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I'm a regular member (tom66) on the electronics forum All About Circuits. One of the policies there is that there musn't be anything inherently dangerous suggested or asked about. For example, no support will be offered to people who want to modify their car's lighting system, because of potential legal issues (fitting unauthorised lights) and safety issues (failure/malfunction of the lights.) And coil guns, high voltage supplies and anything but transformer isolated power supplies are banned, too. What is the policy of E&R?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Wow, that must be a boring site. \$\endgroup\$ – Olin Lathrop Dec 23 '11 at 15:13
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I don't think that we should have restrictions on electronics which are perceived to be dangerous. If someone needs to do something which could be potentially dangerous, better for them to ask questions for comments on their design than to get burned by doing it alone. The dabbler searching for help with high voltage stuff will find it somewhere, not answering the question and saying it's dangerous here won't help anything.

Stackoverflow and Serverfault both deal with problems which could be 'dangerous' in a security sense. No one's sued those sites for offering advice on how to make your site more secure, and I haven't seen (though I haven't looked) any news on "example.com hacked after administrator followed recommendation on Serverfault." I'm sure that people who deal with medical or military data have benefited from these sites. Also, I've seen quite a few questions about licensing and other legal issues on those sites, so that shouldn't be a barrier.

The perceived skill level of the question asker should not be taken too seriously. It's difficult to judge from a few paragraphs, it's too easy to confuse with English skills, and it has only a tiny bearing on the skill level of the reader: Many others are likely to read the question later, but the asker is the one person who is most likely to try the suggestion.

Of course, we need to use judgment. If the asker demonstrates a callous lack of disregard for safety, a "send me teh codez" attitude, or a desire to create something violent, we should use stronger language to communicate the danger of the operation. However, I don't think we should exclude questions about these topics.

Finally, what does "dangerous" mean? If 120V wall power is dangerous, is 60V also dangerous? What if there's a fuse? This could soon devolve into "Nothing over 24V and 500mA!"

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Dangerous is relative, I suppose. If some noob comes on and says "i wanna add lites 2 mi carz" then maybe that would be a sure sign... but if someone asks whether it is safe, and how to go about it so as not to cause probmes, that is probably okay. \$\endgroup\$ – Thomas O Feb 10 '11 at 15:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Thomas - The author of "i wanna add lites 2 mi carz" and "I'm designing an aftermarket LED taillight conversion kit, looking for a constant-current LED driver with which to power it" are not always different people. A user whose native language is not English can give a poor impression, and an English-speaking kid can read a few popular questions, learn the lingo, and ask a professional question. We need to help the former by answering the question, and help the latter by informing them of the dangers. Since they can't be distinguished, we should do both. \$\endgroup\$ – Kevin Vermeer Feb 10 '11 at 17:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ So far, one thing i really (and I mean really!) like about this site is that there are very few answers that say: Go ask a professional because it's too dangerous for you. This site is about learning, and except for a general disclaimer I like the hacker-friendly attitude even when it comes to hacking a power supply running off 600 V DC. I wouldn't have safely developed such power supplies if people had just told me to buy ready ones in a shop instead of teaching me how to do it. \$\endgroup\$ – zebonaut Feb 10 '11 at 21:02
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I don't see any reason to self-censor unless it's blatantly criminal, e.g.

How do I shock people with 120 V?

If someone wants to add lights to their car, whatever. IANAL, but I fail to see how I'd (or the site would be) be culpable for answering a perfectly valid automotive electronics question.

Regarding coil guns, rail-guns, tesla coils, plenty of information on all that stuff is available elsewhere, and I doubt anyone would use those to intentionally harm anyone (a firearm is cheaper and more reliable). Sure, I'd expect people to mention that particular parts of it can be dangerous, but if the user doesn't fully appreciate the dangers by the time they have a concrete question about some part of it, nothing will change that.

