Common Electrical Wiring Problems You Might Find In Your Houston Home
It’s becoming more common for our home electrical system to be overloaded by our increasing demand. Most of our houses weren’t designed to handle our need to power all of our appliances, devices and gadgets. The wiring inside the home may be out of date and fuse boxes or breaker panels aren’t properly suited to our needs. Signs of overload may be the tangle of extension cords and power strips connected to a single outlet. But the signs might also be behind walls, ceilings, and cover plates.
Some wiring problems are merely inconvenient. Others can pose serious fire or electrocution hazards. If you have ANY doubts about fixing an electrical problem safely, don’t even try it. You could hurt yourself or damage your electrical system and your property. Call in a professional, licensed electrician. A recent article from This Old House outlines some of the most common wiring problems and a solution you might be able to do yourself.
What it means: A light fixture has a bulb with a higher wattage than the fixture is designed for.
Code violation? Yes.
Danger level: High. The bulb’s intense heat can scorch or melt the socket and insulation on the fixture’s wires, which increases the risk of arcing — sparks that jump through the air from one wire to another — a chief cause of electrical fires. The damage to socket and wires remains even after the bulb has been removed.
Solution: Stay within the wattage limit listed on all light fixtures made since 1985. For older, unmarked fixtures, use only 60-watt bulbs or smaller.
- Uncovered Junction Box
What it means: Because a junction box houses the splices where wires are connected to one another, a person could inadvertently damage the wires or get a shock.
Code violation? Yes.
Danger level: Minimal, as long as wires aren’t within reach.
Solution: Spend a few cents to buy a new cover and install it with the screws provided.
- Lights Flicker When It’s Windy
What it means: Frayed wiring in the weatherhead (the outdoor fitting where overhead cables from the power line come into the house) is causing a short whenever the cables move.
Code violation? No.
Danger level: High. Aside from the annoyance, the frayed wiring can arc and start a fire.
Solution: Contact the electric utility, which may replace the weatherhead at no charge.
- Too Few Outlets
What it means: Heavy reliance on extension cords and power strips.
Code violation? No; grandfathered in. (Today’s codes require receptacles within 4 feet of a doorway and every 12 feet thereafter.)
Danger level: Minimal, as long as you use heavy-duty extension cords, 14-gauge or thicker. (The thicker the wire, the lower the gauge number.) Undersize extension cords (16-gauge or smaller) can overheat and ignite a fire if loads are too heavy.
Solution: Add more outlets. Expect to pay an electrician about $100 per first-floor outlet and double that for second-floor work. (There will likely be a minimum charge.) This work requires cutting holes in walls and ceilings to snake the wires. Some electricians will patch the holes; others leave the patching to you.
- No GFCIs
What it means: Increased risk of electrocution in wet areas, such as baths and kitchens. GFCIs (ground-fault circuit interrupters) shut down circuits in 4 milliseconds, before current can cause a deadly shock.
Code violation? No; grandfathered in. (Codes today require GFCIs within 4 feet of any sink and on all garage, basement, and outdoor outlets.)
Danger level: High.
Solution: Replace old receptacles with GFCIs (about $12 each). This is a simple job that many homeowners do themselves. Electricians charge about $20 per outlet. (There will likely be a minimum job charge.) Note: As an alternative, GFCI breakers ($25) can be installed on the main panel. But then every time one trips, you have to go down to the basement to reset it.
- Overwired Panel
What it means: The panel contains more circuits than it’s rated to handle, because too many single-pole breakers (one circuit) have been replaced with tandem breakers (two circuits) in one slot. (Tandem breakers aren’t the same as high-amp double-pole breakers, which take up two slots with one circuit.) A label on each panel specifies how many circuits the panel can accommodate.
Code violation? Yes.
Danger level: Minimal. It may become an issue when the house is being sold and an inspector looks inside the panel.
Solution: Add a subpanel with a few extra slots ($250), or, if you’re planning major home improvements, replace the existing panel with a larger model ($500 to $800).
- Aluminum Wiring
What it means: You have a type of wiring, used in the 1960s and ’70s as a cheap substitute for copper, that is no longer considered safe.
Code violation? No; grandfathered in.
Danger level: High. Aluminum corrodes when in contact with copper, so connections loosen, which can lead to arcing and fires.
Solution: Retrofit a dielectric wire nut approved for aluminum wire (a pair sells for less than $1) onto each copper/aluminum connection in light fixtures. These nuts have a special grease that stops corrosion while maintaining conductivity. Make sure any replacement switches and receptacles are labeled AL-compatible.
- Backstabbed Wires
What it means: On newer switches and receptacles, wires pushed in the back are more likely to come loose than those anchored around screw terminals.
Code violation? No. The practice is allowed, even for new construction.
Danger level: It depends. At a minimum, loose wires can cause a receptacle or switch to stop working. In the worst case, they can start a fire.
Solution: Check for backstabbed connections by removing a switch or receptacle from its outlet box. If one is backstabbed, there are likely to be more. Release the wires and attach them to the appropriate screw terminals on the receptacle.
- Ungrounded (2-prong) Receptacles
What it means: Your house’s wiring has no way to safely conduct any stray current that escapes the confines of the wires.
Code violation? No; grandfathered in. (Today’s code requires grounded circuits and receptacles.)
Danger level: Minimal, as long as you don’t use an adapter to fit a three-prong plug into a two-prong receptacle. Doing so could destroy the device you’re plugging in, and increase the chance of electrocution.
Solution: Replace two-prong receptacles with properly grounded three-prong ones, if wiring allows it (see . Also, test all existing three-prong receptacles with a GFCI circuit tester to make sure they’re grounded. Rewire any that aren’t.
- Plug Falls Out of Receptacle
What it means: Worn contacts in receptacle no longer grip the prongs firmly.
Code violation? No.
Danger level: High. Loose contacts can cause arcing, which can ignite dry wood and dust.
Solution:Replace the old receptacles as soon as possible. (A new one costs about $2.) Many homeowners feel comfortable doing this themselves. Electricians will charge about $8 or $10 per outlet, although there’s likely to be a minimum charge for small jobs.
It’s always a good idea to hire a certified, licensed electrician to give your home a thorough inspection, especially if you’re planning to remodel your home. A professional electrician will look at the insulation on the wires to see if it’s dried out and fraying, corrosion in the service panel, and look for any other safety concerns. Each time the city or state electrical codes are revised, old panels, fuse boxes and wiring are “grandfathered in” on the assumption it was installed properly. City electrical codes may require you to update wiring or electrical panels if you are renovating a room or adding a much larger HVAC system.
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