As houses age, the electrical wiring can become “worn out,” causing dangerous predicaments within the walls that homeowners cannot see. For example, insulation sometimes wears out due to excessive heat caused by overloaded circuits. Homeowners should become aware of what the safety concerns are of old wiring in their houses and learn about five of the most common electrical wiring warning signs. Electrical components and testing equipment can be found at any big-box home repair store and at any specialty electrical components stores, but online storefronts and auction sites like eBay offer such a vast selection and such great prices that these are always worth checking out. As a word of caution, however, if there is any doubt about a house’s electrical wiring, especially with old houses, it is often well worth the investment to have a certified electrician examine the house’s electrical system.
Safety Concerns of Old Wiring
According to a 2009 study by the National Fire Prevention Association, faulty wiring is the most common cause of house and apartment fires in the United States. As fire codes and building codes improve over time, electrical wiring becomes more safe long-term. However, any wiring over 40 years old should be checked by a qualified electrician periodically. This is a worthwhile investment for a household’s safety and peace of mind.
Routine Self Inspection
Homeowners should make a habit of doing some simple inspections themselves on a regular basis, especially if the home or apartment is approaching or exceeding 40 years of age. A simple outlet tester is a very inexpensive tool that a homeowner can plug into an outlet to determine if it is wired correctly and properly grounded. All outlets in a house should be grounded outlets now; if an outlet is not grounded, an electrician should be hired to install one properly.
Testing a light socket is pretty easy to do; install a light bulb. If the light turns on, then it is working. If the light fails to turn on, check the circuit breakers or the circuit fuses. Assuming these are ok, if the light does not turn on, it can be assumed that there is something wrong with the circuit and it should be turned off and left off until an electrician has had a chance to examine it. Individuals with some electrical experience can use a digital multimeter to check the circuit more thoroughly. When in doubt, however, a certified electrician has all the tools and experience needed to properly check circuits and wiring to ensure a house is safe.
Five Electrical Wiring Warning Signs
Checking circuits periodically is a good practice, as already mentioned, but sometimes electrical wiring issues have a habit of sneaking up on an unsuspecting homeowner. If a house or apartment is approaching or has exceeded 40 years of age, residents will want to keep aware of some simple signs that there may be a problem with electrical wiring in the walls. Breakers and fuses that go out regularly are a bad sign, as are dimming and flickering lighting. Buzzing, charred, and discolored outlets and switches are a very bad sign, as is an acrid burning smell with no visible spark or fire. Additionally, if any switch or outlet shocks the user, this could be an indication of a very bad situation.
Sign 1: Breakers and Fuses Go Out Regularly
Circuit breakers help to protect the house from fire by “tripping” when the circuit begins to overload by exceeding the number of amps the circuit is rated for. Fuses provide the same protection, but circuit breakers are reusable where fuses need to be replaced whenever they “blow out.” Circuit breakers do wear out over time and, as they trip more often, they can sometimes go bad. If a circuit breaker or fuse goes out regularly, one of two things may be happening. If too many high amp appliances are plugged into a single circuit, the breaker or fuse may blow out because the total amps plugged in are more than the breaker or fuse is rated for. If, however, the amp load of the appliances is less than what the circuit breaker or fuse is rated for, then there may be a short in the wiring somewhere along the circuit.
Homeowners should resist the urge to replace the fuse or breaker with a higher rating unit. This is extremely dangerous and increases the likelihood of a fire on that circuit exponentially; the wiring installed on that circuit is not the correct size for that higher rating circuit breaker or fuse. Circuit breakers can be tested with a circuit breaker tester if the appliance amp load should not be tripping the circuit. If the amp load is lower than the circuit rating and the circuit breaker is fine, there is something wrong with the wiring and a certified electrician should be called out to examine and fix the wiring as soon as possible.
Sign 2: Dimming and Flickering Lights
Dimming and flickering lights are a sign of an overloaded circuit. As another device turns on in a circuit, especially motor driven devices, they pull more amps than when they run at a steady pace. This is somewhat normal; very good wiring on a circuit that is close to capacity will rarely dim or flicker. However, even on good wiring, dimming or momentary flickering is normal in some cases. If it happens often, however, this may be a sign of faulty wiring or a bad circuit breaker that needs to be replaced.
Sign 3: Buzzing, Charred, or Discolored Outlets and Switches
Buzzing, charred, and discolored outlets or light switches are a very bad sign of a potentially dangerous situation. The outlet or switch should be replaced right away, but the problem is not always in the outlet or switch. In some cases, faulty wiring in the circuit, usually near the outlet or switch, or a loose connection on the switch is the cause and causes a short. This causes the outlet to arc and make a small, short-lived mini fire that causes the outlet’s surface to char or discolor from heat buildup.
Sign 4: Burning Smell
A burning smell in a home with no identifiable source can be scary. An electrical fire initially has a fairly acrid smell and a short that causes a brief burn has the same smell. Electrical fires that catch surrounding material on fire, however, have a very different smell. If a burning smell is present, especially if it smells acrid, call an electrician immediately and keep a fire extinguisher handy until an electrician can come out. In some cases, the short is in the outlet, but if it is in the wiring inside the wall, it can more easily catch surrounding materials on fire. Either way, homeowners should also turn off the circuit breaker or remove the fuse for that circuit until the electrician can examine the circuit.
Sign 5: Shocking Switches and Outlets
Shocking switches or outlets are a good indicator that the switch or outlet is bad. Sometimes, however, it means that there is a wire in the circuit shorting out to the conduit enclosing the wires. Aside from being physically unpleasant, this is a sure sign that something is shorting out. It could be a device plugged into the plug, the plug or switch itself, or a wire that has lost its insulation. If devices are removed or replaced and it still happens, the outlet or switch should be examined or replaced, and it would be a good idea to have the wiring examined as well.
Older houses need tender loving care, and their hidden electrical wiring is no different. As a house ages, wiring can wear out for many reasons and, as such, should be inspected by a qualified electrician every so often. However, homeowners can do some of their own routine inspections when they know the various safety concerns of old wiring in a house and when concerns are raised; hire an experienced electrician to find and solve the issue(s). Five of the most important electrical wiring warning signs are breakers or fuses that go out regularly; dimming and flickering lights; buzzing, charred, or discolored outlets or switches; an unexplained burning smell; or outlets and switches that give mild to severe electrical shocks when using them. These common signs should be learned and checked for regularly to ensure that a house has an electrical system that is functioning normally. Testing equipment and replacement electrical components can easily be found online however the cheaper equipment should be treated with a pinch of salt due to their inaccuracy and unreliability. If ever in doubt you should always hire an experienced electrician not only it guarantees that the issues can be resolved but it means the issues are sorted quickly and effectively saving you a lot of time.