Q: I’m thinking about doing a little remodeling myself. Is there a proper height to locate outlets and switches to conform to code?
A: There are requirements if your installation needs to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but other than that, locations are determined more by custom than by code. There may be local codes that specify heights for certain rooms like a kitchen or bathroom, so check with your local building department to be sure.
The main thing is to try to achieve consistency both within a room and throughout the building. It looks bad to have these things at different heights in the same room unless there’s an obvious reason for it.
Measure the distance from the floor or countertop to the center of your existing switches and outlets as a guide for placing others. By using the center as your measuring point, you won’t have to worry about whether the one you’re installing is the same size as the others.
Running power to outlets and switches is something that needs to be done by someone who understands wiring pretty well, so don’t undertake this sort of project unless you do. It’s safer and easier to have a licensed electrician do it unless you’re experienced at it.
Q: Winter is coming and I’d like to have my outdoor lighting come on as soon as it gets dark rather than wait until I get home. What is the best way to do that?
A: That depends on how the system is wired. If it’s powered by a standard electrical plug-in outlet inside your home or a dry area such as a garage (not recommended for best safety and performance), you may be able to use a standard indoor light timer. Just be sure that the timer is rated for the load your system will put on it. The timer should have a wattage rating stamped on it somewhere. If the wattage of your outdoor lights exceeds the timer rating, don’t use it. If you don’t know, don’t use it.
If it turns on with a normal wall switch, a timer will have to be wired in like the one you may have on your sprinkler system. This may be beyond the skills of a typical DIYer.
You may also be able to use a light sensor switch that activates when the light level outdoors goes down in the evening and switches off in the morning.
A licensed electrician can inspect your system and recommend the best solution to you.
Q: When my hair dryer tripped a breaker I went to the electrical panel, but couldn’t find anything wrong. Is there someplace else I should look, or is something wrong with the outlet?
A: You probably have a Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) integrated into one of your wall outlets. This is a safety device that is now required for all outlets located in higher-risk areas like bathrooms and kitchens. It detects current leakage on that branch of the circuit and trips like a regular circuit breaker before any harm can be done. Look for an outlet that has a small button on it. It might not be on the outlet you were plugged in to, but should be near it. Next to the button you should see the word “Reset.” Once you have disconnected the device that caused the problem, push the reset button to restore service. If it trips again you may have a more serious problem and you should call a licensed electrician to find and fix the situation that’s causing the problem.
Q: I’m interested in saving electricity, but I’ve heard that compact fluorescent bulbs have mercury and other pollutants in them. Is that true and if it is, are there other bulbs I can use that do less damage to the environment?
A: Compact fluorescent (CF) lamps use considerably less energy than incandescent bulbs, but they do contain a small amount of mercury (about 5 mg) and environmentally-aware consumers should consider recycling them to keep it out of landfills where it might enter the groundwater.
An alternative you might consider is using low-energy LED lighting. It’s more expensive initially than CF, but the cost is coming down and the energy savings are considerable. They use half the electricity of standard bulbs of similar brightness, last over 20,000 hours, are cool to the touch and come in many standard sizes and shapes so they can be used in your existing fixtures. Allstar Electric is proud to be among the first companies to specify LED lighting for its residential and commercial projects.
If you choose to use CF lamps, check with your local energy company or search the Internet for recycling sources.
Q: We just recently moved to an older home that has some outlets and switches outdoors. Should I be concerned about “winterizing” them?
A: If they are approved devices for outdoor use and are in good repair, they should be fine for the winter without any special attention. Some older homes and remodels may not have been fitted with devices that meet code, though. There’s really not much you can do to weatherproof them short of replacing them with approved devices. If you suspect your outdoor switches or outlets are non-conforming or look damaged, you should have a licensed electrician inspect them and upgrade them if needed.
Q: Our child is about to take her first steps. As exciting as the prospect is, I also worry about her safety. Is there anything I can do to make our home’s electrical system safer for her?
A: Congratulations on the new addition to your family! Yes, there are several things you can do to make sure your child’s first steps don’t lead to danger when it comes to electricity.
A simple place to start is by childproofing your home’s electrical outlets. You can buy plastic outlet caps anywhere home hardware or accessories are sold and they’re a very effective way to insure that your toddler doesn’t get shocked by sticking something where it doesn’t belong.
Electrical cords not only present a tripping danger (remember, the little tyke can walk in places you wouldn’t consider), but they can also be tempting things to pull on, either to help get back up from a fall or just out of pure curiosity. Since there’s usually something at the other end of the cord you don’t want crashing down on junior’s noggin, be sure the power cords to all your lights, appliances and other devices are routed safely away from harm’s way.
There are literally dozens of potential electrical hazards to children in the home (adults, too!). A good place to get more information is the website for the Electrical Safety Foundation International at www.esfi.org. They even have a clever home safety quiz you can take.