Home Electrical Safety
Overloaded circuits. Breakers will shut off power to overloaded circuits, but you should not rely on this safety measure. Overheated wires in an overloaded circuit pose a fire risk. Signs of an overloaded circuit include switch or outlet plates that are warm to the touch or begin to discolor; outlets or switches that give off an unpleasant, burning odor; and strange noises—popping or buzzing sounds—coming from outlets. Also take note of any lights that flicker or dim at random intervals or of breakers that seem to trip often.
To prevent overloaded circuits, avoid relying on power strips, extension cords, and outlet extenders for additional outlet space. Appliances should be plugged directly into a wall outlet—never into an extension cord or an outlet extender. When plugging in appliances, reserve a separate wall outlet for each appliance. If you find that your home does not have sufficient outlets for your needs, contact an electrician for help.
Cords. Furniture should not rest on any cords or push up against plugs in the wall—this can damage the cords and pose a fire hazard. That goes for rugs too, as stepping on cords can damage them. Avoid wrapping cords tightly; wrapped cords trap heat, which can melt the insulated coating protecting the wire.
Use extension cords sparingly. Inspect the cord before you use it; if it is frayed, cracked, or showing bare wire, throw it away. Do not attach extension cords to each other in an attempt to create a longer cord. Extension cords are not a substitute for permanent or damaged wiring.
Smoke and carbon monoxide alarms. For the best protection, have an electrician install hardwired smoke detectors with battery backups. Smoke detectors should be installed inside and outside every bedroom and on every level of the house. Carbon monoxide detectors can also be hardwired and should be installed outside bedrooms and on every floor of the house. Carbon monoxide detectors can be installed anywhere on a wall or ceiling. Test all of the smoke and carbon monoxide detectors in your home once per month, and replace any batteries at least once per year.
Electrical Service Panels
Electrical service panels are typically located in an accessible but out-of-the-way area, such as a garage, basement, pantry, or utility room. Most modern homes have 100-, 150-, or 200-amp service panels. Ideally, your home’s panel will have a few open spaces for additional breakers. If your panel is full or if you add on to or renovate your home, an electrician may need to install a subpanel. Each circuit has a circuit breaker or fuse that interrupts the flow of electricity when too much current is drawn through the circuit. Generally, newer panels use circuit breakers, while panels installed before 1965 use fuses. Panels have one main circuit breaker or fuse block to shut off all power to the house.
Once a circuit breaker is tripped or a fuse is blown, first turn off the appliance or device that caused the problem. Switching a tripped circuit breaker all the way to the “off” position and then back to the “on” position resets it. Blown fuses must be replaced. Fuses come in different sizes for different circuits. A burned-out, low-amp fuse should never be replaced with a higher-amp fuse.
GFCI receptacles. A GFCI receptacle, or outlet, monitors electricity flowing through the hot and neutral wires in a circuit and cuts off power if even a small amount of electricity leaves the circuit. This action prevents shock or electrocution. Because water is such a good conductor of leaked electricity, the National Electrical Code requires that GFCI outlets be installed outdoors and in bathrooms, kitchens, and garages.
AFCI receptacles. Arc faults are one of the leading causes of electrical fires. Arc faults occur when electricity jumps between conductors rather than following the circuit. Because this jump generates heat, an electrical fire is often the result. Arc fault circuit interrupters (AFCIs) are designed to detect such arcs and quickly disconnect the circuit. A licensed electrician can install AFCI receptacles in the walls and AFCI breakers in your electrical service panel. If your panel is currently equipped with branch/feeder AFCI breakers, ask your electrician about replacing them with updated combination-type AFCI breakers for more comprehensive protection from all types of arc faults.
Tamper-resistant receptacles. Tamper-resistant receptacles (TRRs) have spring-loaded covers behind the plug slots that only open when equal pressure is applied to both slots at the same time. This style of outlet is now required in all new construction by the National Electrical Code. Replacing a traditional outlet with a TRR is no different than replacing it with another traditional outlet, and the additional cost is nominal.
Backup generators run on natural gas, propane, gasoline, or diesel and provide electricity in the event of a power outage. Before purchasing a generator, consider how much electricity you will need when the power is out, and buy a generator that is sized appropriately.
An automatic generator senses the loss of power from the public utility, automatically starts the generator, and automatically switches the home’s electrical load to the generator. The manual option requires the homeowner to start the generator and manually switch the home’s load.
All automatic generators require the installation of a transfer switch to transfer the home’s electrical load from the public utility to the generator and then back again. An improperly installed transfer switch could back-feed electricity into the power lines, which could potentially electrocute a utility worker, so only licensed electricians should install transfer switches.
To prevent damage to electronics, many homeowners choose to install surge protectors, which regulate the voltage supplied to an electrical device by diverting excess electricity through a grounding wire. Plug-in surge protectors plug into a wall outlet and feature a hub into which several devices can be plugged. Whole-house units can be installed by an electrician at the meter or the service panel. Whole-house units only protect against incoming surges, so they should be used with plug-in units for the best protection.
Standby power, or the small amounts of electricity used by items that are plugged in but not in use, can sneakily raise your power bill. Minimize standby power with smart power strips, which can shut down power to individual devices after a period of inactivity. For additional savings, look for energy-efficient models when it’s time to replace major appliances.