The Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI) estimates over 51,000 home fires are ignited each year due to some form of electrical problem. This is, on average, nearly 1,000 homes impacted each and every week. Most of these issues are started by some form of problem like old, poorly installed or faulty wiring. Problem wiring should be remediated immediately; but what exactly does faulty or bad wiring look like? Is this an issue you can resolve yourself, or will you need professional assistance? How dangerous is bad wiring?
In this guide, readers will learn some common symptoms of faulty wiring. You'll learn how to identify and resolve common issues associated with old wiring. We'll discuss the difference between aluminum and copper wiring and safety issues every homeowner should be aware of.
Your home may have common wiring issues and you may not even know it. Here is how to better notice signs of faulty wiring and the steps that can be taken to resolve it.
Many homeowners are surprised to learn their homes may be showing outward signs of faulty wiring. If you don't know what the symptoms are or what to look for, however, they can be easily ignored or simply missed. In this section, we'll explore and explain some of these common symptoms, what causes them and how they can be resolved.
If your home is demonstrating some following characteristics, you probably have a wiring issue that needs to be addressed promptly. Here is what to look for.
One relatively common issue, especially in older homes, are electrical outlets that have become hot. It should be understood that an electrical outlet should never be hot; if it is, it is an indication that something is wrong and needs to be addressed immediately. Here are the steps that should be taken:
A hot outlet is either caused by the types or amounts of items plugged into it or by faulty wiring or a faulty outlet. If it has been determined that the items plugged into the outlet aren't the issue, the wiring or the outlet itself will need to be replaced.
Flickering lights can either be a minor issue that can be simply fixed, or it could be a sign of a more significant issue. Let's first address some common, more easily fixed causes of flickering lights.
If flickering is restricted to one lamp or fixture, it could be because the light bulb isn't making a solid connection with its socket. Make sure the bulb is secure. If it still flickers, turn off power to the bulb and remove it. Check to see if contacts may be bent away. It is possible you may be able to pull up on the contact in the socket. Replace the bulb and turn power back on. If it continues to flicker, the problem could be with the cord or wall outlet. It could also be a light switch that has accumulated dust or dirt over time. Turning the light switch on and off several times rapidly may fix the issue. If not, the switch may need to be replaced.
If the flickering occurs to all the lights in a room or the whole house, voltage in your home may be fluctuating. This can happen when a drain is put on the circuits, like when the HVAC system or an electric dryer starts. It can also be due to old, loose or inadequate wiring in the home. In the case of whole-house flickering, it is best to contact an electrician. They can best troubleshoot whether the problem is in the home's wiring or the circuit breaker.
Many homes that were constructed between 1965 and 1972 were constructed using cost-effective aluminum wiring. While aluminum is an excellent conductor for electricity, it also can create fire hazards. It is estimated that aluminum wiring is over 50 times more likely to cause fire conditions than copper wire. While that sounds alarming, it is important to note that it is not the aluminum wire itself that causes issues. The problem most frequently occurs with the connections between aluminum wiring and sockets and switches, and even in the breaker box. Over time, these connections can deteriorate, creating hazards.
The issue can be greatly improved, in many cases, by having an electrician replace the ends of aluminum wires with copper wires. The copper wire is then securely connected to outlets and switches, improving the connections and minimizing fire hazards.
How can you determine if your house has aluminum wiring? The safest and easiest way is to check where cables run through the attic or basement into the breaker boxes. Aluminum wiring is often labeled AL, ALUM or ALUMINUM.
The issues with aluminum wiring prevent its use in new home wiring today. In addition to damage during installation or repair, it too easily expands and contracts when heated and cooled, and, of course, it has issues with connections. If your home has all aluminum wiring, it should be inspected by a licensed electrician.
One sign of an electrical or wiring problem that is sure to gain your attention is a burning smell. The initial odor could be that of burning plastic or rubber. This is often the smell of the wire insulation being heated or burned from the metal wiring. It could also be the odor of melted plastic from a switch or socket.
