Weekly Innovation: A Smart Power Outlet That Can’t Shock You

December 11, 2014

If you’re a parent, you know the aggravation that comes with baby-proofing an entire house. Probably one of your biggest fears is that your child might stick her finger or a foreign object into an electrical outlet.

More than 30,000 non-fatal shock accidents occur annually, according to the Electrical Safety Foundation International, and each day, nearly seven children are treated in a hospital due to injuries from tampering with an outlet.

Sure, you can put covers over outlets, but this option isn’t always 100 percent effective. Kids can figure out how to remove them and adults can forget to replace them after using the outlet.

The creators of the Brio Safe outlet hope their product can prevent those injuries. It’s a smart electrical outlet that can tell the difference between an electrical plug and a child’s finger. The creators have received pledges of nearly $46,000 on Kickstarter.

Unlike standard outlets that are always on at 120 volts, the Brio outlet is turned off, at zero volts, until an object is placed inside the socket. Once an object is inside, an embedded sensor recognizes whether it is a valid plug or a foreign object. If it is a plug, the outlet delivers a 24-volt current. Then, once the appliance is turned on, the power increases to 120 volts.

“So when you turn your toaster on or your hair dryer, then — and only then — will it turn on,” says Jocelyn Painter, a spokesperson for Brio who is also a mother five. “If you put in a paper clip or a hair clip, you wouldn’t be shocked because it’s at zero volts.”

Brio outlets are installed the same way as traditional outlets. Painter says she was inspired to join this project because she understands the consequences of an electrical shock injury.

“A decade or so ago, I had a friend who had a child who was injured at the outlet and burned her lip and face,” Painter says. “And she had to undergo more than 10 plastic surgeries to try and recover from that. When I got on board with this project, I was just like, ‘I wish this was out there then.’ ”

The developers are also in the process of creating the Brio Smart outlet, which will connect with a smartphone app to provide alerts on floods, fires and carbon monoxide leaks in the home. Painter says when combined with Brio Safe outlets, the Brio Smart system creates a safety net throughout the entire home.

“A lot people have those sensing units out there, but unlike other sensing units, say you had a fire in the home and the place you have the sensing unit, the hub for it gets burned up. Then you don’t have any sensing or audible alerts,” she says. “Whereas with the Brio, it provides a safety net because there’s redundancy.”

Brio Safe outlets will sell at a retail price of $49 per outlet and Brio Smart outlets will cost $99 per outlet, Painter says. Brio Safe will be available in the spring of 2015, and Brio Smart in the fall.

While the outlets are expensive, Painter says it’s all about “practical placement,” meaning most consumers won’t need to replace every outlet in their home. An outlet that’s behind a bed, for example, doesn’t need replacing, since it’s already inaccessible to children.

In our Weekly Innovation blog series, we explore an interesting idea, design or product that you may not have heard of yet. Do you have an innovation to share? Use this quick form.

Samantha Raphelson is a digital news intern at NPR.org. You can reach out to her on Twitter.

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