Electrical Advice Every Homeowner Should Know

Written by George Weigand of Weigand Electric
Updated December 29, 2015
homeowner uses pliers to handle wire and electrical outlet
Homeowners should take great care when working on their home's electrical system. (Photo by Katelin Kinney)

Fishing is a hobby. Electrical work is not.

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Electricity is one of the leading causes of house fires in the United States. This is pointed out by the National Fire Protection Association, the same agency that writes the National Electrical Code (NEC), which all electricians are supposed to abide by. Every aspect of the NEC has been developed based on accidents and casualties and is designed to prevent them.

Furthermore, all electrical components used today must have a UL (Underwriters Laboratories) listing on it before it can be sold in the United States. All insurance companies abide by the UL listing, and anything done to void this listing can also void insurance coverage. Additionally, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts requires all professional electricians to be licensed and all electrical work to be inspected by a local electrical inspector.

Many times, homeowners and handymen tackle small jobs such as changing outlets or installing lights – seemingly easy, trivial projects. However, all too often, the end result is that they put in a grounded (three-prong) outlet where there is no code-compliant grounding. They hang lights without a junction box or put them in a closet where they are subject to damage. They put outlets near water that are not GFCI protected outlets, or worse, they extend a circuit using wire that is too small and is bound to heat up and fail.

electrical outlet
Learning the basics about electrical issues could help avoid potentially dangerous situations.

Electrical safety

Electricity is power moving from one point to another and back again. It will always take the path of least resistance and does not care who it hurts or how.

Over time, I have seen many strange and dangerous situations. The following is a list of things I commonly see done by homeowners and others that lead to shock hazards, UL listing violations and worse:

• Installing grounded outlets where there is no grounding. BX wiring used in older homes is not a listed and acceptable grounding method, but many people assume it is.

• Installing a breaker in a panel that is not listed for that panel or putting a “mini” breaker in a place not designed for it. It may work, but if there is a problem it will void the listing and the insurance company won’t cover any damages. As a rule, all single family homes should have a minimum of a 200 amp service and breakers. Older homes usually have a smaller panel and should be upgraded.

• Installing a new surface mounted, enclosed ceiling light in an older home with old BX wiring. The insulation on this wiring is not rated for 90 degrees Celsius, as new Romex wire, known as NM-B, or “nonmetallic sheathed cable” is. The heat from the light will eventually cause the insulation to degrade and fall off. The only code compliant type of light you can install in this situation is a pendant style light that allows air to flow around the bulb and dissipate heat.

• Connecting old knob and tube wiring to new Romex wire. Knob and tube is outdated and should be removed. Installing an adapter with a ground that allows multiple items to be plugged into an ungrounded old outlet. This can overload the outlet and provides a false sense of security as there is no ground.

• Plugging multiple items such as hair dryers in an outlet next to a bathroom sink and the outlet is undersized and not GFCI protected. Hair dryers draw a lot of current and work by resistance. Using them next to a sink while plugged into a non GFCI outlet is like putting a match next to dynamite. Something bad will happen. It’s only a matter of time.

• Installing wires in a box that is too small for the application. Each box has a square inch rating, and wires are also assigned a square in size. The reason for limiting the number of wires in a box is to allow air to flow around the wires, allowing them to cool.

Remember, fishing is a hobby, electrical work is not. Electricity is a force that has been harnessed is very useful when applied in a safe manner. When used in an unsafe manner, it is dangerous and deadly.

Finally, please ensure that your home has smoke detectors on each level and carbon monoxide detectors if you have gas or oil heat.

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