Here’s When It’s a Bright Idea to Call an Electrician

Ginny Bartolone
Written by Ginny Bartolone
Updated January 11, 2022
A Scandinavian interior with great light fixtures
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It’s not shocking that most electric work is best left to the pros

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We've all seen overly confident movie characters take on DIY home electrical work. They pull out the pliers, attach a few wires, hold their breath, and flip a breaker switch. Alas, it rarely goes well. As a gentle reminder—most electrical work is better left to the professionals. Yes, that goes for small wiring jobs that may seem straightforward. 

Here's a guide to help you spot electrical problems, so you know when it’s best to call an electrician.

Recognize the Warning Signs

The National Fire Protection Association reports that 13% of home fires stem from electrical issues. Knowing the difference between a temperamental outlet and a major electrical red flag is one of the biggest factors when deciding whether to call an electrician.

Warm Outlets and Ceiling Fixtures

Properly insulated wiring should not emit a large amount of heat. Dimmer light switches may be gently warm to the touch, but if it’s nearing hot, you have an issue. 

Check for warmth around your ceiling lights and fans, surrounding outlets and normal light switches, and around your breaker panel. Heat around these zones could indicate that the light, fan, breaker, or outlet is overloaded. Call an electrician in these cases, especially if it suddenly goes from warm to hot.

Tripping Breakers

The circuit breaker is the fail-safe device to protect your home from electrical fires. Overloaded circuits switch off before they become overheated. If your circuit breaker trips often, it's time to call in the pros. Other signs of a finicky circuit breaker include warmth around the breaker box and signs of burns—either by sight or smell. Call an electrician the moment you notice any of these red flags. 

Large Sparks and Small Shocks

Small visible sparks are quite common when plugging in new appliances. On the other hand, if you're watching the spark arch across the outlet to the plug or if it's making a popping sound, it could be a sign of loose wiring in your appliance or outlet. 

Also, small shocks may be common when dragging your socked feet along the carpet in the winter, but shouldn't occur when you touch your toaster. Any signs of small shocks from electrical appliances is a sign to immediately stop using it and unplug until it’s checked out.

Burning Odors

Your nose is often the first sign of fire hazards in your home. If you can't locate the slight or strong smell of burning from something on the stove or in the oven, it could be your electrical system. Wiring issues can smell like plastic or burning wood. If you smell this, immediately switch off your breaker’s power and call the fire department and an emergency electrician.

Exposed Wires

If you spot mysteriously frayed or exposed wires in your attic or basement, you could have a pest problem on your hands. Rodents may gnaw on wiring casing inside your walls or around extension cords. While it's easy to replace the cords, call an electrician for any damaged wires that run into the walls. And while you're at it, you may want to hire an exterminator as well.

Renovation Electrical Work Best Left to the Pros

Only highly experienced DIYers should attempt even basic wiring projects. In most cases, it’s best to call an electrician for home renovation projects that require electrical work.

Circuit Breaker Repair

As we noted before, the breaker box is the central hub for your home's power. If you notice a burning smell, signs of scorching, or if they're tripping on a regular basis, this is not a DIY fix. Replacing a circuit breaker costs an average of $1,150.

New Switches and Wiring

An electrician changing a light switch
Photo: monkeybusinessimages / iStock / Getty Images Plus / Getty Images

If you purchase a new switch or need to connect an appliance to a local outlet, call in the pros. Older homes, in particular, have complex wiring to balance increased modern electrical loads. The cost to install a new switch runs between $100 and $200.

Wiring Updates

Most homes need to be rewired every 25 to 40 years, but this is not a job for even the most experienced DIY home renovator. Not only is there the danger of electrocution, but home fires with the smallest slipup. Rewiring a house costs $1,500 to $10,000, depending on its age and size.

Indoor and Outdoor Lighting

You can replace a light fixture such as a chandelier if you are very comfortable with electrical projects and the necessary wiring already exists. However, if you are new to DIY or need to alter the existing wiring in any way, call an electrician both for safety and the longevity of your work.

If your lighting project is outdoors, it’s definitely better to hire a pro. When you add moisture, pests, and potential wiring decay to the mix, there are too many unknowns to tackle the project yourself. Electricians can make sure you have the proper outdoor outlets, load capacity, and sensors for common outdoor lighting.

DIY Electrical Safety

You are the first line of defense against electrical fires. Keep common electrical safety tips to protect your home. For example:

  • Never overload an outlet

  • Report buzzing sounds and flickering lights

  • Never plug large appliances into power cords or surge protectors

  • Check all cords and power strips for damage

  • Only opt for bulbs with the proper wattage for each lamp

  • Keep wires away from rugs and furniture

Knowing when to call in the professionals is often half the battle as you learn more about DIY home improvement. When it comes to electricity, it's always best to err on the side of caution and save your skills for something a bit less shocking.

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