I refuse to let coffee to be the death of me.
February 23, 2009 9:30 AM   Subscribe

I just got shocked while making coffee. In the 16 years I've had the machine it's never happened before. What's the deal?

I have one of those old Braun espresso machines from the early 90s... not the tiny cheap kind but not a big fancy shmancy one either. I've kept it this long with maintenance and occasional repairs. It works great and has been around longer than my cars or men... I heart my loyal little espresso machine. But today it bit me. :(

Today I was making a latte and while I was waiting for the steamer to heat up I did some dishes. I didn't dry my hands off completely, I'll admit. Picked up the metal frothing pitcher thingy (not this but similar) and when I started to use it, I felt electricity seriously tingling through my hand. I freaked out and dried my hand and tried to froth the milk again but got shocked again. The electricity was going from the machine through the milk to the pitcher to my hand. So I let go and then went to push the plastic off button on the machine, and that tingled too.

I am a coffee lover and now I am scared of my coffee machine. This cannot be!!!! Normally I'd just blame my wet hands but I *know* I've made coffee with damp hands before. So now I'm wondering if there's something going haywire with the machine's wiring that I need to fix before I electrocute myself like an idiot. I neeeed my morning latte, but I really can't buy a new machine right now. Sigh.

posted by miss lynnster to Home & Garden (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: "to be" the death of me? Oh, you know what I meant...
posted by miss lynnster at 9:31 AM on February 23, 2009

Did you change anything recently that is making you lean against the stove or something else that's grounded? Do you have a ground fault circuit interrupter outlet? (you should)
posted by bonobothegreat at 9:36 AM on February 23, 2009

..also, you might want to check that the power cord isn't frayed just inside the housing of the machine.
posted by bonobothegreat at 9:38 AM on February 23, 2009

So now I'm wondering if there's something going haywire with the machine's wiring that I need to fix before I electrocute myself like an idiot.

Well, yeah, something is faulty that needs to be fixed. An espresso machine isn't complicated device so you might be able to figure out what's wrong by taking it apart. As bonobo noted where the power cord enters the machine is a good place to look since that is a high stress point for the cord. And it also could possibly be an outlet problem but I don't really want to suggest you try it on another outlet without having a multimeter and the know-how to test it without touching the device again.

So you can either learn about electricity and figure out what's gone wrong and needs fixing, find a handy friend that could do the same, or take it to an appliance repair shop. Something simple like the cord would be relatively inexpensive to fix.
posted by 6550 at 10:06 AM on February 23, 2009

It turns out that milk is slightly conductive. In fact, diary farmers use varying conductivity of milk to diagnosis mastitis in cows. And the conductivity goes up if you heat the milk so steamed milk would be even more conductive. So electricity could pass from the machine to you through the stream of milk. This, however, means that the chassis of the machine is electrified, which is very dangerous.

Apparently there is a ground fault in your machine. It could be due to wear and tear (vibration) over a long period of time causing an electrical wire to contact the chassis. The third prong on the power cord should protect you from a ground fault, but it is possible that you don't have properly grounded outlets.

This is dangerous. You should unplug and stop using the machine. Contact Braun customer service and explain the situation. They may offer to send you a new machine. Regardless you should replace it. The machine is too old to be messing around trying to fix it.
posted by JackFlash at 10:08 AM on February 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

Here's something else to think about. The reason you are only getting a tingle is because the path of electricity is relatively poor. It is going from the outlet into the machine, through the milk which is a somewhat poor conductor, into your hand (skin is a poor conductor), through your body to the floor, presumably you didn't have bare feet, and through the tile and wood in the floor to ground.

The alternative could be you having wet hands, with one hand on the kitchen faucet and the other touching the espresso machine. Then the path has much less resistance. In this case the electricity goes right through your heart and we might be reading your obit.

Unplug the machine.
posted by JackFlash at 10:20 AM on February 23, 2009

Response by poster: I had bare feet on a ceramic tile floor.* The water was off. My hands were slightly damp, holding the pitcher.

*Normally I'd be standing on a rug but I'm washing it. Would that have made a difference as to why I haven't felt this before?
posted by miss lynnster at 10:56 AM on February 23, 2009

Yes, it's likely the throw rug has insulated you. As sad as it is to say, you do require a new machine for the safety of yourself and any guests you may have.
posted by scottymac at 11:17 AM on February 23, 2009

Would that have made a difference as to why I haven't felt this before?

Certainly the rug could make a difference, but it is just as likely that something in the machine just wore out. A screw that secures an electrical wire could have come loose, or wire insulation could have been rubbed raw by vibration, moisture and corrosion could have taken place inside. One day it was okay and the next it was broken. Things wear down then suddenly break. Stuff happens all the time. Electrical devices should be designed so that faults like this never occur, but just like your car, it can take years before anyone discovers the weakness in the design. It's possible that this failure occurred some time in the past but was only discovered when you removed the rug, but it could have just occurred yesterday.

