Electric FAQs

In short, yes, you need surge protection. Given the amount of sensitive electronics in the modern home, surge protectors are more important now than they ever have been.

A surge protector protects against voltage spikes that are too high for your home's electric or electronic devices to handle on their own. Lightning is the classic cause of power surges, but malfunctions in the public power system can be just as dangerous. Even momentary exposure to voltage that's too high for your electronics can destroy them instantly, so it's very important to keep a surge protector between your devices and the wall outlet.

Be sure to distinguish between power strips that just provide extra outlets and true surge protectors. You don't need to go overboard and get maximum protection; 1500 joules is enough to protect against anything short of a direct lightning strike.

Circuit breakers can trip for many reasons, but they're all indicative of problems with your home's electrical system. Don't just ignore the issue! First, try tightening up any loose electrical connections, which are a very common cause of tripping.

Sometimes, circuit breakers trip because the system is overloaded. Try unplugging any high-load appliances and see if that fixes the problem. You may need to unplug some appliances before using others to keep your system from being overloaded.

When your circuit breaker trips, try to reset it once by turning it off and on again. If it trips again immediately, don't try to reset it again, as this probably indicates a direct short.

If your breaker feels hot to the touch, it may be improperly installed or defective. Once you've unplugged high-load appliances to confirm that your system isn't just overloaded, call an electrician to diagnose and repair the problem.

When a single circuit breaker trips, some of the outlets in your home may stop working. Try resetting the breaker to see if the problem is resolved; if the breaker trips again, it may be overloaded.

If you've lost an outlet in your kitchen or bathroom, the ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) may be to blame. Modern building codes require outlets located near sinks to be GFCI, which means they'll shut down by themselves when a short is detected. Resetting all GFCI outlets in the room usually fixes the problem.

Outlets can literally burn out; if you see any blackening around the plug, discontinue use immediately. Finally, some outlets may shut down for no apparent reason, especially in older homes. You'll need an electrician to come in to repair the problem.

Loud humming or buzzing is a serious red flag that indicates a significant issue with your electrical system. Often, buzzing means that the breaker is carrying a large load but is unable to trip and shut itself off. To prevent overheating, the breaker should be replaced right away.

If sparking or fizzling accompanies the buzzing sound, there may be a connection problem. If the breaker buzzes and immediately shuts off, there's likely an issue with the electrical circuit rather than the breaker. Depending on the extent of the damage, a repair may be as simple as fixing the circuit or as involved as replacing the entire breaker. Either way, the problem should be fixed immediately to prevent further damage.

Sometimes, a large appliance such as an air conditioner or heat pump can cause the lights in your home to flicker when it powers on. If you notice flickering when your air conditioner starts up, have a technician look at the unit and confirm that the electrical connections are not loose or defective.

If the flickering is confined to one room or one general area of the house, you may have bad light bulbs, a bad connection between the bulbs and fixture sockets or a loose wire in the circuit for that part of the house. Loose wires can be tricky to diagnose because of the number of connections in the entire house, so you'll likely need a professional circuit diagnosis to identify the issue.

Flickering throughout the house may indicate a problem with your main electrical service, such as a loose service conductor in the main electrical panel. Loose conductors will only get worse with time, so you'll need to have an electrician address the issue right away.

As compared to ordinary incandescent bulbs, CFL and LED lights last much longer and use much less energy. To get the equivalent of a 60 watt-incandescent bulb, you'll only need a 15-watt CFL bulb or an 8-watt LED. Using high-efficiency bulbs throughout the house can cut your electric bills by hundreds yearly, and the bulbs themselves won't need to be replaced as often.

Both CFL and LED light bulbs produce much less heat than ordinary incandescent bulbs, and their high energy efficiency reduces carbon dioxide emissions. LED bulbs are also very durable; they can handle bumping and jarring without breaking and aren't affected by frequently being switched on and off. However, the high up-front cost of LED bulbs makes CFL a significantly cheaper option with current technology.

