselves, and whether they meet rigorous standards during manufacturing and safety testing post-production. Some products (particularly counterfeit ones) often do not.
Counterfeit Electronics – the risks
Counterfeit electronics can pose risks to health and safety, as well as present fire risks. Lower prices on these cheap, copycat, counterfeit electronic goods can come at a different cost, with the components used to produce them being of a sub-standard quality to the real thing.
In addition to the production methods, many counterfeit electronics are often not subjected to the rigour of safety testing. This not only poses safety risks, but often means that the items do not have the same life span of genuine products. Buying cheap, knock-off products can mean buying twice.
Electrical Safety First highlight the process that is used by manufacturers to bring products to market in the EU. They outline that manufacturers are required to meet several basic requirements to ensure that products they sell meet EU standards and are safe for consumers to use.
They highlight that key components of this safety regime are the Low Voltage Directive (LVD) and the CE mark, both of which legitimate manufacturers must abide by to sell products in the UK and the EU.
So, what are these components?
Low Voltage Directive (LVD) – This sets out the basic standards that electrical goods must meet before being placed on the market.
CE Mark – This is a visible self-declaration by the manufacturer that the product has been assessed before being placed on the market. The CE mark means that the manufacturer assumes full responsibility for their product and that they have gone through the proper processes of manufacturing and testing, meeting the legislative requirements of production.
UKCA Marking & Selling Products in the UK
The UKCA (UK Conformity Assessed) marking is the product marking used for products being placed on the market in Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales).
The UKCA marking applies to most products previously subject to the CE marking. It also applies to aerosol products that previously required the reverse epsilon marking. The technical requirements (sometimes referred to as ‘essential requirements’) that manufacturers must meet for the UKCA marking will depend on the product specific legislation for their product.
The UKCA marking also applies to low voltage electrical items.
What should we watch out for when purchasing electronic items?
One of the main giveaways when it comes to assessing whether to buy items or not, is to assess the packaging, both for the CE Mark / UKCA Marking, as well as for differences when compared to the genuine manufacturer’s website.
Many fake items will display pictures of different models of items, the most notable being different colours and shapes of products. By making a comparison to the genuine article being sold directly by the manufacturer, as well as through reputable retailers, we can reduce the risk of purchasing the fakes.
This can take a bit of research but is worth it in comparison to the potential risks of the alternative route. Be wary though, counterfeiters can be convincing in their copying of the official packaging.
Spelling Errors on sales materials / packaging
This can also be a giveaway of potential counterfeit goods. Check for examples of poor spelling on the packaging and instruction manuals. Genuine manufacturers will spend time and money to ensure that their information and brand are presented in the correct and professional manner.
Postal / Contact Details
Another way of ensuring the products we purchase are the genuine article is to check for postal addresses supplied for manufacturers. Keep an eye out for Post Office Box (P.O. Box) addresses, as this can mean that the supplier is trying to avoid publication of an actual address, which can make seeking recourse more difficult in worst-case scenarios.
Websites that have ‘. co.uk’ or ‘.com’ can still be selling counterfeit items, with use of more recognisable domains to seem legitimate. Just because the domain (web address) looks authentic, doesn’t mean that the items will be.
Trusted and Familiar retailers are best
To ensure that the electronics we buy are safe, and will last the test of time, purchasing from trusted retailers can help in ensuring that products have been tested and aren’t made with cheap, substandard components.
Purchasing from trusted retailers can also ensure that in situations where problems present themselves, we can more easily seek recourse, such as returns or refunds.
- When using electric blankets to warm ourselves, it is important to ensure that we stay safe.
- Unplug before getting in – It’s important to unplug electric blankets before going to bed, unless the one you have is suitable to leave on (read the instructions).
- If it gets wet – Don’t use it! – (and don’t switch on to help it dry off).
- Check for wear and tear! – Remember not to keep electric blankets for longer than 10 years!
- Store it correctly – Avoid damage to the blanket’s wiring by ensuring you store electric blankets flat, rolled up, or loosely folded.