I could tell you how to check for sure but this cartoon explains it best.
posted by JackFlash at 11:24 AM on February 23, 2009

The machine has a wire that's not making a proper connection and you are providing a nice alternative route for those pesky electrons.

I've had this happen to me. Only, with a blender. My hubby took it apart w/ a phillips screwdriver and wiggled the wires but didn't find anything apart. Put it back together and, it was amazingly healed. Only, it didn't last. The thing would bite me every now and then, I'd complain, he'd take it apart and put it back together. It, of course, never attacked him. It got to the point that all he'd have to do was WAVE a screwdriver at the thing and it would behave properly for a while, but, go back to it's unhousebroken ways whenever the moon phase was right. Or wrong.

I finally took the thing apart and gave it a once-over. It never attacked me again. Could be because I eviscerated it. Don't know for sure.
posted by mightshould at 11:54 AM on February 23, 2009

This could be a problem with a short inside the machine, between live and ground. Heating elements inside metal tubes (such as those often found in appliances for heating water) sometimes do that when getting ready to fail completely. With proper grounding this should just blow the fuse or trip the breaker before it gets dangerous, but if the grounding is also not so good, then you can end up with exposed metal parts at a significant voltage relative to ground.

It could also be a problem with the grounding of that outlet. If for some reason there is stray voltage on the outlet's ground, that gets conducted to the appliance's exposed metal parts. So the problem might just as easily be outside the appliance altogether.

Both types of problems can be tested for using a multimeter. If it were me, I would unplug the appliance and use neither it nor the outlet again until the problem is found.
posted by FishBike at 12:07 PM on February 23, 2009

Yes, this is pretty much one of the 30 Ways to Die of Electrocution (previously). Unplug and don't use until you've found the fault within the machine. If it's got a two-prong plug then the mysterious "double insulation" within the coffee maker has failed.

If it were me I'd be a little reluctant to try to fix this myself because I'd be worried about accidentally messing with the pressure-worthiness of the steam system inside an espresso maker.

If you want to do a science experiment, grab a $1 lamp socket with bare wires from Home Depot and see if you can light an incandescent bulb between the coffee maker and your sink. Based on your description I'm guessing "yes."

Also, if it's got a 3-prong plug on it, then there's a grounding problem either inside the machine (eg, ground from the plug isn't connected to the case and steaming tube, but should be) or in your outlet (as in a retrofit where you just slap in 3-prong outlets despite not actually having ground available). That problem would be in addition to the problem that is connecting the hot wire to the case, and fixing the grounding problem won't make the coffee maker not-broken (rather, it will mean that your broken coffee maker trips the breaker instead of shocking you).
posted by range at 12:40 PM on February 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Whoops -- previously.
posted by range at 12:41 PM on February 23, 2009

Some electronics are 'allowed' to give you a tingle, but an espresso maker shouldn't (there is no transformer inside, so no leakage current).

If you are going to do an experiment, don't just hold wires up to stuff. At least get some alligator clip leads. You don't want current flowing through the core of your body, like from arm to arm, that is really bad. With clip leads, you can hook up one side, and then very carefully probe using one wire in one hand. Much better.

Better still, get a multimeter and clip leads :P

Better still, a multimeter to test continuity between various points on your espresso maker while it is not connected to the AC.

If there is something wrong, it is probably visually obvious. Take some pictures and post them.

Ground fault outlets (or extension cords) are a very good idea in kitchens and bathrooms.
posted by Chuckles at 10:22 PM on February 23, 2009

using one wire in one hand

And the other hand behind your back -- sorry, forgot that part, kind of important :P.
posted by Chuckles at 10:23 PM on February 23, 2009

Do not use that machine until you have someone fix it. We don't need a fried miss lynnster, see. Either get it fixed or get another one, but that tingle was a pretty clear warning.
posted by azpenguin at 11:18 PM on February 23, 2009

Response by poster: Dammit. I want coffee. *%$(@*(@)()*@#@#. This freaking sucks.

A really big part of me wants to just put the rug back into place and pretend yesterday never happened. Can I do that?

Want. Coffee. Now.
posted by miss lynnster at 10:12 AM on February 24, 2009

So you took the housing off and checked the cord? You can't be sure it was the mat that made the difference.

Go out for coffee because if the current goes from your hand and through your feet, it so happens that your heart is along that path. Get the machine looked at.
posted by bonobothegreat at 10:57 AM on February 24, 2009

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