Electrical Basics for the Homeowner
Electricity for many of us is, without a doubt, taken for granted, always available, but very much avoided when it comes to repairs. Shock and electrocution are very real dangers when dealing with electricity around the home.
However, here are a few simple tasks most homeowners can safely perform to ensure the home is electrically sound and safe. Try running through this checklist:
- Locate your electrical 'service'. Determine if you have overhead (service drop) or underground (service lateral). If it's overhead, the mast must be secured to the roof structure and have an installed drip loop. Overhead wires must be at least 12 feet over the driveway and 10 feet above the ground. Look for frayed or damaged wires.
- Locate your electrical 'main panel.' This can usually be found on the exterior of the home or the interior of the garage. Make sure your panel is secure and not damaged in any way. There must be clearance without obstruction of 30 inches all around the panel and 36 inches clearance to the front. These clearances also apply to any 'sub-panels' found in the garage or interior of the home. This is reffered to as the 'working rule.'
- Open the panel cover (testing with the back of your hand first) to confirm no breakers are 'tripped.' Most homes will have breakers, but some may still have fuses. Know the difference. Locate your main service 'disconnect.' This should only be turned off in an emergency. This would also be a good time to determine your service 'amperage.' Usually it will be stamped on the main disconnect breaker. One hundred amps at 120/240 volts is the recommended minimum service. Anything less should be considered for an upgrade. As a side note, when turning your main breaker ON, make sure all your 'branch circuit' breakers are OFF, then turn the branch circuit breakers on one by one.
- Looking inside the panel door, are all the circuits labeled with a corresponding location? They should be for safety and convenience. If not, this is a great light project for a slow winter day.
- Determine how your electrical service is 'grounded.' Many homes have a 'driven rod' ground directly below the main exterior panel. More frequently, systems will have a copper wire running to the 'water service pipe' located in the basement or crawlspace. It should be secure.
- Do a walk around of your home, ensuring any electrical outlets or junction boxes at the exterior are covered (to keep out water and pests), securely mounted, and that no bare wires are visible.
- Do the same throughout the house, testing each outlet for looseness, a cover, GFCI capable if within 6 feet of any potential water source, and any unused/exposed wires capped and in properly enclosed junction boxes. This would be a good time to have an electrical tester available to confirm outlets are not wired improperly (called reversed polarity) and you can test for GFCI. These inexpensive items can be purchased at most home improvement stores. Know in advance the location of each GFCI circuit outlet reset before tripping.
- As you walk through your home, be on the lookout for any warm switches, outlets, junction boxes, or electrical panels. Remember, again, to always touch the electrical panel cover with the back of your hand before reaching for the cover handle. If electrically hot, your body's natural reaction will pull your arm away from the electrical source.
- Make sure extension cord use is kept to a minimum. Circuits can easily be overloaded with too many devices feeding off one 20 amp circuit.
- Lastly, be aware of any cords or wires running over electrical baseboards, radiators, and under carpets.
Deficiencies discovered should be repaired by an electrical professional. Always err on the side of caution when it comes to electricity. Do not take unnecessary chances that could change your life forever.