Think twice and seek advice if you have specialist medical equipment in your bedroom!
The dangers of using barbeques and camping stoves indoors
There are risks associated with using barbeques and camping stoves indoors. These items are intended to be used in outdoor settings where there is better ventilation.
Camping stoves use small gas cannisters, usually containing Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG). Manufacturers use butane, propane, or a mixture of these fuels as they heat up fast and provide enough heat to cook food.
Butane and propane create carbon dioxide and water vapor when they come into contact with oxygen when they are burning. Since there is usually not enough oxygen for the reaction to be complete (aka incomplete combustion), it results in the formation of soot and carbon monoxide, which can be dangerous in an enclosed space.
Carbon monoxide can cause issues with the body transporting oxygen and can result in in suffocation and death.
According to the NHS, symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include:
- Feeling sick or being sick
- Feeling weak
- Chest and muscle pain
- Shortness of breath
If you think you might have carbon monoxide poisoning, you should:
- Stop using appliances you think might be making carbon monoxide (such as a boiler, cooker, or heater) if you can.
- Open any windows and doors to let fresh air in.
- Go outside.
- Get medical advice as soon as possible – do not go back into the affected building until you have got advice.
If you think a gas appliance is leaking carbon monoxide, call the free National Gas Helpline immediately on 0800 111 999 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week).
Many people are using candles in efforts to reduce the amount of energy they are using to light their homes.
If we use candles, it is important to have safety at the forefront of our minds. It is important not to leave lit flames unattended, especially with children and pets around.
By keeping these items out of reach and remembering that melted candle wax can also cause burns, we can reduce the likelihood of accidents happening. Allowing candles to cool properly is also important.
Remember that loose clothing, curtains, and other household furnishings can catch fire. By ensuring that we keep lit flames away from these items, we can reduce the likelihood of fire occurring.
The Energy Savings Trust highlight that energy efficient lighting helps lower electricity bills and carbon dioxide emissions. They highlight the potential energy / money saving opportunities by switching incandescent and halogen bulbs to LED.
Additionally, when using electronic candles that use small button batteries, it is important that we keep these out of the reach of children, as these present choking hazards.
RoSPA highlight the dangers of button batteries and the importance of ensuring that products utilising this type of battery do not fall into the hands of children. We will hear more about this later in this article.
Hot Water Bottles
Hot water bottles have been recommended as a way of ‘heating the person’, however did you know that these products come with an expiration date?
Some manufacturers recommend that you only use hot water bottles for a maximum of two or three years, so checking when you buy one is important.
How do we find the expiry date on a hot water bottle? – Under the cover (take care when removing – we would recommend doing this when the bottle is cooled / empty) there is a ‘daisy wheel date’ that looks like a flower. This has twelve segments and in the middle, there is a number (i.e., the number ’21’ would indicate the product was made in 2021).
The segments around the outside (the petals) around the outside are the months, and you can see the month it was manufactured by where the dots end (i.e., six dots would represent June). You would then be able to say that the hot water bottle was manufactured in June 2021.
The ‘expiration’ date could be worked out from this date by counting forward two or three years, based on manufacturer instructions.
The expiration date is a guide, with hot water bottles wearing over time and potentially splitting. In the event this was to happen, and the hot water bottle contained boiling water, it could cause serious burns, requiring medical attention – and in worst-case-scenarios, surgery.
Microwavable Heated Items
These are items that are microwaved to heat them up, usually presented as soft toys. It is important to check the labelling / packaging on microwavable heated items for potential flammability and other safety issues.
Like hot water bottles, these products can contain very hot material internally that can cause burning if it meets the skin.
Refer to manufacturer guidelines and look for evidence of product testing / regulation such as the CE Mark / UKCA Marking.
Additional Support & Advice
If you are rationing energy to get by, or to afford other things, reaching out for support is important. Advice Direct Scotland offer a range of services that can help.
