Easy Electrical Repairs and Improvements to Keep Your Home Safe
If you live in a building built prior to the 1880’s, you need to get your head around the fact that your house pre-dates residential electric service. Imagine life without electricity in your house? Hard to fathom these days. In the last 140 years, we have radically improved our ability to safely harness and deliver electricity to residential construction and the safety improvements keep coming. Even houses that are just 4 or 5 years old may be lacking some nice new safety features. No matter how old your house is, it is important to understand that electrical problems typically occur because of multiple failures. To cite an example from Douglass Hansen’s excellent book, Electrical Inspections of Existing Dwellings, “reversed polarity is unlikely to cause a fatal accident, but combine that with a receptacle that also has a false ground and the odds go way up.”
In the spirit of small things making a big difference for safety, I have compiled a list of 5 common safety items that show up on a lot of home inspections. Some of these may be small items, but they can make a big contribution to home safety. I hope these tips will alert you to some ways to make your home safer.
1. Add Missing GFCI Protection
GFCI stands for ground fault circuit interrupter. In case you did not already know this, if you are a part of a ground fault, meaning electricity is flowing off it’s intended path and through you on its way back to its source, that is not good. You sure would like to have one of these $15 GFCI receptacles protecting the circuit that is pushing this electricity through your body; it would interrupt that ground fault and it could save your life.
Since GFCI’s were first introduced in the early 1970’s the number of electrocutions in residential homes in the US has fallen dramatically, by roughly 83% according to the Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI).
In addition, according to the same group, electrocutions from electric consumer products have fallen by roughly 95% in the same time.
GFCI’s are an excellent and inexpensive safety feature. There is no reason not to bring your house up to modern recommended standards for GFCI protection to keep your family and friends safe.
Here is a remarkable graph by the Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI) https://www.esfi.org/home-safety-devices
2. Add AFCI protection
AFCI stands for arc fault circuit interrupter. These breakers are designed to detect conditions that could lead to arcing which could cause a fire in your house. The first generations of AFCI’s were not a roaring success. They were called Branch Feeder AFCI’s and they were only capable of detecting what is called parallel arcing conditions, which would arise if a nail were driven through a wiring cable for example. Adding insult to injury, these breakers had a reputation for nuisance tripping and Square D manufactured some arc fault breakers in 2004 which became part of a Consumer Product Safety Commission CPSC recall.
Residential buildings being constructed under the 2008 or later National Electrical Code (NEC) are required to use Combination arc fault protection. Combination AFCI’s are superior technology because they can also detect series arcs which might arise from things such as loose wiring connections.
AFCI protection can be added by using an AFCI breaker in your electric panel. The breakers cost about $30-$50 each but they will protect the entire circuit. Older electric panels may not be able to be retrofit with modern AFCI protection, which is frankly, a good reason to consider updating an old electric panel.
The diagram here, by my friend Charles Buell, shows where GFCI’s and AFCI’s are now required by modern electrical code. Notice how the entire house is now protected by one or both of these safety devices.
By upgrading your wiring system to modern standards of AFCI and GFCI protection, you can affect a significant and demonstrable safety improvement in your house without breaking the bank.
3. Install Tamper Resistant Receptacles
Tamper resistant receptacles are designed for improved child safety. Remember when you were a kid and you just longed to stick a paper clip into the electric receptacle? Well, I do, and this new type of receptacle could prevent that from electrocuting a child. Tamper proof receptacles work by blocking the opening to the receptacle unless two prongs are inserted at one time to open the path to the hot and neutral. If you have these in your home, you might have noticed that you must wiggle a plug back and forth slightly to get the plug to insert. It is a minor inconvenience to which you quickly grow accustomed and it is an excellent safety upgrade especially for homes occupied by young children. These are now required for nearly all electric receptacles in new construction and would be an excellent safety upgrade in an older building.
These last two items are basic electrical safety repairs every homeowner should be on the look-out for:
4. Cover Open Junction Boxes and Missing Cover Plates
Open junction boxes and receptacles and switches with missing cover plates are written up on nearly every home inspection I do. This is a simple repair that requires no real technical skill. Simply buy a 15-cent plastic cover plate that is the correct size for the box in question and cover it.
Problems arise when the box is not mounted flush with the wall. In this case, there is a gap between the wall and the electric junction box. This is a safety hazard that can be repaired with an extension ring. However, this is a more complex repair that you may want to have an electrician tackle. Exposed wiring is a serious safety hazard. Covering exposed wiring should be a priority repair. Also, prior to working on any wiring in the house, be sure to shut the power off BEFORE working on the circuit.
5. Secure Loose Switches and Receptacles
Over time, screws come loose. That ought to be a basic law of construction physics if it is not already. To tighten a loose switch or receptacle, you remove the cover plate and tighten the set screws. This is easy and works well as long as the box in which the switch or receptacle is mounted is not also loose. If the box is loose, repair can be trickier. You do not want to over-tighten as you can crack or break the plastic receptacle and you want to shut the power off to the circuit before tightening. The danger with loose switches and receptacles is that wiring connections can come loose. This can lead to arcing – think sparks – and a fire. If you have not had an electrician out to your house in a long time, and you notice a lot of loose switches and receptacles, consider having them go around and secure loose switches and receptacles and check for loose connections.
This is by no means a complete list of recommended electrical safety repairs and upgrades, but I hope this helps you see a few ways you can make your home a lot safer for a little money. If you live in a new house, you likely already have most or all these features. If you live in an older house, implementing these repairs and upgrades could save the life of you or a friend or family member or prevent a house fire. Remember, our codes change for a reason. Over the last 140 years, we have refined our ability to safely harness electricity. We learn from our mistakes. To avoid being one of the mistakes we learn from, make a safety investment in your home.