Electricity is a utility that every one of us utilizes in our daily lives. Sadly, most of us take the electricity flowing in our circuits for granted. Within our electrical circuits is the potential for massive destruction. The Electricity Safety Foundation International (ESFI) notes that every year, home electrical fires account for approximately 51,000 fires resulting in close to 500 deaths. Most electrical problems that happen within a house occur behind the walls, and homeowners are usually unaware that there is any danger at all. One of the good things about a house’s electrical system is that it often gives you a heads-up before a fire starts. These are some of the tell-tale signs of potential home electrical problems.
Homeowners usually have one or more lights within their home that flicker now and again. While this might be due to low supply coming from your power company, flickering and dimming lights can also suggest a potential problem with your home wiring.
Flickering lights are not a sign of ghost visitors, as most movies make us believe. It is a possibility there is a loose electrical connection. The fix is straightforward if the flickering is only on a single light fixture. However, if it affects multiple rooms or lights, the problem could be further back in the circuit. If it is in the entire house, the issue may lie at the utility drop or the breaker box. In this case, it is best to contact a licensed electrical contractor to do the troubleshooting for you.
What to Do About It: Replacing an outlet is a pretty simple, straightforward process that doesn’t get too complicated. Tracing your wires and finding and fixing a fault might be best left to a professional, licensed electrician. For breaker boxes, the best idea is to contact your preferred electrician immediately.
Melted Wire Sheathing
Melted wires usually mean that there’s a lot of resistance within the line, causing heat to build up. You probably won’t see the melting wire, but you will smell the burning. Plastic emits an acrid scent when it’s heated up to a certain point.
What to Do About It: If you notice melted wires around your home, you should shut down the circuit immediately, and call an electrician. The smell of burning plastic is similarly a trigger for shutting down the circuit on your breaker and calling in a professional to deal with it.
If you have outlets that feel warm to the touch or have sparking going on when you plug something into it, that’s a sign you may have a problem. Newer outlets that carry Arc-Fault Circuit Interrupters (AFCIs) are immune from some of these problems, but older outlets can fall prey to electrical arcing. An arc can generate significant amounts of heat, enough to set a building on fire or sear human skin a distance away from the event.
What to Do About It: If you notice sparking or feel significant amounts of heat from an outlet, unplug all appliances attached to it immediately and call in your electrician. If you haven’t changed your sockets out to AFCIs, now might be a good idea to look into that upgrade. They may be slightly more expensive than regular outlets, but the safety and peace-of-mind they offer is worth the cost.
Shocks From Metal Objects
Have you ever touched a metal object in your home and gotten the tell-tale tingling feeling of an electrical shock? That may be a sign that your home wiring isn’t properly grounded. If you encounter this shock with appliances, then having an ungrounded circuit is probably the culprit.
What to Do About It: Ensure that your house wiring is properly grounded. Consult an electrician and have them inspect your home wiring.
Repeated Blown Fuses or Tripped Breakers
Occasionally, you’ll find that your breakers are being tripped, or your fuses are blown more often than you’d expect them to be. While a blown fuse or tripped breaker now and again is expected, if they’re being tripped regularly, you might be the victim of a short circuit.
What to Do About It: As with most issues with circuit breakers, it’s not recommended that you try to DIY this fix. Please consult a licensed electrician and have them check your load and ensure that there aren’t any short circuits in there. If you notice these things happening right after plugging in a new electrical device, try unplugging it. The appliance may be drawing more load than your outlet can handle. You will still need to consult an electrician to install a second breaker or put that applicant on its own circuit.
The smell of anything burning should be an immediate alarm something is wrong. For instance, where the electrical system wiring is heating up to melt the plastic sheathing. You face the risk of a fire, and you have to take action immediately. Identify the source, whether it is at the breaker box or one fixture. Or have a professional conduct the troubleshooting for you to have it fixed fast. Do not assume to do it later, for you could be facing imminent danger.
