Don’t Get Your Wires Crossed: Safe Home Electrical Repair
The overriding rule for any electrical home repair is “safety first.” Ignore this rule and you are possibly in store for a truly shocking experience.
If you are experiencing brief outages, strange noises, and/or smells traced to your electrical wiring, these are signs of common home electrical repair issues that you could try to address yourself. This assumes you are sufficiently handy and that you carefully follow step-by-step procedures.
Whenever you are attempting a DIY home electrical repair, it is also essential to follow certain basic safety practices. Let’s take a look at five key safety tips for home electrical repair.
- Test for power
- Check amperage ratings
- Ensure tight wiring connections
- Test for grounding and polarization
- Box and clamp all electrical connections
Just about anyone with any common sense goes to the electrical panel and turns off the power circuit connected to the outlet or electrical wiring before attempting any kind of home electrical repair. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean the power to where you are working is entirely disconnected.
For example, let’s say you are replacing a kitchen light fixture. You go to the electrical panel and shut off the circuit breaker labeled “Kitchen Lights.” So, you’re now good to go, right?
We don’t recommend you make that assumption. Particularly if after removing the light fixture to expose the electrical box, you see more than two cables; in all probability the box contains not just wiring to the fixture, but is also acting as a junction box where the additional wires join another circuit. Those wires are live.
The next question is which wires are live and which ones aren’t. For this you’ll need a non-contact voltage tester. As the name implies, you don’t have to actually touch any of the wires; just go near them and the probe lights up whenever it detects an electromagnetic field. After you find the live wire, have someone go back to the electrical panel and turn off additional circuit breakers until the non-contact voltage tester tells you there is no longer power going to the wires.
You might think that if there are only two wires in the fixture electrical box and you turned off the circuit breaker for “Kitchen Lights,” well, then, you don’t need to test. That kind of thinking can get you into trouble. That’s because it is always possible that a circuit breaker is mislabeled, especially if you’ve added electrical service over time. So here’s the rule for home electrical repair: Never assume you’ve turned off power until you actually test for power, even if you think you’ve turned off the correct circuit breaker.
Amperage is the maximum amount of electrical current a device or wire can handle safely. Most standard circuits are rated for 15 or 20 amps. Large appliances, such as ranges and electric dryers, are typically rated between 30 to 50 amps, and in some cases even exceed that.
Why do you need to know this? When you install or replace electrical wiring or devices, all of the parts you use must have the appropriate amperage rating for the circuit. As an example, a 20-amp circuit requires 12-gauge wiring, which is rated for 20 amps. If you install 14-gauge, 15-amp wiring on that circuit, you create a fire hazard because the 20 amp circuit breaker might not shut off before the 15-amp wiring overheats.
Never install a switch, light fixture, outlet, or any other electrical device rated for more amperage than the circuit carries. This is why receptacles for 20-amp circuits have a three-pronged electrical connection; because appliances rated for 20 amps use matching three-pronged electrical connecting cords. Easy peasy.
It is okay, however, to install a device that draws less power than the circuit amperage. There is nothing dangerous about plugging in a 15-amp device and its plug into a 20-amp receptacle, or even for a 20-amp circuit to contain 15-amp receptacles.
Electricity travels along conductors, the wires and the metal contacts of outlets and sockets. Tight connections between conductors ensure the travel is smooth. Loose connections restrict the flow, creating friction and heat. Very loose connections can cause arcing, where electricity jumps through the gaps from one conductor to another, resulting in tremendous heat and a potential fire hazard.
Make sure all wiring connections are tight and conductors are fully joined. If you are splicing wires together, always use wire nuts. Never leave wires exposed.
Some outlet receptacles and switches employ push-fit wire connection slots on the back, along with the traditional screw-terminal connections on the sides. These push-fit connections often get loose or even fail. This is why you should always use the screw-terminal connections.
Grounding conveys stray electrical current caused by a fault or other problem along a low resistance wire. Polarization ensures that electrical current properly travels from the source along “hot” wires and returns to the source along neutral wires.
Always follow the manufacturer’s wiring diagrams when replacing a fixture to help ensure proper grounding and polarization remain intact. In addition, use a circuit analyzer to check outlets and ensure they are wired correctly for grounding and polarization.
The National Electrical Code (NEC) requires that all wiring connections are contained in appropriate enclosures, usually an electrical box. Enclosures protect the connections themselves as well as anyone that might accidentally come into contact with those connections. In addition, electrical boxes properly secure cables and devices.
So whenever you need to make a wiring splice, install a junction box and secure the cables to the box with cable clamps. Never leave a splice or other connection exposed or unsecured.
When to Call a Professional
If you don’t have a lot of confidence in your own DIY skills, or you want more confidence that a home electrical repair is performed safely and effectively, call a licensed and certified professional.
Ongaro and Sons’ licensed professionals are the safe choice for quality service and 100% satisfaction.
A fixture in the North Bay community for nearly a century, the Ongaro and Sons service area includes Sonoma County, Marin County, Santa Rosa, and San Anselmo. Our fully licensed electricians are just a phone call away.
Contact us with any questions about any of your home electrical problems.