Note: This article has been updated to include recent advice from the Malaysian Energy Commission as of August 2017.
Water heaters can be found in many Malaysian homes. It’s a convenient way to get a hot shower, but it can also be a dangerous electrocution hazard.
In August 2016, Malaysians were shocked by news about a 19-year old student who died from electrocution while taking a shower at her home in Seremban 2.
Although the reason for the accident was never identified as the instant water heater, it is possible for such appliances to cause electrocution.
Types of water heaters
There are two types of water heaters; storage water heaters and instant water heaters.
Storage water heaters heat up water in a tank, and is usually installed in the ceiling above your bathroom. The hot water is kept until you need it for your shower.
Typical storage water heaters contain anywhere between 40 to 100 litres of water. And because it stores so much water, it needs a few minutes to heat the water to the desired temperature.
The advantage of storage water heaters is its consistency in terms of temperature and water pressure. Since water supply has already been heated, it allows a high-pressure flow of about 10 litres per minute, with a maximum temperature of 70 degree Celsius.
Instant water heaters are also common in Malaysian homes. It is also known as a tankless heater, and since it does not have a water tank, it takes up less space in the house. Instant water heaters are installed in the shower area itself.
In an instant water heater, cold water is heated on-the-fly, as it travels through the unit’s heat exchanger. The water supply flows directly through the appliance, where it is instantly heated up by electrical heating elements.
Some instant water heaters also come with a built-in pump. This keeps the water pressure high enough for the heating elements to do their job. If your water pressure is too low (or you are experiencing water rationing), you may not get any hot water from your heater.
Instant water heaters can be more cost effective in the long run, compared to the storage type, as it only uses energy when the heater is being used.
Dangers of water heaters
Water heaters can be a dangerous hazard if not installed or maintained properly. If the thermostat fails, the water can become too hot, and cause severe burns. It can also be a fire risk.
Also, since electricity is used to power the heating elements, it can be an electrocution risk if the electricity is not isolated from the water that flows on your body when you shower.
Safety Advice When Choosing Water Heaters
The Malaysian Energy Commission (Suruhanjaya Tenaga Malaysia) has advised homeowners to replace water heaters that are more than 10 years old as those older models do not meet the latest safety requirements.
For storage water heaters, look for those that come with plastic-based inlet/oulet isolation barriers. This innovative device, which has been made mandatory since April, is to limit the amount of leaked current that enters or leaves the circuit, and to prevent electrical accidents.
Since 2000, new storage water heater models also feature safety specifications such as thermostat and built-in thermal cutouts.
As for instant water heaters, the new models are now fitted with a built-in 15 miliamps (mA) residual current device, which detects the leak of dangerous current caused by defective equipment.
New models also come with non-conductive material or plastic hose that is at least one metre long. Ten years ago, most instant water heaters in Malaysia came with a stainless steel conductive hose, which has now been banned. Conductive hose allows electricity to flow through a victim in case of a leakage.
How to Test Your Water Heater Safety
On top of the latest safety specifications for your water heater, we also spoke to our recommended electricians for advice on how to make your shower appliance safe:
Don’t install a water heater yourself if you are not trained. Especially with electrical appliances that come into contact with water. Many heaters say “plug-and-play for homes with pre-installed chrome pipe”, but it is always better to be safe rather than sorry.
Many people also make the dangerous mistake of mixing up the wiring (earth and live wire) during installation. If that happens, the heater may function normally, but will not automatically switch off in case of electrical surge.
In such cases, it is better to get a trained professional to install it. Recommend.my provides electrician services who can do the wiring and installation for you.
Check the TEST button on your instant water heater once a month. Once you have your instant water heater installed, you need to make sure it will stop the power supply in case of an electrical surge.
Alan from KMH Electrical Sdn Bhd says, “To test this, your instant water heater will come with a button on the side marked “TEST” or “ELCB” (Earth leakage circuit breaker). Turn on the switch outside the bathroom (so that the water heater light is on), then press this button. You should hear a click, and the power to the heater will be cut off. That means it is working.”
Inspect for loose cabling. Your instant water heater should have a cable to connect it to the power mains. Make sure it is properly sealed so that water does not get in during a shower. Also check for any loose connections, as the earth wire can sometimes get disconnected. If you are not sure about this step, ask an electrician to check this. You should check every few years to make sure any potential problems are fixed correctly.
Test your house fuse box regularly. Every home has a big electrical box known as the Residual Current Circuit Breaker, or RCCB. You will usually find it by your main door, under the stairwell, or in the kitchen.
Laila from Flushrush Plumbing Services explains how to test, “Open the RCCB cover, and you should see a large “TEST” button. Similar to the ELCB on the water heater, push this button once a month to see if the switches trip, and the power supply cuts off. If power to the house is not cut off when the button is pushed, call an electrician to check it.”
Avoid pointing the shower at the water heater casing. It’s not a good idea to mount the heater on one wall, and mount the shower head on the opposite wall so that it sprays on the heater. Although most water heater manufacturers make their units water proof, the seal may deteriorate over time. If you shower with extremely hot water, the steam may also condense on the water heater, causing the seals to wear out.