Electrical Upgrades Keep Older Homes Safer

Written by Anita Alvarez
Updated September 9, 2015
an electrician installing a light
Electrician Michal Malinowski of Rein Electric performs electrical work in Chicago. (Photo by Gilbert R. Boucher II)

If you live in an older home, even properly installed wiring can become damaged and present a significant fire risk. Be sure to upgrade electrical wiring and panels to prevent these dangers.

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Electrical upgrades, especially in older homes, help ward off hazardous conditions that can lead to fires, significant properly damage and death.

Older homes are particularly vulnerable to faulty wiring, often because it’s simply old. But older homes may have aluminum wiring — known to easily corrode — or what are called arc faults.

Electrical fire statistics

Home electrical fires cause about 70,000 fires and 485 deaths each year, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. Those fires cause nearly $870 million in property loss.

And electrical fires are disproportionately fatal. From 2007 to 2011, they caused about 6 percent of the country's home fires — but nearly 15 percent of deaths in those fires, according to data from the U.S. Fire Administration’s National Fire Incident Reporting System and the National Fire Protection Association’s annual fire department experience survey.


If you’re getting warning signs that something’s wrong, you need upgrades to ensure a safe supply of electricity. Here are the two basic upgrades you should know about.

RELATED: Electricians give tips for homeowners.

Arc-fault circuit interrupters (AFCIs)

A circuit normally transfers an electric charge when a light is switched on or off. When electrical wiring is faulty — the wires are loose or damaged — these charges can occur randomly. That increases the circuit’s temperature, which means the wires can spark and start a fire.

When AFCIs are installed in your electrical panel, they continuously monitor the charge moving through a circuit. When they sense an unintentional arc or an increase in the charge, they shut the circuit and eliminate possible fires.

Also known as arc-fault circuit breakers, 15- or 20-amp AFCIs can run from about $40 to $50.

Using AFCIs

The voluntary 2014 National Electrical Code (NEC) requires AFCIs to be installed in bedrooms, where fires can catch people sleeping. That code also calls for AFCI protection in kitchens and laundry room areas plus living areas, from bedrooms to dens, family rooms to sunrooms.

In states that have adopted the code, such installations are urged only for new construction and renovations or remodeling. But fire safety experts recommend installing AFCIs in all homes.

Ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs)

A ground-fault electrical path can occur between a grounded component or surface and an electrical current source, like an appliance. Serious electrical shock occurs when a person interrupts this current. A GFCI shuts the circuit so that doesn’t happen.

Using GFCIs

In all states and municipalities that have adopted the NEC, GFCIs are required in new homes or remodeled unfinished basements, bathrooms, crawl spaces, garages, kitchens, laundry areas, near sinks and outdoors.

You can install a GFCI at the electrical panel, an outlet or as a portable cord or plug-in. For the panel, each circuit breaker can run from about $35 to more than $100; outlets cost from about $10 to $25 apiece.

RELATED: Electrical upgrades for older homes.


It's good to test AFCIs and GFCIs every month to ensure they are working properly. If you notice one isn’t working correctly, may be defective or has malfunctioned, replace it right away.

Finding a professional

When installing circuit interrupters, unless you’re very knowledgeable about electricity and safety, have a professional electrician do the work. You can find reviews of local professionals through Angie’s List.

Keep your older home safe from faulty, damaged or worn wiring, and install electrical upgrades to bring your electrical system up-to-date. You can sleep better and know you've eliminated a significant fire hazard.

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