It could be a spark from the outlet when you plug something in, a loose connection or a flickering light. All are indications of a potentially bigger electrical problem.
Unfortunately, homeowners often ignore signs of electrical dangers and the result can be deadly. About half of all residential electric fires are due to a wiring issue, in particular, faulty outlets and old wiring, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.
“Most people tighten the lug nuts on their cars and there are only typically 20 of those; but it’s important, so you make sure they’re tight,” says Sammie Bracken, a Master Electrician with highly rated Mr. Electric in Plainfield, IN. “The average home can have thousands of electrical connections. All it takes is for one to fail. There are a lot of things going against the electrical system. It’s a place for mechanical failure, human error or just plain wearing out. If you start seeing flickering lights, stuff snapping, sparking when you’re plugging in, or outlets that feel loose, that’s a good indication that it’s time to replace it.”
“What we like to do is go through and do a tune up on the panel and give a general safety checkup of the entire home,” Bracken says. “A lot of things can change in three years. Maybe you had a furnace or air conditioner replaced and now the breaker is not sized properly. That causes problems. If you let anything go too long, it’s almost to the point where it’s a total failure. That’s more expensive than a little preventative maintenance.”
Master electrician John Calhoun says he regularly gets calls from what he terms “Happy Hands at Home” – homeowners who have attempted an electrical installation or repair themselves.
“I have fixed ‘Happy hands at home’ wiring for years,” says Calhoun, owner of John Calhoun and Associates, in Indianapolis.“Just because you can make a (fixture) light up with a piece of lamp cord and friction tape doesn’t mean that it meets the National Electric Code requirements. There are ways that things must be done. It’s not open to conjecture. Anyone can make things light up, but it takes research and understanding to do it right.”
A common do-it-yourself mistake is the improper installation of ceiling fans – usually because they’re not mounted to a UL (Underwriters Laboratories)-listed fan hanging box, Calhoun says.
“I have seen some pretty shaky fans and have heard of a couple actually coming down out of ceilings because they weren’t hung on a UL-listed fan hanging box,” Calhoun says. “When I see a fan a homeowner has put up, it is very rare that I see it hanging on (one). That creates a danger. My advice to homeowners is don’t go out and just hang a fan on whatever’s up there.”
Frayed wires, hot switches and dimmers and damaged cords are also common dangers, as well as potential fire hazards, and should be immediately replaced. Electrical panels and breaker boxes should also be replaced after 20 to 25 years, says Bracken, who says he’s seen a lot of panels damaged this summer due to the unusually hot and dry weather.
“We have seen panels in the basement dripping wet from condensation,” Bracken says. “Condensation is a big safety factor right now with the dry year we’ve had. It’s 100 degrees outside, but the basement is nice and cool. You have a pipe blasting hot air into the panel box. That goes right into the basement. The hot air and cold air mix and you get water dripping from the panel. We’ve seen that several times this summer.”