You'll first want to determine the origin of the smell, which may perhaps be a recently used switch or electrical socket. Shut off the power to the switch or socket at the circuit breaker. Check the area looking for smoke, burn or scorch marks. Remove the socket or light switch cover and inspect for damage or even any flames. If there is any doubt, don't be afraid to use a home fire extinguisher in the area. If the odor or smoke continues, contact the fire department.
Electrical codes are designed to minimize potential fires in electrical boxes. Connections made in modern homes are exceptionally safe. The issue is often in older homes and in homes that may have had do-it-yourself repairs or “upgrades” made to their electrical system through the years. These repairs are often made without regard to best practices or codes.
When detecting a burning smell in your home, take action immediately. If there is any doubt that the issue has been safely resolved, contact an electrician and/or fire authorities.
Corrugated stainless steel tubing (CSST) and flexible gas lines create some special problems when it comes to potential home wiring issues. Lightning strikes and power surges can potentially create holes in flexible gas lines when not properly grounded, creating the potential for a fire and even an explosion.
Flexible gas lines should be professionally installed and properly grounded. Other electrical appliances should not be grounded through flexible gas lines or CSST.
When professionally installed and properly grounded and bonded, flexible gas lines and CSST have proven reliable and safe. Again, a professional electrician can inspect the grounding system in your home for maximum protection against lightning strikes and power surges.
Depending on the age of your home, you may have grounded or ungrounded outlets. Ungrounded outlets have two vertical slots while grounded outlets have similar slots with a rounded third hole. This third hole serves as a grounding port for an electrical cord. This grounding port is particularly important when used on larger home appliances. In case of a lightning strike or power surge, the excess power can be sent to the earth through the grounding wire as opposed to damaging the appliance or wiring system. It is also used to minimize the risks of shocks.
A home with only two-prong outlets is a sign the home was constructed prior to 1960. It is also a sign the home is in dire need of an electrical upgrade.
There are a variety of potential causes for loose outlets, and some may even have differing definitions. They may be defined by outlets that don't firmly hold the prongs of a power cord or those that are physically loose from the wall. You'll first need to identify your issue. When working with any wall outlet, make sure power is cut off to it prior to inspection or replacement. Once power is off, you can safely proceed with troubleshooting.
If the problem is that a socket does not “grab” or firmly hold the prongs of a power cord, it is a sign the socket's contacts are worn or otherwise damaged. While a more secure contact can sometime be made by slightly manually spreading the prongs of the plug on the power cord, the long-term solution is outlet replacement. This is frequently an easy fix simply by purchasing a new socket and reconnecting the wires in the positions they were on with the previous outlet. Make sure connections are secure.
If the entire socket is loose, it may be fixed by tightening the installation screws at the top and bottom of the outlet that go into the electrical box or even by simply tightening the cover screw on the outlet plate that attaches to the outlet itself.
In the United States, Underwriter Laboratories Inc. (UL) employs a certification process for many various cables and wires used in electrical appliances. This process assures the appliance cables have met UL standards and are considered safe. The UL sticker on an appliance is your guarantee that the product is electrically safe. But what if the sticker is fake?
The UL mark provides value, and it should not be surprising that in an effort to sell cheap or substandard products, the UL mark may not be real. While the UL mark is frequently placed on a sticker, it may also be silk screened, printed or otherwise imbedded on the product. Here are four ways to help determine whether a UL mark is legitimate.
If any of these elements are missing or not as described, the UL label could be fake and the cabling deficient.
Messy wiring takes many forms and creates multiple dangers. Messy wiring can be external, a fishnet of wires, cables and extension cords laying across floors and carpeting. This can not only create a fire hazard but are a trip hazard. Any cords should run along the wall and never across doorways. Check extension cords and cables for wear and solid end connections.
Messy wiring can also exist within the walls of a home. This is particularly true when a home is older and has experienced upgrade notifications throughout the years, sometimes by do-it-yourselfers. Far too often when wiring is replaced, old wiring isn't removed. This can cause confusion, potential shocks and perhaps even fires. Removing old wiring as it is replaced is the best way to manage in-wall wiring messes.