And as far as power supplies, that's just a joke if we have any plans of being for anyone but hobbyists. Non-isolated power-supplies can be much cheaper and are frequently used in inaccessible electronics. Again, if someone doesn't have a good respect for 120 V by the time they come here with a concrete question, no additional warnings are going to make any difference. The draconian alternative: ban such questions, is totally unpalatable to me.

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I haven't seen an official policy per se.

Ethically, I believe responders should offer warnings if their advice strikes them as being potentially dangerous, or if their perception the skill level of the originator is not of having sufficient experience to sense of what could be dangerous.

I wonder if there should be a 'sticky' posting somewhere (perhaps in meta) that could have a best-practices guide, or a reference to the potential lethality of electricity, that could be applied to questions that a moderator believes could expose followers to significant risk.

Would this sort of responsibility be desired by the moderators?

Is the scope of the site only 'safe' electronics, or are we attempting to appeal to anyone, even those working in unsafe corners?

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    \$\begingroup\$ probably this might be worth mentioning in the /faq -- that if something is potentially extra dangerous, it should be noted as such. You hold a diamond so you can edit it in, if you like. \$\endgroup\$ – Jeff Atwood Feb 9 '11 at 17:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ I do? I've not seen it yet... \$\endgroup\$ – Adam Lawrence Feb 12 '11 at 3:18
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I agree with the general gist of all these answers.

Attempting to sit in judgement on whether something is safe is liable to backfire. Failure to give advice on eg high voltage power supplies is liable to deliver the inexperienced into the hands of the many many sites that offer utterly dangerous and rubbishy advice on technical topics. Our role should include guiding, advising, educating warning and to some extent counselling.

In my relatively short time in this forum I have written a number of "this can and may kill you" type answers. Better that than just saying by implication, "go away and find others to help you die" - too many will oblige.

If something is manifestly illegal or most likely to be lethal in the hand of the protagonist we may wish to limit advice and even to take steps to act against a person outside the stack exchange forum in some cases - but that is liable to be a very rare occurrence. On a par with removing the keys from a drunken strangers vehicle ignition. I've done that once in my life after we and a convoy of equally concerned strangers combined to gently guide the vehicle off the road and stop it*. I'd see any action we are liable to take here in similar vein. Very rare. Useful when needed.


  • FWIW - we had all telephoned the police emergency line independently, not knowing that other cars around us were also trying to stop multiple deaths occurring. Drunk was in a several tone truck on a national highway and spending a largish % of his time in the wrong side of the road. The police told us to work together. We did. [I still felt very very sorry for the man when the police turned up, even though they were as gentle and kind with him as one could ever hope for. ]
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There was an argument that was used on me as a younger employee at an ISP, when I was rather dismayed at some of the materials flowing across (yes, across, we didn't make any effort to hinder or help) our servers. The moment you, as a person in a position of power, attempt to isolate X from Y, there is an implied responsibility to separate the two. If you fail in this responsibility, you are liable for that failure.

Inversely, if you say, both X and Y are present here, and it's the user's job to distinguish between them, and not do Y because it's potentially dangerous/illegal/etc, then it's much harder to hold the site responsible.

This argument doesn't keep people form pressuring you to remove Y, but it makes it difficult to argue that because someone did Y, you're at fault, since you warned them Ys were present, and it was their job to distinguish them from Xs and not do them.

That would be my personal take on how to handle topics that could be seen as "dangerous", as invariably, someone will ask how to build something like a 50k power supply at some point, and the question will be answered. It's a useful thing in the context of electronics after all.

I think the guideline for this site should be more, is this question/answer useful in the context of electronics/robotics, to determine whether it should exist on the site or not. I think the people answering, or other visitors will do a pretty good job of adding comments like "This could kill you if you do it wrong" without prompting from the admins.

