Dealing with Electrical Work

Living Safely with Electricity - What to Avoid

We all know some basic electrical safety practices. However, many homeowners engage in practices which seem safe, but which are actually extremely risky. The dangers may not be as obvious as touching an outlet with a wet finger, but those dangers are just as real.

Using the Wrong Cords and Power Strips

It's a rare house that doesn't have at least one or two extension cords, multiple-plug adapters or power strips in use. When used correctly, these small appliances are helpful and safe. However, many homeowners use them incorrectly.

Some of these items are designed for use with large appliances, while others are designed for smaller things like cell phone chargers. Never put a heavier electrical load on an extension device than it was designed to handle. Doing so can cause shorts, it can trip fuses, and it can spark a dangerous fire.

Another common and very frightening habit is the connection of multiple cords or power strips. These devices should be plugged into a wall outlet and nothing else. Connecting them is creating a fire hazard.

Leaving Wires Unprotected

During construction and remodeling, a licensed electrician is not always on hand. Special permits can be obtained which allow certain workers to perform a degree of wiring under supervision. The same type of permit can be obtained allowing a homeowner to do “rough wiring” while being supervised.

A very common mistake during construction or major remodeling is the placement of wire bundles. There are very specific regulations regarding the placement of wires in proximity to other elements, such as studs and drywall. These regulations are in place to avoid pinching, scratching, pulling or otherwise damaging the wire and causing a fire hazard. In certain conditions and situations, a metal guard plate is required to prevent nails or other items from puncturing or damaging wires.

Your contractor will know the exact measurements which are required in your local area, and where and when a guard plate is necessary. If you live in an area which allows DIY electrical work and you're not sure of these specifications, find out before beginning your project. Many areas have the information available online, or in a booklet format which you can pick up at a city office. If you really want to play it safe, you can hire an electrician to assess your home and project before you begin, alerting you to any potential hazards and educating you on safety and local regulations.

Connecting Wires of Different Amperage

Amperage simply refers to the electrical load a particular wire is rated to safely carry. When performing relatively simple electrical tasks such as installing a new outlet, many homeowners make the dangerous assumption that simply because a wire appears strong and heavy enough to handle a particular load, it can handle that load. This is entirely untrue. A 15-amp wire and a 20-amp wire may be identical in appearance. However, connecting the two during an outlet installation will overload the smaller wire, leaving you with a fire hazard hidden inside your wall. Play it safe and check the amperage of every single wire you use.

Improper Fuse Replacement

Dealing with a fuse which is always blowing out can be extremely frustrating. However, it's important to remember that blown fuses are indicative of a problem somewhere in the electrical system of your home. Any electrical problem left unchecked can be hazardous. If your fuses keep blowing, call in an electrician to inspect your wiring and find the source of the problem, rather than replacing them endlessly.

An even more dangerous situation occurs when a homeowner mistakenly thinks that attaching a larger breaker or fuse will resolve the issue. This couldn't be further from the truth. In actuality, a fuse or breaker larger than the amperage of the wire can cause dangerous overheating and potential fires. Always stick with the original size breaker or fuse, and call in the professionals if blown fuses are a recurring issue.

Improper Light Bulb Sizing

Changing or replacing a light bulb may be one of the simplest household tasks around, but it's not without potential danger. Printed on every single light fixture, right on the base into which you screw in the bulb, is a maximum wattage rating. This is usually 60 watts for smaller lamps and 100 for larger ones, although this varies by manufacturer.

You've undoubtedly noticed that a 150-watt bulb will easily screw into a lamp socket rated for 60 watts. Does this mean that the lamp can handle the 150-watt bulb? Absolutely not! All it means is that many light bulbs share a universally sized base. Always follow the printed wattage ratings on each lamp in your home. If a too-bright bulb is used in a lamp, the bulb and lamp can become dangerously hot and pose a fire hazard.

Too Many Plugs, Too Few Outlets

One of the most common firehouse emergency calls around the holidays is from a homeowner who has plugged far too many things into the same outlet. Why is this more common during the holidays? Those beautiful twinkling lights we all love need to be powered somehow. Instead of following manufacturer directions (or even common sense), many homeowners feel that they can safely plug several strands of lights into the same outlet, using the “convenient” connections on the backs of many types of strand light plugs. These connecting plugs are designed to allow you to string several strands of lights end-to-end, not to create a tower of plugs all drawing power from the same outlet. Follow the directions on the lights; all newer models specify how many strands can be strung together. The same principle applies to any outlet, and to any appliance with a double-plug. Don't stack them up, it invites fire.

Poor Cord Maintenance

Sometimes it's the simplest things that end up causing the biggest hazards. This is usually because those simple things are so commonplace that we almost forget they're there. It's natural to be alert and watchful when performing electrical work, since most people are well aware of the dangers, and the task at hand is not routine.

Common items such as electrical cords, however, can quickly become part of the household landscape. When was the last time you paid any attention to your television's electrical cord, for example? Probably when you plugged it in months or even years ago.

Electrical cords can become damaged in a number of ways. Cords which twist and turn frequently, like those on hair dryers or other styling tools, can fray and wear down, exposing the wires inside. Wire which are hidden behind entertainment centers offer perfect chewing opportunities for curious pets. Very old electric items may feature cords which have literally rotted away.

Regardless of how a cord becomes damaged, the important thing is to unplug and replace it as soon as possible. If the cord is channeling power to something which can't be unplugged, such as a refrigerator, wrap the cord securely with electrical tape and call a repair service as soon as possible. Electrical tape is a quick fix, but it's only temporary, and should never be relied upon for any length of time. If the cord is on a small appliance, your best bet is to simply throw it away; fixing the cord is likely to cost more than the item's original value.

Finding a Reputable Electrician

The biggest single mistake homeowners make is attempting to perform electrical work on a DIY basis. While simple wiring tasks may look easy, many of them are filled with potential hazards if you don't know exactly what you're doing.

When in doubt, call the professionals. This guideline is more important in electrical work than in perhaps any other area of home improvement and repair, simply because the risks of improperly done electrical work are so high.

Finding a reliable electrician used to mean opening up the phone book and choosing somebody that sounded good. If you were lucky, you could get a recommendation from friends or family.

Thankfully, those days of indecision are over. Home improvement websites which connect professionals with homeowners have made the process of finding highly qualified workers very simple. These sites allow you to search by area, ensuring that you won't end up with a list of electricians who live hours from your home.

Licensing, certifications, years of experience and many other important criteria are listed for you to search. You can even read consumer reviews, written by former clients just like yourself. These reviews can be invaluable, since they provide insight into how an electrician operates while on the job.

Remember that safety should be your first concern in any home improvement project, and even more so when dealing with electricity. You might save a few dollars by attempting to install that light or socket on your own, but if you make a mistake, you could literally lose your home to a fire. Play it safe and let the professionals do what they do best.

Posted by: Diane
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