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5 Ways to NOT Electrocute Yourself

This week’s post is a guest post by Spencer Blohm about electrical safety. Since the National Safety Council has designated the month of June as National Safety Month, I thought it was a fitting post as we crank up the AC and start pushing hard on our home’s electrical service. Be safe this summer and follow these easy tips to NOT electrocute yourself!

5 Ways to NOT Electrocute YourselfSummer is also prime time to get going on home renovation projects, and a significant percentage of older home remodeling projects include removing and replacing electrical wiring, updating fixtures and installing new electrical service equipment.

It’s all too easy for even an experienced do-it-yourselfer to overlook the danger of this unseen force.

According to Direct Energy, one of North America’s largest suppliers of electricity, about 51,000 home fires occur each year in the United States because of electrical failure or malfunction. These fires claimed nearly 500 lives and over $1 billion in property damage. In many older homes, wiring is hidden out of sight behind the walls, and lights and fixtures often continue to operate long after the underlying wires and connections have become hazardous due to advanced age. It’s critical that anyone tackling a remodeling project on an old home makes the effort to learn about residential electrical service and gain at least a passing understanding of old-school wiring and installation practices.

Below are 5 easy ways to NOT electrocute yourself. The title may sound silly, but this really is serious stuff that can be dangerous if you aren’t careful.

1. Know Your Electrical System

Before starting a remodel, become acquainted with the inner workings of your property’s electrical system. Know exactly where the wires are placed and the type of wiring that is present. This information will come in handy if and when repairs are needed to any wall, ceiling or floor, and will also be extremely valuable for any future renovation projects.

2. Repair Faulty Wires and Electrical Components

Electrical repair work is no place to skimp. Leave room in your budget to replace any old or faulty wiring and all substandard electrical components. Even if a particular connection or outlet looks new and seems to be performing its intended function, it’s a good idea to go ahead and upgrade to a newer model, especially if the part is more than 50 years old.

3. Install GFCIs

When updating your outlets, be sure to install ground fault circuit interrupters in areas where moisture may be present, including the kitchen, bathrooms and laundry area. Older homes do not have these special types of outlets that are designed to switch off the power if a short is detected, and they do save lives if properly installed and maintained.

4. Check Your Electrical System Before You Begin

Ensure that your electrical service is capable of handling the extra load of additional outlets and fixtures. This is especially true if the renovation work adds to the total square footage of the home or you find that you’re drastically increasing the number of outlets and fixtures per room.

5. Watch Out for Power Lines

Take care to avoid any overhead power lines around your home. Exterior work on the property can lead to unexpected contact with a live wire if precautions aren’t taken, and large trucks entering and exiting the site may catch on low-hanging lines. If the outdoor electrical lines are buried underground, these should be marked by a professional utility locating company so that they won’t be disturbed during any excavation work.

 

If you have a home renovation project planned for this summer, exercise extreme care when tackling any required electrical upgrades. Take the extra time to consult and comply with your community’s electrical and building codes and install quality parts and components when upgrading your service. Following this advice is just one step on the path to a successful remodeling project that will result in a home that you’ll be able to enjoy for many years to come.

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4 thoughts on “5 Ways to NOT Electrocute Yourself

  1. Some good advice there. As a registered electrician with 35 years of experience, and also a BOCA certified residential electrical inspector, let me add some additional information.

    First, GFI outlets are not only safest in kitchens (within reach of the sink), bathrooms and outdoor outlets, they are required by ALL local building codes in those locations. Also, arc-fault receptacles, that prevent fires being started by fabrics or other items contacting the outlet, are now required in all bedrooms.

    The wiring in old houses is often VERY problematic and my general advice is that homeowners NOT attempt to do electrical work, even replacing outlets or switches. For one thing, though we use 3-way switches today to be able to turn on stairway lights from both floors, back when knob-and-tube wiring was used in homes, a set up variously called a “Pittsburgh switch” or “Chicago switch” is often present where the light is fed from two DIFFERENT circuits. Which means that even if you turn off a breaker or remove a fuse in one of the circuits that feeds it, the other will still be hot and can shock you. You can’t replace a switch in one of these systems with modern 3-way switches unless you replace all the cables from the lights to the switches.

