Busman’s Holiday: Electrical Wiring

1999: Busman’s Holiday? What does an ex-columnist do in his free time, but write another column!

Something to Remember

I don’t want to come off as an alarmist from this column. There is a potential danger described here. For it to become deadly, a string of unusual things would have to happen. Please keep that in mind as you read.

3-way AC plug splitterEver see one of those plug adapter contraptions that allows plugging three things into one receptacle? Sure, you have – probably in an elementary school electrical safety movie.

There is the possibility of the equivalent existing in classrooms today!

I recently sat and talked to our school system’s heating, air conditioning, and wiring expert. He expressed a concern about the technology revolution in the classroom that had been vaguely floating around in my mind. His concern gave definition to the thought that we have “wired” most of our schools for Internet use, but have we wired them to handle the extra electrical demands of one, two, or ten computers running in a classroom?

I would hope that most computer labs have been carefully wired to handle the load of multiple computers and peripherals running at once. My concern is for the individual classroom. Each time I’ve added another computer to our classroom collection, I wondered if this would be the one that would blow the circuit breaker. Admittedly, most classrooms are not going to have the volume of computers that mine has. I’m “fortunate” that most of what I’ve added have been older and lower electrical demand models of Macs.

As we begin to add more and more CPU’s sporting 15-17″ displays and added peripherals, things may begin to pop! Hopefully, it will be a circuit breaker that pops, rather than the alarming sound of burning materials ignited by glowing electrical wiring when a fuse/circuit breaker failed to open an overloaded circuit.

Now before you call the fire department, there is some good news in this discussion. The maximum wattage of an iMac is 200 watts. A little quick division reveals that you’d have to connect about eleven of them on a 20 amp circuit to reach the overload point. These figures begin to change a bit when you start connecting towers, monitors, printers, scanners, and the like. Even a Power Mac G3 mini-tower has a maximum power rating of 240 watts, so there appears to be a good safety range, but a problem could occur where circuits serve several classrooms.

When my cousin Dave was first married, he and his wife lived in a third-floor apartment in Chicago. It was old and under-wired. The fuse box was in the basement. After a few months of trekking to the basement at odd hours, Dave designed a point system for their electrical appliances so they wouldn’t exceed the wattage limitations of the circuits in their apartment. For example, if you had the coffee maker on, you really didn’t want the TV and hairdryer going at the same time!

Some of our schools are a lot like Dave’s apartment. They were built to state and federal codes of their time that never foresaw the coming demands, and many are incapable of handling the demands of the technology revolution. I think my concern on this issue is for those schools wired in a day and age when a single circuit carried all of the receptacles in a classroom or a row of classrooms along a hallway.

While wiring schools for Internet access was expensive, safely wiring them for the electrical needs of the future may be even more expensive. President Clinton tried to start an initiative to rebuild many of America’s decaying schools. I taught in one such school for a few years. Tales of electrical, plumbing, and heating problems were common, along with the accepted “falling plaster dance” that one and all had to learn! Our school board wisely closed this location and our taxpayers gladly bore the expense. But this isn’t happening everywhere in America.

Since I have the forum with Busman’s Holiday on MacInSchool, and I’m fortunate to write to an informed and literate readership, let me suggest that when you next visit with your local school administrator or school board member, bring up the issue of adequate wiring. This may be a monster problem waiting out there for our schools in their race to be technologically up-to-date. In many situations, it will take major bucks to fix. And it will take some time and education of school boards, administrators, and those of us in the trenches (teachers).

If your local congressman or senator is nearly knocking him/herself over by patting themselves on the back over the success of the E-rate program in wiring our schools for the Internet, bowl them over with a question about the incomplete other wiring of our schools.

The first was educationally relevant. The second may be a clear and present danger to our children.

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