Readers' Submissions

Take A Cold Shower

When you're learning to read and write Thai, you start trying to decipher everything written around you- even the most mundane things. Well, yesterday as I was showering, I saw there was something written on the wall-mounted water heater in bright red letters. I couldn't make out two words, but leaving those blank, here's my translation: "WARNING!: Danger____life, if not connected____wire ground." To anyone with a basic understanding of electricity, the meaning of this is pretty clear. I saw one thick insulated cable connected to the heater. I knew this had to contain at least two wires for the heater to function, and a third wire IF the heater were properly grounded; but to determine this I had to look inside the casing. I finished showering, toweled off, turned off the water heater and also the circuit breaker switch just outside the bathroom door, got out my trusty Swiss Army Knife and unscrewed the one screw at the bottom of the heater holding the front casing in place. Looking inside, I could see there were only TWO wires coming from the cable providing power to the heater. There was no ground wire. I could also see the place where the ground wire should have been connected, indicated by the international electrical ground symbol, and written, this time in English, "This unit must be Earth grounded." Well, it wasn't.

Do you know the importance of this? If for any reason the 220 volts heating the water gets into the water itself, then those 220 volts get sprayed onto YOU, and that 220 volt charge passes through YOU, seeking, as the laws of physics dictate it must, EARTH GROUND. Now, between the points where the water contacts your skin and Earth ground lies your heart, which will STOP BEATING. You will not be able to turn off the water, because every muscle in your body- the legs you stand on, the arms you reach with, and the heart that pumps your blood- will be paralyzed. This is because your muscles are controlled by tiny electrical impulses carrying signals from your brain along nerve pathways. These electrical signals from your brain will be overwhelmed because they are miniscule and insignificant compared to the 220 volts from the water heater. If the unit is properly grounded with a wire connecting the heater to some metallic stake driven deep into the Earth (such as plumbing pipe- but the Thais often use PVC plastic, which is not only too weak for pressured lines, but does not conduct electricity either. They should really use steel or copper- but that's a topic for another essay….), as I was saying, if the unit is properly grounded, then any stray electrical charge that gets into the chassis of the heater will take the path of least resistance (the ground wire) instead of YOU. Compared to a copper ground wire, your body, and the structure of the building are very poor conductors of electricity- but if there is no ground wire, your body will have to do, and the current that flows through you and your heart just may kill you.

So, what to do? With the proper tools and materials, I could ground the heater myself. As a paying guest of the hotel, that's ridiculous. Anyway, I don't have a work visa, and I don't want to be deported for playing electrician. Should I tell the owner? The manager? The hotel maintenance man who mis-installed the deadly contraption? My experience in Thailand tells me: NO!, NO!, NO! Someone will lose face. Someone could even lose their job. The whole matter might very well be ignored. Whatever the outcome, it will not benefit me. It could very well harm me. So, guess what I do? Ever the realist, ever the pragmatist, I leave the water heater turned off- likewise the circuit breaker switch outside the bathroom door. I resign myself to cold showers from now on. I'd rather grit my teeth and bear the cold than risk ending up lying on the bathroom floor while I sizzle, boil and fry to death.

Well, what the hell. This is Thailand and the room is only costing me 300 baht a night. (How about the more expensive places? How is their water heated, and if by electricity, is everything properly grounded? Don't be too sure!) These wall-mounted water heaters are in apartments and cheap hotels all over Thailand. Is the "chang" (workman) who installed your water heater as lazy, stupid, negligent, or incompetent as the guy who installed mine? Want to check and see? All it takes is a screwdriver to remove the cover and see whether there are two wires or three connected to the unit [and if there are three, you must trace the third (ground) wire all the way to Earth ground to be sure]. Do you think the risk of electrocution is too slight to be concerned about? The engineers who designed my unit didn't think so. That's why they put a warning in bright red script on the front. Electrical short circuits can occur due to sloppy wiring at the factory: due to sloppy installation by the workman; due to the insulation on wires being chewed through by such vermin as rats, mice, and cockroaches (good thing you never see any of these pests in Thailand); due to corrosion over time caused by humidity, condensation, or water getting sprayed onto the unit; etc. And if it isn't you that gets killed, but your Thai girlfriend, do you think the cops are going to understand how it happened? Or are you going to end up facing murder charges? Suddenly, cold showers don't seem so bad after all.

Stickman says:

I like your style