Michael Ashenfelter, Sangamon County Electrical/Mechanical Inspector
Safety & Health:
Wicked Wiring Warnings
How to spot the warning signs of worn out wiring
Our homes are a lot like us. They age just like we do. They begin to creak and moan and show their age. They, like us, have aging systems, some that can be seen and some that cannot. Just as we need to get checkups from time to time, our homes also need checkups. If you notice any of the following signs you should immediately call a licensed electrical contractor.
Breakers and fuses are over-current protection devices that are rated in amperes and protect the wiring in our houses from over-current. Over-current may result from any of the following three conditions:
1. Overload — The operation of equipment or of a conductor in access of its normal full-load rating, or its rated ampacity. If an overload persists for a sufficient length of time, dangerous overheating can occur.
2. Short circuit — A low resistant connection between two points in an electrical system. Short circuits can be caused by the failure of the insulation surrounding the conductors of the circuit, or by lightning, wind or human intrusion.
3. Ground fault — An unintentional low resistant connection to ground by the system conductors. Ground fault circuit interrupters are devices that can protect you and your family by de-energizing a circuit or portion of the circuit when the current to ground is six milliamps or higher.
Over-sized fuses and breakers can be extremely dangerous when an overload condition exists. A licensed electrical contractor can inform you if this condition exists in your home. It’s important to note that a short circuit and a ground fault are not overloads.
Getting a shock when you touch appliances in your house can indicate a more serious problem. You should immediately unplug the appliance and discontinue its use.
This can occur when you have a ground fault in an improperly protected circuit. Many older homes have the old two-wire circuits. These consisted of the energized (hot) wire and a neutral return wire. These older wiring types can be dangerous because the hot wire has come in contact with the metal frame of the appliance. The breaker will not trip because it does not see the fault. With newer electrical systems, a third wire is provided with the wiring. This third wire is called the equipment ground and is attached to the metal parts of appliances. When the hot wire comes in contact with a ground, the breaker or fuse is de-energized.
In the National Electrical Code ground-fault circuit interrupters are required in dwelling units for all 125-volt single-phase 15- and 20-amp receptacles in the following locations: bathrooms, garages and accessory buildings, outdoors, crawl spaces, unfinished basements, kitchens, laundry and utility rooms, wet bar sinks and boathouses.
If you notice discoloration or abnormally warm receptacle or wall switches and/or sparks coming from the devices, this could indicate arcing, smoldering or burning happening behind your outlets, due to loose connections, damaged or improperly installed wiring in the outlet, or a problem with the receptacle itself.
A persistent burning smell coming from a light fixture, appliance, room or area could indicate that a light fixture may have the wrong size lamp for the fixture. It may indicate an appliance that is overheating or malfunctioning. Unplug the appliance or turn off the circuit breaker until a further investigation can be made.
Flickering or dimming lights could indicate a wiring short or loose connections at electrical termination points on switches causing arcing and overheating.
In addition to ground-fault circuit interrupters, smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors, a licensed electrician may also introduce you to the arc-fault circuit interrupter breakers required in new homes since 2000. These devices are intended to provide protection from the effects of arc faults and de-energize circuits before a fire can be started. Your electrician may recommend that you get a total rewire of your electrical system. This is also recommended by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the National Fire Protection Association and Underwriters Labs when a home is more than 40 years old.
For More Information:
Michael Ashenfelter is the Sangamon County Electrical/Mechanical Inspector and a member of the Safe Electricity Advisory Team (www.safeelectricity.org), 217-747-5111.
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