While some electrical problems may seem like only an annoyance, others can pose serious safety hazards. In fact, home electrical fires account for an estimated 51,000 fires, nearly 500 deaths, more than 1,400 injuries and $1.3 billion in property damage each year.
The circuits in older homes can’t always handle the power required by today’s gadgets. Without following the proper precautions to prepare your house for modern appliances, you could be setting yourself up for a fire or other dangerous electrical issues.
If you’re looking to buy a house, especially an older one, pay attention to the age, number, and appearance of the home’s electrical outlets. The Washington, D.C. area has some of the nation’s oldest housing stock. Take Warrenton, VA, for example — over 70 percent of Warrenton’s housing inventory was built before the 21st century.
If you notice strange things happening with your home’s electricity, whether with outlets, power delivery or wiring, don’t try to fix it yourself. Electrical work can be very dangerous, so It’s best to leave these projects to experienced professionals.
Here’s a list of common electrical problems we see every day:
Common Electrical Problems
Daisy-chaining refers to the practice of plugging one power strip into another power strip in order to serve more appliances than your home’s outlets allow. This is very dangerous because an excessive amount of power is being drawn from one single wall outlet, so the power strip or wall receptacle could easily overload.
If you don’t have enough outlets in your home, or perhaps have dead outlets that are causing you to use power strips as a permanent electrical solution, have an electrician properly install more outlets.
Read more: How safe are power strips?
2. Dead outlets
If one of your outlets isn’t working, it may be due to a tripped GFCI outlet. Since the 1970s, the National Electrical Code has required buildings to use a ground fault circuit interrupter for outlets near sinks. CGI outlets serve as a safety precaution, instantly opening the circuit to prevent electrocution.
These outlets automatically shut down when they detect overheating, which causes the breaker to flip off. A popped GFCI can even cause a circuit in another room to trip if they’re on the same circuit. This is especially common in older homes. If your electrical outlet stopped working, reset all GFCI outlets in that room by pushing the red “reset” button located on each outlet.
When it comes to older homes, outlets can stop working for many reasons. In many cases, wires will come loose and the entire unit may need replacement. Since this type of electrical work can be dangerous, be sure to contact an experienced professional when you need to repair an outlet.
Read more: My electrical outlet is not working. Why?
3. Tripped circuit breaker
We’ve all dealt with the occasional blown circuit, but you shouldn’t have to deal with this problem on a recurring basis. To mend a blown circuit, it’s important to understand its three common causes:
- Circuit overload: The most common cause, circuit overload is usually a result of tripping. Tripping occurs when one circuit has too many heavy power consuming devices at the same time. This happens to prevent overheating.
- Short circuit: A more dangerous situation, a short circuit occurs when a hot wire touches another hot wire or a neutral wire in an outlet. This touch creates a large number of current flows, producing more heat than the circuit can hold.
- Ground fault: A ground fault happens when a hot wire touches the ground wire on the side of a metal box.
If you blow a circuit because you’re running the toaster, hairdryer, iron, and vacuum cleaner at the same time, you may just need to plan your morning a little more efficiently. However, if you find you blow circuits even when you’re not using a heavy amount of home electricity, it’s time to contact an electrician.
4. Flickering or dimming lights
Flickering or dimming lights are oftentimes harmless. In some instances, however, this can be a sign of a serious electrical issue. Flickering lights are often due to a poor connection somewhere in your system, or the result of a power surge to your home.
If your lights flicker when it's windy, it’s likely because frayed wiring causes a short whenever the cables move. This creates a serious hazard, as frayed wires can arc — when the electrical current is literally forced to jump, or arc, across a frayed wire — and potentially cause a house fire.
Electrical surges are another cause of flickering or dimming lights. The overload of power, common during lightning storms, can also short out the circuitry of home electronics and other appliances plugged into the wall.
Homeowners can protect their property from power surges by upgrading the home’s grounding system and using surge protectors. An electrician can also install special electrical outlets that offer additional surge protection.
5. Mystery light switches
Homeowners often report having what seems to be a “mystery switch” in their home — a light switch that should be connected to something, yet does nothing when flipped. This is an issue that frequently goes ignored, but it’s important to make note of broken light switches in your home, as they’re a common indicator of outdated or damaged electrical wiring.
Depending on where the switch is located, it’s possible that your broken light switch actually powers an unseen appliance, like the outdoor HVAC unit or an attic exhaust fan.
Renovations can also result in mystery switches throughout your home. The older the house, the more likely it is that modifications occurred over the years. A previous owner may have removed or covered an electrical box or receptacle in the process of renovating the house. Added built-ins like cabinets, bookcases or shelving may have covered a switched outlet.
Read more: Do You Have A Broken Light Switch in Your Home?
6. Electrical shocks
Static shocks can be very unpleasant — and very dangerous if the cause is faulty home wiring. Luckily, the more common cause of static shocks in your home is dry air.
One of the most common conductors we encounter is water. Since water allows electrons to travel freely, it’s less likely for static charges to build up in an environment where water is present. The more water present in the air in your home, the less likely you are to experience static shocks.
The key to reducing the effects of static electricity in your home is increasing humidity. Humidifiers pump water vapor into your home, which allows electrons to move freely and prevents you from building up strong static charges. Keeping the relative humidity in your home above 30% will make a huge difference.
While humidifiers are often a sufficient solution, it’s possible that a more serious underlying issue is to blame for this electrical problem. If you frequently experience shocks when plugging cords into certain outlets, there may be a loose wire that needs to be addressed by an electrician.
7. Damaged outlet covers
A discolored outlet or switch is a sign of a loose connection or faulty wiring. When there’s a loose connection, a spark will occur, giving the outlet surface a charred or discolored appearance.
If you notice a burning odor coming from outlets, switches or any other electrical sources, turn the power off at the electrical panel and call an electrician immediately. While this smell could be a result of a faulty device, it could also indicate the start of an electrical fire.
Similarly, it’s safe to avoid any cords or receptacles that are warm, as they could be a sign of an electrical problem.
Read more: Do You Have Old Electrical Wiring in Your Home?
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