Conor Forbes, director of policy with Advice Direct Scotland, said:
“With the cost-of-living crisis making things tighter financially for Scottish households, many of us will be seeking ways to reduce costs and save money this winter.
“However, this should not be at the expense of staying safe when it comes to lighting, heating and eating in our homes.
“There may be the temptation to purchase sub-standard, untested counterfeit products to cut costs.
“It’s important to be aware of the safety issues related to electrical items, and to ensure we are only purchasing products that meet manufacturing and safety standards.
“Untested, and unregulated methods of keeping warm can cause fires.
“If you are rationing energy to get by, or to afford other things, reaching out for support is important.
“Advice Direct Scotland offers a range of services that can assist, and our team is on hand to help Scots with free, practical and impartial advice.”
As well as giving consumer advice, Advice Direct Scotland can offer practical support to people who need help with their energy bills through its energyadvice.scot service.
This includes making referrals to sources of support such as the Scottish Government’s Home Heating Support Fund, which seeks to provide financial relief to energy consumers who are experiencing significant financial hardship or are rationing energy to get by.
We caught up with Elizabeth Lumsden from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) who provided insights into common issues being seen by the organisation, including issues with button batteries in various products.
So, Elizabeth, what trends have RoSPA seen in terms of product safety issues recently?
RoSPA has been made aware of more and more items containing button batteries such as greetings cards, key fobs, flameless candles, remote controls, and a range of toys. These very small batteries can cause a huge amount of damage to a child’s internal organs – and even cause death – if they are accidentally swallowed.
Other trends we have been made aware of include small magnets designed to be anti-stress toys for adults, but older children have been using them as fashion items and making them into fake tongue piercings. The results of accidentally swallowing these can be catastrophic and even fatal as the magnets can connect to each other inside the body and trap vital organs.
What is the most common issue that you have come across during the winter months?
Costs are on most people’s minds. We’ve heard of consumers looking to buy cheaper goods which often means fake or counterfeit items that could prove to be very dangerous. We’ve also heard of people using money-saving ‘hacks’ to heat their homes or cook food and these can result in fires or electrocution.
What tips would you recommend to anyone looking to purchase electrical and other household goods?
Regular checks need to be carried out on the compartments of items containing button batteries to ensure they remain secure. Additionally, any spare batteries should be stored safely away out of sight and reach of young children.
Always read the reviews when buying online and buy from reputable retailers. Avoid websites with lots of spelling mistakes selling items where the price seems too good to be true as it generally will be.
Counterfeit goods may include hazards that will cause damage to property as well as people if they have no overheating cut-outs for example. They won’t have been through the same rigorous testing procedures of legitimate products.
Take especial care with novelty goods as they are not toys, so will not have the same safety standards and shouldn’t be given to young children to play with. Look out for sharp edges and pieces that come apart easily that could prove to be a choking hazard for children.
Our key advice for keeping warm and staying safe:
- Electric Blankets – If using electric blankets, make sure wires are in good condition and undamaged. Unplug blankets before you get into bed unless it has a thermostat control for safe all-night use. If your blanket gets wet, don’t use it and never switch it on to dry it. Store electric blankets flat, rolled up or loosely folded to prevent damaging the internal wiring.
- Candles – If using candles, be extra vigilant. Don’t leave lit flames unattended, especially with children and pets around. Keep candles out of reach of children and pets, and away from loose clothing, curtains and other furnishings that can catch fire.
- Electronic Candles / Button Batteries – If using electronic candles with small button batteries, keep these out of the reach of children, as these present choking hazards. They can also cause irreversible damage and even death if swallowed.
- Hot Water Bottles – Check your hot water bottle for any signs of wear and tear and if there is any damage to the rubber or to the seals, dispose of it immediately. It is recommended that hot water bottles are replaced at least every three years.
- Seek Advice & Support – It is important to seek advice and support if you are struggling with the cost-of-living.
consumeradvice.scot advisers are available on 0808 164 6000 (Monday to Friday, 9am-5pm), or by visiting the website where you can report counterfeit goods or issues with traders.