There are a multitude of creative and effective ways to manage cables and extension cords. Beyond the variety of wiring management products available in stores, there are some other steps you can take to make your home safer.
Messy cables can be a fire and trip hazard and also unsightly. Too often we get used to them. Take a look at your home with fresh eyes, and address your messy cable issues before they cause a problem.
Rodents can be a significant problem when it comes to home wiring, especially when undetected for a long period of time. Rats and mice will often seek shelter from inclement weather or be in the search for food sources.
Wiring is attractive for rodents because it is an appealing material for them to use in building nests. The copper wiring also serves to help rodents keep their teeth sharp. These factors, in turn, result in a more effective wire chewing machine, and the cycle continues.
Wiring issues associated with rodents can be relatively apparent. Wires will appear frayed or even show signs of obvious chewing. The real problem can be in discovering chewed wires in areas of your home where it may not be so obvious.
The best way to prevent rodent wiring problems is to make your home less appealing. This includes limiting areas where mice can find entrance. It also involves limiting sources of easy-to-reach foods for rodents to enjoy. Put bagged or boxed foods in plastic containers and seal them securely.
There are also spray mouse deterrents that can be used near wiring. Mouse bait traps or sonic rodent deterrents can also be used. It can be an expensive retrofit, but metal conduit can be used to protect wiring.
It is important that rodent wiring problems be addressed immediately, and if the issue is significant, a professional will likely need to be contacted.
Many wiring problems are relatively common, and most can be resolved either by a homeowner and certainly by a professional. Knowing the difference between a minor issue and a significant code violation and the danger levels involved with each can help put you on the appropriate path to resolution.
From overlamping and uncovered junction boxes to backstabbed wires and lack of GFCI outlets, here are some common wiring problems in homes and steps that can be taken to resolve them.
A frequent problem that can cause electrical issues in a home is that of overlamping. Every lighting fixture is manufactured with a maximum wattage rating. Any bulbs placed in these fixtures shouldn't exceed these ratings. Overlamping is when a bulb's wattage is higher than that of its fixture.
The biggest problem with overlamping is heat. A light bulb will try to draw electricity to its maximum wattage. When this exceeds that of the fixture, it can heat the fixture and the wires to the point of potential melting and arcing. This arcing can create a fire.
The solution to overlamping starts with simply looking at the maximum wattage ratings of any fixtures you use, and verify that bulb wattages aren't in excess of that rating. Since wattage ratings for manufacturers weren't required until 1985, determining wattage ratings of older fixtures can be more difficult. In such cases, it is best to limit maximum bulb wattage to 60 watts.
If you notice lamp cords are warm or even hot, it could be a sign of overlamping. Steps to correct the problem should be taken quickly.
Uncovered electrical junction boxes can be common in some homes, usually in attics or basements. These uncovered boxes are usually the result of a hurried upgrade or repair. The cover or screws may have been misplaced or the person conducting the repairs may not fully recognize the important role these covers can play. The older the home, the more likely covers may have become missing through the years.
The purpose of a junction box is to serve as an “intersection” of wires where they are connected to each other. What is critical to realize is that each of these connections increases resistance and the heat level, even if it is minimal. The more connections in a junction box, the more heat that can be generated. A junction box serves to contain this heat that is produced and is an important safety feature.
Electrical junction box covers can also help prevent rodents from damaging wires and minimize contamination from dirt and dust. A cover can keep insulation from coming in contact with electrical connections and minimize moisture from coming in contact with wires. They can also serve as a barrier from a homeowner coming into accidental contact with a connection, creating a shock hazard.
Uncovered junction boxes are unsightly and can only serve to create problems. Perhaps, most importantly, they are an easy, inexpensive do-it-yourself fix. Create an inventory of uncovered junction boxes and the type of boxes they are. Taking images of each to your home improvement or hardware store can help ensure you get the correct covers. Turn off power to the circuits, inspect the connections and replace the covers. A few dollars and an hour or two of time can make your home more electrically secure.
