Over the years working as a residential electrician, I saw my share of homeowner-performed electrical work. Some was good; some was either not good or downright dangerous. While many homeowners may be capable of doing electrical work for themselves, they need to be aware of their limitations. And there are some situations that only a competent electrician should handle.
Risky electrical work
Many homeowners enjoy doing their own renovation work. Dividing a basement into separate rooms or adding an enclosed four-season patio may seem like a reasonable project. The homeowner may even understand building codes and structural requirements. Problems occur when homeowners are not familiar with basic electrical procedures.
In the United States, black is used as a hot wire and white is used as neutral. For receptacles, the black wire connects to the brass screws while the white connects to the silver screws on the opposite side. The bare copper wire should connect to the green ground screw, if the device has one. If a red wire is used it can be a traveler in a three-way lighting circuit or a second leg providing 120 volts. Wiring in any other combination can lead to blown circuits.
The next most common mistake I’ve seen is overloading a circuit. Household circuits designed for lighting and regular receptacle use are normally 15 to 20 amps. This is the maximum rating. Circuit breakers are designed to function at 80 percent of the rated load. This means that a 20-amp circuit breaker should handle no more than 16 amps. Homeowners will frequently choose a random circuit in their electric panel for running additional power. This can lead to blown breakers and possibly cause overheating or fire.
Dangerous electrical work
Unless a homeowner is a fully qualified electrician, they should not attempt to replace or upgrade their electrical service. The only truly safe way to shut off the power coming into a home is by removing the meter socket. This needs to be done by a licensed electrician or the electric company. In many cases, a panel upgrade will also require an upgrade to the drop entering the home. The drop is the tie-in to the main utility lines and not a safe area for the inexperienced to play.
In addition to basic electrical safety, it can be dangerous to even remove the cover of some panels. Federal Pacific electric panels were one of the most popular brands up until the 1980s. Unfortunately, the circuit breakers do not trip properly which can lead to fire. These breakers are also noted for falling out.
I was involved in a panel upgrade several years ago. I was fortunately warned before starting the project that I would be replacing a Federal Pacific panel. One of the first steps in the project was to pull the meter socket. This effectively shut off the power entering the electrical panel. On some occasions with a two-man team, one electrician will begin removing the panel cover while the second is making other preparations.
As soon as I loosened the cover, more than half of the circuit breakers inside the panel fell out, with the wires attached. Had the power to the panel been on, it would have been an explosive situation. I would have also been in the middle of it.
It is important to note that Federal Pacific panels are no longer certified. Homeowners should not even replace circuit breakers in these panels. They should not attempt to modify the panels. The only safe solution is complete replacement by a qualified electrician.
Professional work benefits buyers and sellers:
Buyers should always have a home’s electrical system inspected before making a purchase. Faulty electrical work can be disastrous. It can also be expensive to repair. Sellers will benefit from quality work by ensuring that their home retains its value. Sellers can also show receipts for any work to potential buyers as an assurance if questions are raised.
Barbara began as an auto mechanic in the late ’70s before earning an ASET (associate degree in electronics technology) and continuing her studies to include construction technology. She then spent many years working in the construction industry, primarily as an electrician.