Many homeowners are capable of replacing light switches, installing ceiling fans and other basic wiring jobs, but safety experts warn do-it-yourselfers against dabbling in most elements of household electricity.
According to the Electrical Safety Foundation International, home-based electrical systems cause nearly 55,000 fires a year, resulting in more than 500 deaths and 1,400 injuries. Electrical fires cost $1.4 billion a year in property damage.
Whenever working with electricity, remember these tips:
• Always assume overhead wires are live and fatal to the touch. If a limb falls on one during a storm, leave it alone and call the utility company.
• Never operate electrical equipment in or near standing water.
• Never repair electrical equipment without proper training.
• Have a qualified electrician inspect electrical equipment if it has come into contact with water.
• Use a ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) in any area that comes in contact with moisture.
Video: Home Electrical Hazards
Because of the risks inherent in electricity, there are many safety features designed to cut off the power at the first hint of anything wrong. As a result, the most common household electrical problem is a sudden loss of power when a safety trigger has been tripped.
So whenever power goes out in one part of the house, but not the entire house, the most likely cause is a tripped circuit breaker.
Homeowners should be able to find the main breaker panel (what used to be called the "fuse box"), typically located in the basement or a utility closet.
If the individual breaker switches are not labeled, it would be good to switch them off one at a time and identify what each is connected to. This is best done as a two-person job. Also, a professional electrician can track down and label all of your circuits.
Either way, it's important to know which switch controls the flow of electrical current to which outlets, light fixtures or appliances in an emergency.
Because of the safety risk involved, most electrical work is best left to the professionals. However, you may be able to diagnose electrical issues before the electrician arrives.
When the “test” button is pressed on your GFCI receptacle, it is turned off. The “reset” button will turn it back on and restore power. (Photo courtesy of Power Plus Electrical Service)
Electrical outlet doesn't work: First check the circuit breaker. If no breakers are tripped and the outage is confined to one outlet, the outlet may have burned out. If an outlet shows any sign of blackening around the outlet plugs, do not use it. Even if one plug is working, you should replace the entire outlet immediately to avoid the possibility of starting an electrical fire.
Electrical outlets sparks: While it can be scary when you see a spark fly from an outlet, sometimes it's normal. For example, when power is suddenly diverted to an appliance, a quick draw on the available power will occur, causing a brief spark. Once the electrons are flowing freely, a spark should have no reason to form. This is normal, and it's comparable to static electricity.
If too much heat builds up in an outlet, however, it can actually melt the insulation that surrounds the wires. As the wires become exposed, the chance for an electrical fire increases. When a connection is made, the electrons can leap to the wrong area and cause a serious spark. This is known as a short circuit and can actually cause an electrical fire.
Exposure to water can also cause an outlet to spark and short out. Installation of a special outlet known as a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) will shut down the circuit if it comes into contact with moisture.
Flickering lights: This is a sign of a poor connection — one that may lead to a broken connection. You’ll need to call an electrician to hunt down the source of the electrical problem and correct it.
On-again/off-again recessed lights: These light fixtures contain a built-in mechanism to prevent overheating, which means they will sometimes turn themselves off. Once the fixture has cooled, it turns back on. This usually results from a bad match between your light bulb and fixture or the ceiling insulation touching the fixture.
Appliances cause the circuit breaker to trip: High-wattage items running at the same time can overload the circuit. To solve this problem, move the appliances to a different circuit or have an electrician install a separate circuit.
Frequent light bulb burnout: If you find yourself constantly changing light bulbs, you might be using a bulb with a higher wattage than your light fixture can handle. Check your light fixtures to make sure you’re using bulbs with the correct wattage.
Electrical Inspector's Checklist
When you hire an electrician to perform an inspection on your home's electrical system, make sure these steps are covered:
Electric meter: The electrician should check the electric meter for defects such as insecure installation, broken meter seals and rust at the bottom of the box that could indicate the presence of water. Sometimes water can follow the service entrance cable from the meter box to the main panel.
Wires: The electrician should inspect outside wires for fraying or other damage. He or she should also look for unprotected wires anywhere inside the home, especially in attics, basements and crawl spaces. Wires resting on heat ducts or pipes present an unsafe situation and will be reported.
Make sure to check your circuit breaker box periodically to check for any signs of malfunction. (Photo courtesy of Angie’s List member Steve T. of Valencia, California)
Main panel box: The electrical panel houses circuit breakers, which are designed to prevent electric current from exceeding safe levels. An electrician will check for insufficient clearance, improperly sized circuit breakers, oxidation or corrosion, aluminum branch wiring, overheated components and the presence of moisture. Inspecting these panels can be dangerous, and you should never remove an electrical panel yourself.
Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter outlets: GFCI outlets should be placed in basements, garages, kitchens and bathrooms. These outlets contain small circuit breakers that shut off when overloaded or if a short circuit occurs. A qualified electrician can ensure these outlets are wired correctly and test other outlets in the home for looseness or reversed polarity.
Wall switches: An electrician will test all wall switches for reversed polarity and ungrounded circuits, looking out for electrical problems. Warning signs can include discolored, loose or damaged switch plates and unsafe wiring.