A quick flicker of your lights when a major appliance starts can be considered relatively normal and not a major concern. When such flickering occurs, however, in windy or stormy weather, it can be a concern.
In a storm or in high winds, power lines can shake, rattle and be subject to surges from lightning strikes. The flow of electricity through the main power lines to a house can be interrupted for a brief moment or longer. In some cases, lights may just flicker.
If yours is the only home experiencing such problems in your neighborhood, the problem could be where power connects to your home. If the problem affects your entire home, there could also be an issue with your circuit breaker panel.
If the issue of flickering lights is limited to a floor or certain rooms in your house, however, there may be some other internal issue in the home. Check room by room and outlet by outlet to try to isolate the problem. Make note if a major appliance is operating or if the HVAC system is running when the flickering occurs. All of these can offer clues to the potential problem and point to a resolution.
When whole-house light flickering takes place during a storm or high winds, it could be considered a high danger level issue, and you may want to contact your utility company and potentially an electrician. You can provide them helpful information about the flickering as it occurs to assist them in isolating the problem.
A big problem for many homeowners is their houses simply have too few electrical outlets. This problem is often resolved with power taps, power strips, and extension cords. These can be easy, affordable, and effective solutions when following a few simple guidelines.
If your home is extremely limited in the availability of wall outlets, it may be time to consider an upgrade. Along with a safer, less cluttered living space, you may discover additional outlets offer an exceptional convenience, especially when adding wall outlets with USB ports. This is a project best left to the professionals.
Prior to the introduction of ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) sockets, about 800 people were estimated to have died from household electrical shocks. Today, those deaths have been reduced by 75%. GFCI outlets obviously save lives. They can also reduce the risk of devastating house fires and are particularly valuable in areas of the home where water is present like a bathroom or kitchen.
The GFCI is built into the wall outlet itself. It is usually identified by a GFCI label and/or a red reset switch located in the center of the outlet, between the two sockets. The GFCI quickly identifies changes in power going to any electrical device connected to it, and immediately cuts off that power. This is effective where a small electrical appliance or electric hair dryer or shaver comes in contact with water, as it can prevent shocks and potential electrocution.
Your home should have GFCI outlets at least in bathrooms, kitchens and outdoor outlets, especially near water sources like faucets. They can be relatively easily upgraded if a homeowner has some basic skills and can follow directions.
Once replacement GFCI outlets have been purchased, power should be shut off to the room and the standard outlet that is being replaced. After disconnecting the current outlet and following the connection instructions provided with the new GFCI replacement outlet, it should be screwed into the electrical box and covered. The power can then be restored and the outlet tested.
If you are at all uncomfortable working with electricity or performing electrical repairs, contact an electrical contractor. Adding GFCI outlets is an inexpensive way to upgrade your home's wiring and improve safety. They can be purchased for about $10 each.
An overwired electrical panel is one that has a greater number of circuits than it was designed to handle. The issue can be resolved by replacing it with a larger board or by adding a side panel.
While the dangers of an overwired panel may be minimal, it is generally considered a code infringement issue and will likely be an issue if the house is sold and a home inspector notes the problem. Every circuit should be clearly labeled and have its own place in the panel.
Backstabbing wires to outlets and switches was an accepted practice used frequently in the 1970s and 1980s that has since been discouraged by quality electrical contractors. Backstabbing is when the ends of neutral or hot wires are trimmed of insulation and the bare wires are pushed into the back of an outlet. The holes seem to “grab” the wires in place. While backstabbing made installation simpler and faster, it has shown to be less secure over time than attaching wires to screw connectors. The practice has since been shown to create an increase in fire hazards.
To see if you have backstabbed outlets, turn off power to the circuit at the breaker box. Remove the outlet from the wall. If it has wires inserted into its back, it is backstabbed and should be replaced by an outlet with screw connectors. This usually can be done as a do-it-yourself project, but if you have any concerns, contact a professional.
