House electrical wiring demands precision and patience.
Once your home has a solid foundation and framed walls to match, the next step is professionally installed wiring, the nervous system of your home. Electrical work doesn't come cheap, however, which means you need to be choosy about who you hire. How do you avoid getting shocked by shoddy work or huge costs?
When it comes to wiring, there's no need for average homeowners to become experts. What you should do, however, is educate yourself on the basics of house electrical wiring so that you can find reputable contractors and avoid fly-by-night handymen.
You're typically looking at a three-wire standard for residential properties: two "hot" wires and one neutral. The hot wires provide 120 volts each, giving current a path to your home's light fixtures and appliances. The neutral wire offers a return path for the current and is connected to an earth ground. Your home needs two hot wires to accommodate larger devices such as dishwashers or refrigerators, which need 240 instead of 120 volts.
It's also good to know a little bit about the type of electricity running to your home: alternating current (AC). Don't confuse this with direct current (DC). The direction AC electricity flows (called polarity) shifts periodically, whereas the polarity of DC remains constant.
At first glance, it may seem simpler to generate direct current, but this type of electricity is actually more complicated because it requires spinning magnetic coils making contact with carbon brushes. The result is potential sparking or damage due to friction. Coupled with the fact that DC generators are more complex than their AC counterparts, it's no surprise that residential power relies on alternating current. Any contractor you consider hiring should be able to articulate these basic electrical concepts easily.
Gauging an electrician
Hiring an electrician starts with identifying their level of competence. Never hire anyone who doesn't have a state license to complete work or who tells you they don't need a local permit to complete your work. Even minor electrical upgrades typically require a city or country permit, and you'll need an inspector to come out and verify the work. Licensed electricians also come in two types: journeymen and masters. Journeymen are often paired with masters, and while they can't design whole-home wiring systems, they can do installations or upgrades.
Both journeymen and masters should carry substantial liability insurance. Around $500,000 is recommended to cover any potential issues.
In addition, make sure you're paying the right price for professional help. A master electrician working alone should cost between $30 and $45 an hour, while a journeyman and master together can run from $50 to $75 per hour.
Don't get suckered by the lure of lower prices, since any "pro" willing to work for less than $30 an hour probably doens't have proper certifications. These low-price dealers are usually handymen or here-one-day-gone-the-next operators hoping to take your money and run.
Taking a closer look
In addition to licensing and certification, you should evaluate potential contractors based on work and work ethic. This means making sure he or she is on time every day and calls ahead if he or she is going to be late of if there's a problem.
And don't be afraid to check up on the quality of work done by any pro. Sometimes, the friendliest contractors do the worst jobs. Start by looking at your electrical panel. You should see flat, white wiring (known as Romex) running to the panel in an organized, tidy manner. This means no sagging wires, no tangles and no haphazard paths through ceiling joists. If your electrician doesn't do good work near the panel, he or she won't do good work in the rest of your home.
Elsewhere in the house, look for the little things. When switchplates are installed for lights, they should be flush against the wall and square. If they're off-center or sticking out from the wall, chances are the utility box behind them isn't properly installed.
As the job nears completion, take a look for details, like the screws on lightswitch panels. They should all be tight to the panel face, and all the screwheads should be aligned. Electrical installation is precise and detailed, and every aspect of your contractor's work should be as well.