Because your circuit breaker is sized for the wiring in the electrical circuit, replacing it with a larger breaker can actually be a fire hazard. For instance, if you have a 15A breaker, the wire is most likely 14-gauge. Replace the 15A with a 20A, and the 14-gauge wire will have to carry more current than it's rated to pass. Over time, this can cause overheating and destroy the insulation.

If your circuit breaker is defective, replacing it with a new breaker of the same size is likely enough to fix the problem. Don't try to install a larger breaker without calling an electrician to confirm that your electrical system can handle it.

There are two safe ways to bring power outdoors for outbuildings or garden appliances. The first is to run cable overhead or underground. If the overhead span to be crossed is less than 10 feet, you can use ordinary PVC-sheathed cable; otherwise, you need a tension support wire and cable buckets. If you choose to go underground instead, you can use PVC conduit or an underground cable.

The second option is to install a dedicated outdoor socket outlet, eliminating the need for trailing extension cords. To protect anyone working outdoors, either use an outlet with its own GFCI protection or connect it to an existing GFCI outlet inside the house. Regardless of the method you choose, you'll need to contact your local building codes department to make sure your outdoor setup is compliant and get it inspected and certified

Replacing a light switch isn't terribly difficult, but as with all things electrical, safety comes first. First, go to your electrical panel and confirm that the circuit you're going to be working on is switched off. If there's anyone else in the house, put a sign on the panel to make sure no one accidentally switches it back on while you're doing work.

With the power off, remove the wall panel and use a volt meter to confirm that this particular circuit has been shut off. Loosen the screws on either side and remove the wires, then loosen the screw on the bottom and remove the ground wire. For safety reasons, the ground wire should always be the last off and the first on. With the wires disconnected, discard the old light switch.

Installing the new light switch is as simple as reversing the removal process. Connect the ground wire first, then the wires on either side. Re-secure the mounting screws, replace the wall plate and go back to the electrical panel to turn the power back on.

If it's not corroded, overloaded or physically or mechanically damaged, copper wiring lasts indefinitely. Conversely, wiring that is overloaded and abused will wear out quite quickly. In short, the age of your home's wiring has relatively little to do with how long it will last.

However, the insulation and switches are not quite so durable. Anything with moving parts can wear out, so old buttons and switches should be replaced if they show signs of trouble. Likewise, insulation can deteriorate over time; if it's no longer intact enough to work, it should be replaced right away

At least as far as wiring is concerned, you may be better off buying a historic home than opting for one built around 1970. Some homes constructed in between 1965 and 1973 have aluminum interior wire, which should be upgraded or replaced as soon as possible. Aluminum tends to vibrate excessively during use, loosening connections, and is much more prone to deterioration than copper.

Very old homes may have wire with cloth insulation, which is much more prone to deterioration than modern materials. The copper wiring itself, however, can last indefinitely as long as it was up to code when the house was constructed. You may need professional work on portions of the house to get GFCI protection and add safety grounds to older two-pronged outlets, but there is probably no need to re-wire the entire house.

The industry jargon for this is "overlamping," and yes, it is very dangerous. Every light fixture has a wattage rating recommended by the manufacturer; if you go over that rating, the offending bulb will produce intense heat. Over time, overlamping can melt the light socket and the insulation on the fixture's wiring; even if you later remove the bulb, there may be lasting damage to the fixture.

Overlamping doesn't just cause issues for the light fixture itself. Any time you have wiring or insulation damage, your home is at risk for arc faults, electrical currents that leave their intended path. Arc faults are one of the leading causes of home fires.

Fortunately, most light fixtures are labeled with their recommended wattage ratings, so it's easy to avoid overlamping. If you have an older fixture that doesn't have a wattage recommendation, play it safe and use a 60-watt bulb.

Above all, don't just plug the appliance back in and continue on as if nothing happened! In most cases, the plug is to blame rather than the outlet, so try plugging other cords into the same outlet and see if those plugs stick. If everything you try falls out, though, you likely have an issue with the outlet itself.

