From minor electrical repairs to simple common sense about the use of electricity in a home, a few safety tips will keep homeowners in the electrical loop
DENVER, CO – The electrical service in any home is at the heart of family’s lifestyle, operating the lights, appliances, the air conditioner, even the hot tub. Everyone understands that, of course, but like everything else that just comes “on” with the flip of a switch, electricity is just one of those things we take for granted – until an emergency or the need arises.
As licensed and experienced electricians serving the Denver metro area for over a decade, Allstar Electrical Services works regularly with all kinds of clients: those who are informed, the misinformed and those who simply just want it fixed or expanded. In any case, when it comes to a home’s electrical service the admonition is for caution. Electricity can kill, injure or create fires if not handled properly, and it pays to know some basic safety rules.
The most basic safety and convenience rule is to know where the home’s electrical service box is located. Most often referred to as the circuit breaker, this is the usually grey box on the back of the house where the electrical service comes in from the utility. The box itself is designed to gather that electric service and then distribute it throughout the home through the many circuits on the box’s panel. These circuits come in different power ratings, like 20 amp or 15 amp, depending on the room or the appliance being served and the electric demand in question (e.g., kitchens typically need a higher power rating to handle the refrigerator and all of the other appliances, and often will be served by two or circuits). It’s good to know where this electrical panel/circuit breaker is in the event a circuit trips and power needs to be restored, and also so the homeowner knows where to turn off a circuit for minor repairs or the whole service in case of an emergency. Of course, we recommend keeping the area around the circuit breaker free of obstructions – patio furniture, plants, etc. – so there is easy access year round.
It’s also good to know how a particular home’s electrical panel is rated. For a long time, and until up to about 15 years ago, the basic standard was 100 amp service. But today most homes, even small ones, require (and may be mandated to have) 200 amp service at minimum. The reason is simple: home electrical demand has mushroomed, with entertainment systems, computers and accessories, and the myriad of electrical appliances and power chargers that have become part of everyday life in recent years. Think about; we used to have a television, and that has been overtaken by a whole system consisting of a TV, DVR, surround sound, DVD, game system, all often drawing power from the “plug” that used to power just the TV.
Knowing what’s there is important. A recent customer of ours, in an older Denver home, wanted to add a few new outlets in the home, add electrical service and lights to his garage, install a ceiling fan, and install a new chandelier. Easy, right? Turns out he had 100 amp service, inadequate (and out of code), that was already a safety hazard to the home, much less with increased demand. We upgraded the home to 200 amp service, fulfilled all of the increased electrical convenience in the home, and now he is poised to be able to add more conveniences (A hot tub? A swap cooler?) with ease. Also, it should be noted, it would have been impossible to sell this home without upgrading to 200 amp electrical service before placing the property on the market.
When performing relatively minor home electrical repair, like replacing light switches or wall outlets, here’s how to keep safe:
- Locate the proper circuit breaker in the circuit box and turn off the electric to the circuit to be worked on. Before commencing work make sure the circuit is off; plug in a lamp in the outlet or one nearby on the same circuit to make sure the circuit is off. If in doubt, don’t proceed. Use a voltage meter to check if the power is off.
- Study up and read the directions. Most electrical devices come with instructions, and it is wise to follow these to the letter. You want to make sure positive is positive, negative is negative, and the ground is installed properly. If the device purchased has scant directions, there are plenty of helpful sites on the internet to walk even the novice through a simple repair.
- Install the right switch/outlet. Bathrooms, kitchens, garages and any location where an outlet or a device plugged into it may come in contact with water require a GFI (ground fault interrupter) that protects against shock. Not only is it wise, it is code in most areas.
- Use tools – screwdrivers and pliers – with rubber/insulated grips or handles. Probably wise to wear gloves, too.
- Never stand in water while attempting an electrical repair.
- Wear shoes with non-conductive soles, like tennis shoes. Also, wear protective eyewear.
- Red and black wires are typically the “hot” wires, meaning the current is flowing from the circuit breaker. White wires are usually the negative or “return” wires, and the ground wire is generally bare. Older homes, however, may feature wires that are not color-coded. In this case you can use a voltage meter (you’ll have to flip the circuit break back on once the wires are exposed) to check.
Many people also attempt, with varying degrees of success, to do more complicated jobs like installing a ceiling fan or putting in a new outlet or switch themselves. Ceiling fans, particularly those with lights as well, are complicated, and we get a ton of calls to finish up where the homeowner failed. Our advice: read the directions closely, and then again, build the fan on the floor first, and make sure you fully understand the wiring. Also, beyond wiring, make sure the anchoring bracket can handle the job and that the fan is installed properly on the bracket; a fan creates momentum and can easily throw itself off an unsecure bracket, creating a myriad of problems.
Additional light switches and/or outlets require cutting into the wall, locating the feed wires and tapping them, and perhaps pulling additional wire. Study up because there are code requirements about distance off the floor, what kind of wire to use, etc. And often such a job requires a permit to be pulled from the local government jurisdiction and a demonstration that the installer knows more than the basics about such an installation.
For these things, the Allstar Electrical Services recommendation is to call in a professional, licensed electrician so there will be confidence in the outcome.
Here are a few other, more basic electrical safety tips:
- Extension cords are meant to be temporary, not a component of the house wiring. They tend to heat up over time and should never, ever be placed under carpets, rugs or furniture. Never staple an electrical cord into place to keep it off the floor; should the need arise, there are U brackets which don’t pierce the cord for this purpose.
- Don’t overload circuits. If you experience tripping circuit breakers frequently when turning on multiple appliances (e.g. the microwave and the toaster), that circuit is underpowered or you need an additional circuit in that area.
- Power surge extension cords may protect the device plugged in from a power surge, but remember that if you plug multiple devices into the surge protector (e.g. computer, printer, keyboard) they are all still being plugged into a single outlet. Not recommended.
- Keep portable heaters and space heaters well ventilated and away from things that can burn, like carpets, furniture, newspapers/magazines and the like. And never operate them if no one is around.
- Unplug appliances – and, yes, charger cords – when not in use. Not only is it a potential electrical hazard, even a toaster plugged in but not in use is drawing power and wasting energy.
Electricity is, of course, a wonderful commodity that fulfills our lives in big and small ways each and every day. But it is also potentially dangerous and should be handled with care. With a growing demand for electrical devices in every room of the house, keep in mind that most Americans are continually adding to the strain on a home’s electrical system, and like anything else it should be inspected by a professional periodically to make sure it is in tip-top shape. Second best just won’t do.
Except for the most minor repairs, it is not recommended that homeowners perform electrical work. It is dangerous, of course, but also there are a ton of rules and regulations that must be followed that only professionals keep fully abreast of. We at Allstar Electrical Services perform the full gamut of home electrical tasks, from the minor to the very complex, including inspections, to ensure everything is in order. Phone us at 303-399-7420 for complete details on any electrical project.