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    \$\begingroup\$ On a related note, StackExchange's legal agreement, in section 9, "Limitation of Liability", the following text: In no event shall Stack Overflow, its directors, officers, shareholders, employees or members be liable with respect to the Network or the Services for (a) any indirect, incidental, punitive, or consequential damages of any kind whatsoever; ... (c) damages for ... errors or omissions ... \$\endgroup\$ – Kevin Vermeer Feb 15 '11 at 14:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ @kevin, Legal agreements have a tendency of getting trampled after an incident. \$\endgroup\$ – tyblu Feb 16 '11 at 6:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ @tyblu While I agree that is true to the degree that people file lawsuits despite such warnings, almost no matter what you do, that will happen to some extent. When it comes to a matter of law however, when the case is being decided, the legal agreement does have significant power. \$\endgroup\$ – SplinterReality Feb 17 '11 at 2:14
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To expand on the answer I gave to a similar question here:

Technically valid answers that raise questions of morality

We have no easy way to judge the OP's experience and understanding of safety. It behooves us to point out particularly dangerous issues that might arise when one attempts to use the solution we are presenting in our answers, but we don't want the site to become full of disclaimer laden answers either.

The user asking the question is expected to understand at a minimum general electrical safety, and whether their product, or it's failure, may endanger property and lives.

In general we aren't going to run into too many of these thorny questions, but we leave it up to the user, and later the readers of the site, to discern appropriateness of a solution and to use appropriate safety techniques when implementing ideas and designs put forth here.

If we run into posts that are intrinsically dangerous - in other words, there's no safe way to do what is being proposed under any circumstances - then we need to throw the post away. But that should be ridiculously rare.

Tesla coils and other high voltage equipment, digital engine controllers, etc should all be permitted.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Excellent! Maybe I can finally get help on a synchronized high voltage trigger circuit. I hear spark gaps are used, at least in early official versions of these devices, but I'm not sure how to wire them up. I'm really pissed off at a particular third world country, and after scraping together the rest of the plutonium I need, I really have to get this spark gap thing worked out. Any help would be appreciated. \$\endgroup\$ – Olin Lathrop Dec 23 '11 at 15:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ @OlinLathrop Synchronizing high voltage pulses is only one small part of the problem. I suggest flooding them with hollywood films and watching their brains turn to mush. \$\endgroup\$ – Adam Davis Dec 25 '11 at 1:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ That's probably more effective, but nothing says gotcha like a large mushroom cloud and your city being a glass-floored self-lighted parking lot for the next 50 years. \$\endgroup\$ – Olin Lathrop Dec 26 '11 at 15:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ It ain't gonna work without at least six flash strobe units. \$\endgroup\$ – rdtsc Dec 24 '15 at 2:55
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I'd just leave it to everyone as an individual to choose whether and/or how to respond. If you see somebody asking about something dangerous and you want to answer:

"Look, you really shouldn't do that, if you do that you will die a fiery, burning, painful death, and I will not tell you anything more about how to do it" then that's fine.

But if somebody else wants to reply "Oh, to do that, just plug a LXQ39XA defromgubalator into the frejizzit port and crank the dial to 11" then, well... so be it.

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Geesh folks, we've got 6G people and rising on this planet. If a few want to kill themselves, what's the problem? Hand out extension cords with frayed ends, tell them to put pennies in the fuse holder, stand on a wetted concrete floor, and lean on a copper water pipe while installing live house wiring.

So let's get a supply of Darwin Awards to give out and get crackin!

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm a fan of informed consent with regards to extension cords with frayed ends. \$\endgroup\$ – Argyle Jan 9 '12 at 3:42
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IMO: Danger is relative. But a site likes this must make a balance between educating and limiting their liability via lawsuits. I recommend this site have a disclaimer that basically says they are not responsible for anyone that gets hurt, and the person agrees to the disclaimer just by posting here. Many other sites do that (posting = agreement).

Part of the drive of learning is curiosity and I don't think curiosity should be squelched. I think people should be given an education about safety precautions rather than hide in a hole fearing lawsuits left and right. Fear leads to ignorance, ignorance leads to stagnation.

People should not be discouraged from "modifying" their green laser pointer just because they might get a wittle burn on their wittle hand.

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