Milwaukee electricians face tougher licensing requirements

Owner of Sparky's Electrical Service, Jeff Acuff says being unlicensed doesn't affect his work. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Acuff)

Owner of Sparky's Electrical Service, Jeff Acuff says being unlicensed doesn't affect his work. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Acuff)

Installed incorrectly, electrical wiring can be dangerous - even fatal, and Mark R. Jacobson has witnessed a lot of dangerous work.

"You wouldn't believe the stuff I've seen in the field," says Jacobson, owner of Mark Jacobson Electric in Mequon. "Too much work is done improperly, and people are getting hurt." Since January 2008, four people have been killed in fires where wiring couldn't be ruled out as the cause, says Tiffany Wynn of the Milwaukee Fire Department.

Yet Wisconsin has only recently made statewide licensing of electrical contractors a priority. Last year, Gov. Jim Doyle signed legislation requiring all journeymen and master electricians to be licensed by April 1, 2013. It will replace the state's voluntary certification program. "State licensing is long overdue," Jacobson says.

Currently, plumbing is the only home-improvement trade licensed by the state. A certification program is available to HVAC contractors and a registration program to building contractors.

Electricians are licensed by many municipalities and each has different requirements - ranging from a state certificate to proof of insurance or bond, and a fee. "It's illegal to operate in Milwaukee without an electrical license," says Judy Becker, office assistant for the city's electrical inspection section. "If you find you've hired an unlicensed electrician, we can issue a citation, but only if you have proof the company did the work."

Licensed electricians in Milwaukee must have the state certification, pay a fee and provide proof of insurance - but no additional testing is required. Once the new state law takes effect, municipal licensing requirements will end.

Likewise, plumbers must have a state license to be licensed in Milwaukee, while all other home improvement contractors need a general license.

Though the new law will give some protection against incompetent electricians because it requires passing an exam, experts say homeowners need to stay vigilant. "The fact that an [electrician] is licensed isn't a testimony to the quality of work," says Richard Pfaff of the city's license division.

Others say the opposite is true as well. Jeff Acuff, owner of Sparky's Electrical Service in Milwaukee and a 2008 Super Service Award winner, has been an electrician for 30 years and never held a license. He says no customer has ever asked about it. "I have nothing against licensing, I just don't have time for it," he says. "If [the state's] going to make me, I'll probably have to, but I don't see how it makes a difference in my work."

However, Rob Gruen, owner of Brighter Connection in Milwaukee, welcomes a more consistent system. He has licenses in at least 20 municipalities, and each one requires him to pay $50 to $100 a year. "It seems like I'm writing a renewal check every other week," Gruen says. "I'm glad the state is clamping down."

It's also good news to member James Jerschefske of Franklin, who unwittingly hired an unlicensed electrician and then had to pay a licensed one to fix the work before he could sell his home. "My wife and I assumed all electricians were licensed," Jerschefske says. "We didn't know any better."

You can check the licensing status of Milwaukee-area companies online or by phone. Log in to angieslist.com for more details.


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