Many homeowners never wonder if their house has an old wiring system, plugging all sorts of devices in for regular use. But are residents putting a 21st century demand on a 20th century electrical system?
In today’s technology-dependent world, we are putting a greater strain on our home electrical systems than ever before – we’re not only plugging in appliances and lights, but computers, game consoles, cell phones, tablets and a host of other electronic gadgets.
Many homes have an old wiring system – more than half of American homes are 50 years old or older, and the median age of American homes is 35 years old. National Association of Realtors recommends that houses 40 years and older be renovated or sold “as-is.”
Home Inspections by Licensed Electricians
If homeowners don’t know when their home’s wiring was last updated, it may be time to have a licensed electrician inspect for fire hazards. These can include deteriorating wire insulation, corrosion and improper wiring. To meet today’s electrical demands, homes should have 12 American Wire Gauge, and an electrician can determine whether a home has the thinner 14 gauge. Prior to purchasing a home that is 50 years old or older, it should be inspected by an electrician. Regular checkups should occur every five years thereafter.
Homeowners should take a proactive approach to electrical safety in the home. The U.S. Fire Administration reports that 10 percent of fatal fires are caused by electrical malfunctions, and malfunctions account for an estimated 51,000 fires each year, according to the Electrical Safety Foundation. In addition to having a licensed electrician do an all-over inspection of the home, there are many things homeowners can do to make the home as safe as possible for loved ones.
The National Fire Protection Association notes homeowners should use bulbs that don’t exceed a light fixture’s recommended wattage. If the recommended wattage is unknown, a 60-watt bulb or smaller should be used.
Eliminate the use of extension cords, increasing the number of outlets if necessary. The more heavy-duty gauge the extension cord, the better. A 16 gauge is the smallest gauge that should be used. The smaller the number, the thicker and heavier the cord. Cords should never be covered by rugs or nailed or stapled down, because they could overheat or malfunction.
The U.S. Consumer Protection Agency recommends that any outlet in an area which may be exposed to water, such as bathrooms, kitchens or laundry rooms, have a Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI). This device monitors the flow of current to prevent anyone from receiving an electrical shock. A GFCI is designed to sense when electricity is not flowing from the “hot,” or smaller outlet socket on the right, to the neutral, or larger outlet socket on the left. If a conductor, such as water, has been introduced, the GFCI can sense very small imbalances and shut off current within a fraction of a second.
Tamper resistant receptacles (TRR) are outlets that resist attempts to insert any object other than a plug into them. Spring-loaded shutters cover the outlet socket and will prevent anything from being inserted into a single socket. They are recommended to be retrofitted in any home where children live or visit, and the National Electrical Code, a safety code widely adapted across the country, requires all electrical outlets in new construction to be TRR outlets.
Troubleshooting Old Wiring
In addition to these changes, homeowners should be aware of potential problems before they turn into big ones. Dim or flickering lights, unusual noises or a burning smell may be a clue that a licensed electrician is needed.
If lights dim when running a large appliance, the circuit may overloaded, especially in older homes whose electrical systems aren’t designed to handle the power demands of a modern home. If the lights dim when appliances aren’t running, a serious wiring issue may be occurring that should be addressed by an electrician.
If lights consistently flicker throughout the home during high winds or a storm, the service line entering the home at the weatherhead. This fitting connects the overhead electric line meets the home’s service line, and may be in poor condition. Flickering even in good weather can be a sign of an outdated system or one that is seeing overuse.
If a faint buzzing sound exists, facing plates or devices are hot to the touch or a smell of burning plastic is detected, these are all signs of an overheating electrical system, and a licensed electrician needs to be brought in to address the issue immediately.
Buzzing can indicate the electrical wiring is improperly grounded or overloaded, and if the circuit breaker is buzzing, it too could be overloaded or have a bad connection. Also, a frequently tripping circuit breaker is an indication of faulty wiring.
Older home with fuse boxes should have the fuses that meet the recommended amperage to avoid a fire hazard. Again, frequent tripping means the box is being overloaded. No matter what sort of electrical box exists, all of the circuits and disconnecting switches should be clearly labeled.
Electrical malfunctions can range from an inconvenience to a serious danger, and the cost can range from $70 to $120 per outlet and switch and $1,000 to $3,000 for copper wiring, depending on the size of the house. However, one in three homeowners don’t have even $500 set aside for an emergency home repair, according to HomeServe USA’s State of the Home survey.
Electrical malfunctions be costly and dangerous. Heating equipment malfunctions cause one in five residential fires each year, while carbon monoxide poisoning – which can be caused by faulty HVAC systems – causes 15,000 emergency room visits and nearly 500 deaths each year. In addition, gas leaks injure more than 50 people and kill an average of 14 annually.
Quick Safety Tips
- Repair or replace damaged electrical cords.
- Don’t remove a plug by pulling on the cord, grip the plug’s plastic housing instead.
- Don’t overload electric outlets.
- Don’t put carpets over extension cords; they may overheat.
- Don’t staple or nail extension cords to floors, ceilings or walls; you may cause improper grounding or arcing.
- Unplug appliances before cleaning or repairing and unplug appliances that don’t work or are sparking.
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