This is a fairly common wiring problem that's usually caused by worn contacts in the outlet. If the contacts can no longer grip the plug properly, they're loose enough to cause arc failures, which can start fires by igniting wood and dust.

Fortunately, replacing the old receptacle is a very inexpensive and easy task. If you're comfortable doing the job yourself, the parts will probably run you about $2. Otherwise, an electrician will charge between $8 and $10 per outlet for parts and labor.

A GFCI is a device intended to prevent electrocutions by cutting off power automatically when a short is detected. Current building codes require any outlets used in damp environments, including bathroom, kitchen, basement and outdoor outlets, to have GFCI protection.

The main GFCI outlet in a particular area will have a test and reset button. In many cases, other outlets are installed "downstream" of the GFCI outlet to enjoy its protection as well. To check, just hit the test button and see whether the regular outlets in the room also lost power. If so, they are also GFCI protected.

If any of the damp areas of your home don't have GFCI protection, they need to be fixed as soon as possible. Some appliances, such as hair dryers, have their own built-in GFCI protection, but it's still best to have it on the outlets to protect every appliance you may use in the area. Call an electrician to get the job done.

Of course, you can call an electrician to help you deal with any electrical issue in your house. There are some procedures and problems, however, that absolutely require an electrician's attention, including:

Re-wiring your home to replace damaged or faulty wire.

Dealing with fluctuations in the power supply, such as lights flickering on and off throughout the house.

Frequent tripping of circuit breakers or GFCI receptacles that can't be resolved by just unplugging appliances.

Faulty outlets that aren't simply switched off.

Sparks, flames, buzzing sounds or burning smells that can't be linked to an obvious source.

Like any other electronic device, smoke detectors have a limited useful lifespan, but there's no easy way to know exactly how long that lifespan is. The National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) recommends replacing smoke detectors every 10 years, as do some manufacturers. Even if an older smoke detector appears to be functioning, it likely isn't working as well as a newer system. If your alarm has turned yellow in color, it needs to be replaced as soon as possible.

Smoke detectors should have their batteries replaced every year to keep operating efficiently. In addition, it's a good idea to vacuum around the edges of the detector to remove any dust particles or insects, which could cause the alarm to sound.

The most important time to get an electrical inspection is before buying a new home, especially an older home. A professional inspector can find issues such as aluminum wiring, worn insulation, poor grounding, physical defects and more. Before you invest in a home, you should confirm that you have enough electrical service to take care of your needs and support any future additions.

You will also need to get an electrical inspection done before putting a new addition on your home. Finally, after doing significant electrical work such as running outdoor wires, you may need to have the work inspected to ensure that it is up to code. Get in touch with your local building codes department to find out what is required.

Often, a shock when plugging things in is a result of poor plug safety. If you're wearing metal jewelry on your fingers while plugging things in, or if your hand is wet, power may jump from the outlet to your body. Likewise, touching a plug that's not all the way in the socket can lead to a sudden and forceful shock.

If you are consistently shocked even when plugging things in safely, though, there may be an issue with the outlet itself. The same shock that's hurting you could easily ignite dry wood or dust and start a fire in your home. Call an electrician to check out the offending outlet, determine the source of the shock and fix the problem right away.

As with any other broken appliance, there is no one right course of action when your ceiling fan is broken. Take into account the cost of the repair, the age of your unit and the availability of more efficient upgrades.

If you don't have an Energy Star rated ceiling fan, now may be the time to switch to a more efficient model and save money every month on your electric bills. A good ceiling fan is designed to work in concert with your air conditioner or heat pump by circulating air throughout the house, reducing energy consumption and extending the life of the unit. Some models even have reverse features to maximize efficiency during the heating season.

On the other hand, if you have a relatively new and efficient fan, there's no need to replace it to forego a minor repair. If the fan is wobbling or needs a new chain, you can likely fix the issue at very little cost and continue to reap the benefits of a cool breeze in your home.

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