If you find or see nest material or rodent droppings around your electrical wiring, check for chew marks on your wires. Rodents will gnaw on a wire until it is exposed. As a result, the exposed wire will begin to overheat or spark, and this is a major electrical problem. Thus, if you notice or find any mice activity around your home, check for any damage and learn how to keep them at bay.
In the early 70s, home builders had to use a single-strand aluminum wire for electrical services due to high copper prices, and it was easier to keep costs low. However, exposed aluminum oxidizes faster than copper, building heat and leading to fire risks. Therefore, if you have aluminum wiring, more so in branch circuits, it is a fire hazard. If you live in a home or intend to move to an old home with aluminum wiring, it can easily suffer fire damage. You can address existing aluminum wiring through a complete home rewiring or using specialized connectors. Call a licensed electrician if you suspect your home has aluminum wiring and discuss options.
Buzzing or Sizzling Sounds
When sounds like these are coming from food, it’s okay. When they’re coming from your house, that isn’t so good. If you notice these sounds when you flip a switch or plug in a new appliance, immediately unplug the device or turn the switch back off. These sounds are likely coming from the heating up or burning of elements within your electrical wiring.
What to Do About It: Consult an electrician immediately. The entire connection may need to be remade.
If you plug an appliance into an outlet that seems to move around a lot, it’s a good idea to stop using that outlet until you can secure it to the wall. Outlets like these can shift free of their connections, leaving live wires open behind them and creating a potential fire hazard.
What to Do About It: These are simple fixes that many DIYers can accomplish. Simply pop the face of the outlet off and secure the socket properly, so it stops moving around.
Most electrical appliances generate heat as you operate them. But, the outlet should never get hot. If you notice the heat at the outlet, unplug any cords immediately and do not use the outlet until you troubleshoot the issue. Dimmer switches do get warm to touch, but they should not be uncomfortable to touch. Therefore, because of excess heat, always check the wattage before you install a dimmer switch.
Messy or Tangled Wiring
One of the facts of electrical wiring is that it doesn’t have to be pretty to work. However, if wires are arranged so that they get tangled or are messy, they can create hazards if left that way for too long.
What This Can Mean for the Future: These wires generate heat when they carry power, and overheating cables can lead to melting the insulation and eventually to a short circuit. Having an electrician run a routine code check can deal with these issues as well as any others he or she might encounter.
Signs of Rodents
Rodents are difficult to get rid of once they’ve managed to make their way into your home. If you notice rat droppings or nesting material near your wires or see gnaw-marks on electrical wire sheathing, you might have a rat problem.
What This Could Mean for Electrical Work: Aside from carrying diseases, these vermin can gnaw through the electrical sheathing in wires and expose them. Getting an electrician to replace those wires might not be a good move until you’ve gotten rid of the rodent problem first.
Fake or Missing UL Sticker
Underwriters Laboratory (UL) gives their seals of approval to electrical equipment that meets basic safety standards at the very least. Conventional devices that carry UL labels range from extension cords to smoke detectors. Unfortunately, some contractors replace UL labels with counterfeit copies.
What It means if UL Labels are Missing or Fake: Typically, this is a sign that the manufacturer’s devices don’t conform to safety standards. Before doing a DIY installation, you should check to ensure that your devices have authentic UL stickers.
Take Warnings Seriously
These electrical problems aren’t the norm, but they show up often enough to be concerning. If you’re getting one or more of these issues, it’s a sign that your electrical system may need a once-over. It would be best if you didn’t try doing this yourself since the electrical code is quite complicated, and for a non-specialist, there might be things that you miss. Call in a professional, licensed electrician and let them ensure your home is properly up to code. A professional inspection will deal with most of these problems and ensure that you’ll limit their reoccurrence in the future. Ignoring these signs is an invitation to disaster. When your house warns you about potential fire hazards, you will do well to listen to it.
Bobby Lynn is the Owner of LiveWire Electrical, a fully licensed and insured residential electrical company serving Charlotte, NC and surrounding areas. Bobby has been in the electrical industry for over 20 years and has a vast knowledge of all things electrical. Learn more about LiveWire’s services.