    I have seen simply horrible and dangerous modifications to wiring in countless older homes, done by homeowners or handymen who have no idea what they are doing. In the second old house I owned, I found open splices buried inside walls that were twisted together with Band-Aids and duct tape! Homeowners and handymen also usually don’t understand code and safety rules like not connecting daisy chained outlets by wiring the neutral through the terminals on the upstream outlets (they must be pig-tailed to maintain the integrity of the neutral if the outlet fails.)

    Loads need to be balanced in your panel too — you have two 120 volt busses in your panel and if one side has more power being drawn from it than the other, feeding heavy wattage loads like heating or AC units or 120V appliances, you can get induced voltage on the neutral line. There are also often no ground wires in old houses which were wired only with line and neutral. I can’t tell you how many buried junction boxes and splices I have found — ALL electrical connections have to be 100% accessible in a box or inside a light fixture. They cannot be sealed inside walls or ceilings. And all connections have to be inside a box or approved fixture, they can’t be in open air. There are also strict regulations on how many wires and splices can be inside a particular sized box. Crowded wires result in overheating and potential fires.

    Honestly, if reading any of what I have written is confusing or mysterious to you, then I’m afraid you should not risk the safety of your family and property by doing ANY electrical work at all yourself. Wiring isn’t for amateurs.

    If you are doing demo in an older house, it is best to turn off ALL of the power before cutting into or tearing down a wall. Old knob and tube wires are often bare due to damage by rodents or just age causing the rubber or varnished fabric insulation to fall off leaving exposed copper that will shock you. Contacting these wires with power tools or your body can cause painful shock, serious burns and even death. Be careful of exposed knob and tube in unfinished attics too when you work in such spaces.

    If you are doing demo, have a voltage tester of some kind and learn how to use it so you can make sure anything you are dealing with is dead before you remove it. If you find aluminum wire (silver colored instead of copper all the way through), you have another issue that comes up in old houses and it may need to be removed for safety and to satisfy your home insurance carrier. Aluminum wire is no longer legal in homes for branch circuits (it is allowed for the service to the panel from outside) because it can cause fires due to loose and corroded connections.

    It really is worthwhile to hire a qualified electrician to check out and evaluate the old wiring in your house if you are going to work around it.

  2. I’ll never forget the first time I got electrocuted. It’s not a very enjoyable experience, and I can tell you that a lot of your advice is pretty sound. I wish I would have read this before I tried to do so much myself, but I’ll take what I can get now. Honestly, I think next time, I’ll just call an electrician. But I still love your advice! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Hi Scott,
    You first way “Know Your Electric System” is a little light on details: “become acquainted with the inner workings of your property’s electrical system. Know exactly where the wires are placed and the type of wiring that is present. ”

    I have a 75 year old house with the original wiring and an updated breaker box system. How would I go about getting familiar with my wiring without tearing into walls? I don’t have plans to remodel any time soon. Thanks.

    1. One thing that you can do is pay an electrician to trace and label all the outlets,applianc connections and lighting in your house so that the panel circuit labeling is correct. Often it is not marked at all or is too vague (like a breaker labeled “Bedroom #1”). It is important to know which breaker controls EVERY electrical connection in your home so you know which to turn off in the case of a problem, like a sparking or smoking outlet or a switch that seems to be making a light flicker on and off.

      If you have an unfinished basement where the wires running from the panel are exposed, you can often trace some visually to map where they go up into the walls of the house and narrow down which rooms and outlets they feed, but this is more complicated.

      There are electricians, often on service sites like Angies List or Homeadvisor, that offer coupons for electrical safety inspection. Sometimes these are very affordable and may give discounts to seniors and other times they may allow you to credit cost of the inspection towards any remediation work that the inspection may indicate.

      You might also ask an electrician to combine an inspection with installing a whole house surge suppressor on the electrical panel to protect everything electronic in the house against power surge damage. This is usually only a few hundred dollars and can save thousands in damages.

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