5 Unspoken Rules about Electric Every Homeowner Should Know
Most every home is connected to a public utility grid that provides incoming water and power as well as a way for wastewater to be sent down the drain back to a sewage treatment facility. You probably never give these utilities a second thought except when paying the bills or when something goes wrong. In the nation’s pioneer days, homeowners were hands-on in the construction of their own family shelters. Nowadays, there is a resurgence in that do-it-yourself attitude when it comes to home renovations. With that in mind, here are five of the unspoken rules about electricity that you should know as a homeowner.
Old Aluminum Wiring
If your home has any aluminum wiring from the 1960s or 1970s, there is a much higher risk of fire. Aluminum and copper-clad aluminum is still used, but the old alloys and improper installation created problems. At smaller gauges (diameters), it expands and contracts more due to heat, and that can cause connections to work loose. Also, if the wrong type of fixtures, such as wall receptacles, are used with aluminum, it will corrode over time.
Loose connections and corrosion lead to greater electrical resistance. This then leads to heat. It is the same principle of how an incandescent bulb works, and why those types of bulbs get hot. As more current is forced through an area of resistance, the heat increases. Old alloys in aluminum wiring and improper fixtures can lead to heat, which can lead to fire. Newer large gauge aluminum conductors, such as the service entrance cable, should not be a problem.
The electrical current that feeds your wall receptacles and lights has a hot side, a return and a ground. The black wire is the hot side, and the white wire is the return to make a complete circuit. The ground is a safety device. The ground makes a way for the current of the hot side to complete a circuit back to the breaker box if there is a fault with an appliance, outlet or fixture. Imagine the hot wire in your clothes washer breaking loose and touching the metal cabinet. If there was no ground connected, the current would not flow. However, as soon as you touched the washer you could complete the circuit and be electrocuted.
The ground provides an alternate safety pathway for the electricity to flow if something goes wrong. The flow through the ground will trip the breaker to stop current flow. Some old wiring in house outlets did not have a ground wire, but that did not stop some people from installing outlets that have the hole for the third prong. To be sure it is connected, a ground tester needs to be plugged in to check.
Reversed Hot and Neutral Return
The wiring for your electrical outlets, lighting fixtures, garbage disposal, dishwasher and some other appliances has a hot wire and a return. You now know the ground is like a safety wire if something goes wrong. The hot side is supposed to be wired to a specific side of electrical outlets, and it is supposed to be connected to switches, lighting fixtures and appliances in a certain way. Your outlets likely have one hole for plug blades that is a little bit bigger than the other one, which is known as a receptacle made for polarized plugs. This is to ensure that a plug can be only inserted a certain way. The reason is to make sure the hot wire of two-prong plugs goes into the plugged-in appliance down a specific wire. Many appliances and lights will still work if the hot side is reversed with the neutral side, but this is a safety issue.
Think of how water flows, and imagine it flowing through tubes that power a ceiling light instead of wires. Imagine the hot and neutral tubes coming from the breaker box up to the light. The black tube has pressurized water, and the white tube caries it back to complete a circuit. If you want to be able to shut off the water flow from powering the light without needing to go to the breaker box, you need to wire in a switch. A switch to electrical flow is like a valve is to water flow. At the wall you want to cut the water traveling up to the light to make it easy to turn on and off, so you hook a switch to the black tube. If you hook it to the white return tube, then the light is still charged with pressurized water. You are just stopping it at the wall from flowing back. This is a safety issue because the power (the imaginary pressurized water) is still at the light instead of being stopped at the switch. This is what happens when the wires in your house get reversed, creating a shock hazard not only in lights but in all plugged-in and connected devices.
Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter
The invention of the ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) device saves lives. When there is a short-circuit, the electricity is flowing along an unintended path. Instead of flowing through the appliance, it is taking a shortcut to the ground. This can be through the ground wire, a pipe and even a person. Wet areas are a place where electricity can leak at levels high enough to produce a lethal shock without there being enough current flow to trip the breaker to shut off the power. Swimming pool pumps, electric shavers, hot tubs, outdoor extension cords and other devices connected in areas that can have moisture or water need to be connected to a GFCI device to provide protection. The GFCI can be a receptacle outlet or a special breaker. If you do not see a GFCI outlet installed at the beginning of the outlets that supply your kitchen, bathroom, laundry room and outdoor outlets, then maybe you have a GFCI breaker. However, most GFCI protected circuits have labels indicating they are protected. If you are not sure, then calling an expert in electrical upgrades immediately is wise.
Other DIY Types May Have Taken Shortcuts
Do you remember the TV show “Home Improvement” with Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor played by Tim Allen? Tim would “eyeball” things he should have measured and take shortcuts that led to humorous results on the family sitcom. His associate, Al Borland, played by Richard Karn, was the responsible one when it came to fixing things. If you bought an existing home, you may have had several Tim types taking shortcuts with the electrical connections in your home. Only a full electrical safety inspection can reveal shortcuts and errors made by those who have done any renovation or retrofitting work on your home. For example, wiring the feed line to the load line of a GFCI receptacle is easy to do, but it renders the device useless. An inspection can reveal any mistakes done by DIY workers in the past.
Your home is supposed to be your castle, a place of safety and refuge. Electricity brings many comforts and conveniences to your home, but it can be a serious safety hazard and risk if things are not wired up correctly. Though everything seems to be working fine, there can be hidden issues lurking. If you have any concerns about the electricity in your home, a qualified electrician can help.