Age alone should not be the only factor in determining if an electrical wiring system is safe or outdated. Some wiring products, for example, like aluminum wiring and backstabbed outlets may not be exceptionally old but still need attention. One also has to consider how their own electrical needs have changed through the years and if a home provides sufficiently for those needs.
In this section, we'll show how you can better identify old wiring in a home. We'll show you what to look for in identifying the age of old wiring and delve into why grounding is such a significant factor in the safety of your wiring.
There are multiple clues in your home to indicate the age of its wiring. Knowing what to look for and what it means can help you narrow down just how old your electrical system is. It will also indicate when and what repairs and upgrades were previously made. Here are some tips on identifying old wiring.
An electrician will be able to quickly identify the age of wiring and even test for the integrity of the insulation.
How critical is it that your house and its wiring system is properly grounded? If there is no or poor earth ground, you could end up serving as that ground, meaning you are more exposed to being shocked or even electrocuted.
As the years have passed, we have become increasingly aware of the value of a solid earth ground to divert stray and/or high voltage into the earth as opposed through appliances and circuitry. With the amount of expensive electronic equipment in today's homes, it is more valuable than ever. In short, if your home is not properly grounded, you are putting your family, home and electronics at risk.
The start to determining if your home's outlets are grounded are to see if they have three prongs. The third prong is an indication that the outlet is grounded. Even if one outlet is grounded, it doesn't necessarily mean all outlets are grounded. You would have to verify grounding for each outlet using a circuit tester.
A simple circuit tester is easy to use. Insert the red wired probe into the smaller vertical slot of the outlet and the larger slot of the outlet. If it lights, the outlet is grounded. If it doesn't light, reverse the probes. If this lights up the indicator, it is grounded by wires in reverse. If there still is no light, the outlet is not ungrounded. Of course, if you are uncomfortable with testing anything electrical, contact a professional. A professional can also determine if your home is sufficiently grounded.
With the exception of old knob and tube wiring, most older wiring can be kept in service if it still maintains its insulation capabilities, connections are solid and any repairs or upgrades have been properly made. It is in the best interest of a homeowner to replace old knob and tube wiring and to replace old fuse boxes to circuit breakers, especially if fuses are 30 amps or more.
When older wiring is present, it can be tested by an electrician who will measure insulation capabilities, whether it is appropriately grounded and if connections are secure. The older the wiring, the more important testing can be.
When should old wiring be replaced? The first consideration should always be safety. Old wiring should be replaced if it creates a potential shock or fire hazard. These situations include:
In addition, a homeowner may consider a wiring replacement or upgrade if their wiring no longer serves their needs or creates inconveniences. These situations include:
Replacing existing wiring is not an inexpensive undertaking, but it can pay big dividends in safety and convenience. You may not have to replace or upgrade your wiring, but it may be worth consideration.
Upgrading your home to modern copper wiring has multiple benefits, the most important of which are it is a proven, safe conductor of electricity. Since it is highly conductive, it is effective even in long runs of wiring, and connections provide minimal resistance.
While copper is not inexpensive, it is certainly more affordable than other metals of similar conductivity like gold and silver. Copper is also resilient and flexible, making it malleable enough to use in a variety of circumstances where wiring and electrical connections are required.
Another aspect that makes copper valuable in wiring is that it is thermally resistant. Finally, copper wiring has been shown to be the reliable, proven choice when it comes to safety and reliability. This provides more confidence and peace of mind for homeowners. When pointed out as a feature, it can serve to add value and serve as a selling point when a home is placed on the market.
Due to its conductivity and reliability, copper has always been seen as the standard when it comes to electrical wiring. Aluminum was used extensively in the 1970s, and due to the rising costs of copper, its use saw a resurgence in the 1990s. Here are the advantages and disadvantages of each.
When financially viable, copper wiring is considered the first choice of electrical professionals.
Safely disposing the wires in an older home takes knowing the difference between an electric cable and wire, a cable antenna, or a cable TV coaxial cable identifying old in-home telephone wires.
Telephone cables or wires: Many homes today no longer use hardwired telephones, yet the wires remain. If you are inspired to clear up these wires, it can be safely done, as they contain no power. These are usually thinner cables with a light gray colored rubber cover. They contain very thin, multi-colored wires inside. Remove old telephone wall jacks and/or find the cable running through the attic or basement ceiling. Begin cutting and pulling the telephone wires through the walls. In most cases, unless they were part of the original construction, any place where they may be physically mounted will be visible.
Old electrical wiring: It is absolutely critical you are confident that old electrical wiring is no longer being used before removal. Failure to do so can result in a shock or fire. Once old, unused wiring is clearly identified, remove it from any connections, including outlets, switches, and sockets. Wires usually can be better accessed in a basement ceiling or attic. Old electrical wiring can be a challenge to completely remove because many times it was installed as part of the original construction when the walls were open. They were often attached before plaster or wallboard was put into place.
Antenna or cable TV coaxial cable: This is thick, black-shielded cable that often runs from room to room in a home, connecting televisions to an outside antenna or local cable system. These can be removed by cutting off the connector ends at each location, removing any splitters that may be in the “network” and pulling the cables through the walls.
Wiring, especially that containing copper, should be recycled or even sold as scrap. Removing old, unused wiring should be a part of any upgrade or rewiring project to prevent the danger of future confusion.
Understanding the basics of electricity and how a home electrical wiring system works can go a long way in helping build confidence in a do-it-yourselfer. That being said, there is significantly more at stake in replacing wiring as opposed to replacing a kitchen cabinet. A cabinet, after all, will not shock you, electrocute you or potentially cause a devastating fire.
So when should you attempt an electrical project on your own, and when should you contact a pro? The answer may be when you have a sense of discomfort about the project. You may want to start with a relatively simple socket or switch replacement. Always make sure power is shut off to the circuit you are working on. Ask a more experienced friend or relative for help. As you learn, your fear of working with wiring may be reduced, although a healthy respect for electricity is always good to maintain. You may graduate to become capable of installing a ceiling fan or recessed lighting.
At some point, however, even a confident DIYer will want to use a professional electric contractor, especially for a whole-house wiring project or installing a 220-volt connection. Stay within your knowledge and comfort zone. There is no disgrace in asking for help.
While you don't need to fear working with electricity, everyone should have respect for what it can do. Not only can it provide an attention-getting shock, it can cause electrocution and property-damaging fire. If you do not know what you are doing, contact a professional.
This being said, if you feel confident in your knowledge and skills, you still want to take routine steps to protect yourself. This includes shutting off power at the switch, at the circuit breaker and then testing the circuit to verify power is not present. This simple process will go a long way to keeping you safe when working with electricity and wiring.
When working with electricity, be sure to use insulated tools with rubberized or otherwise insulated handles. This includes screwdrivers, wire cutters and needle- and standard-nosed pliers. Insulated gloves can provide protection from sharp wiring ends and shocks. Putting a premium on your safety can build confidence when working with electricity.
Do-it-yourself electrical work can help you save money in helping you make some needed upgrades to your home. Here are some of the more common projects you can DIY.
Don't allow fear to prevent you from expanding your DIY capabilities. Do your research, use proper tools, get assistance when needed and respect electricity. You may be surprised at what you can do.
Are you concerned about lights that seem to flicker too often? Are you concerned your home's wiring is unsafe or inadequate? Would adding a new wall outlet with a USB port make your life more convenient? Perhaps it's time to put that healthy respect for electricity to start investigating what you may be capable of. At the very least, you'll be able to put a wish list together that may involve clearing up old wiring and performing some upgrades, even it if means getting professional help.
Where would new lighting add to the appearance of your home? Would a new outlet or two be helpful in a few rooms? Get started today and enjoy the safety, power and convenience of upgrading your electrical system.