ELECTRICAL

Q: Our insurance company asked us what size electrical service we have in our home. How can I tell?

A: The electrical system in your home has to be sized based upon the weakest link in the entire system. For instance if you have a 200 amp meter on the outside of the home, a service wire that runs from the meter to the panel which is only rated to 70 amps and a 100 amp main breaker you have a 70 amp service. A lot of people would report that service is 100 amps in this case but it is only 70 amps because the weakest link is the service entrance wire. If you loaded the system up to 100 amps you would overload the 70 amp wire and possibly cause a fire. It takes experience to determine the weakest link so I suggest you hire a qualified electrical contractor or call the electrical inspector for your area.

Q: We recently had a fire in our living room because we had too many plugs on one receptacle. Is there a way to know how much is too much?

A: Generally speaking it should be fine to plug one thing into each available receptacle. The problem is that too many people run extension cords and add receptacle adaptors that allow up to six devices to be plugged in at once. The receptacle is designed for only two devices so more than that is too many. There are a lot of things to consider of course such as the load but I always say if there is no place to plug something in you should move to another receptacle. From experience I would say most fires get started when extension cords are used and the homeowner tucks the cord under a carpet to hide it. The braided extension cord wire is not rated for much of a load so it gets warm when overloaded. If it is under a carpet it could burn the house down. The breaker doesn’t trip in this situation because the load is ok on house wire but the extension cord

I have a few metal covers on the walls in my house. These covers are ugly can I eliminate them?

The metal covers are likely there for either future connections of cable or phone or they could be concealing electrical connections. The electrical code states that a junction in an electrical circuit must be accessible. Sometimes a junction box is necessary if a wire is damaged or too short to reach its destination. This box must be accessible in case there is ever a problem. If the box is in a wall you will see a metal or plastic cover. If the connection and box is in a ceiling it can be above a drop ceiling panel because you can move the panel to access the box. It may be tempting to conceal the box but I would not recommend it. It is far better to be able to check the connection if there is evidence of a problem.

The best way to describe this device is to say it has a circuit board inside it which is constantly measuring the flow of electrons within the circuit. When one side of the circuit gets out of balance from the other the circuit board detects a fault and trips shutting off the flow of electricity. Think of it as a river flowing underground which resurfaces a short distance away. If the river has always had the same flow and all of a sudden only half the volume emerges from the ground you would know there was a problem. The GFI works the same way. If even a little of the current strays into your body for instance, the GFI will detect it and trip potentially saving your life. We know that as little as 1 amp of electrical current can kill a person. The breaker in most cases will not trip until it reaches a load of 15 Amps. The GFI will trip at 5 milliamps or 5% of one amp.

A lot of electrical appliances such as hair dryers have been ruined by trying to run them on a razor plug. The problem is the razor plug has a transformer in it which reduces the electricity down to around 20 watts. Your hair dryer needs a much higher wattage as does most modern appliances. Due to the size of the transformers in these razor plugs the box needed to be fairly large. If you plan to remove the razor plug you need to decide how to fill the double wide box. Some people install two duplex receptacles in the box but this is awkward and overkill as you never need more than two receptacles to plug into in the bathroom. The best approach is to buy a replacement receptacle specifically designed for this purpose. Most hardware stores have a replacement kit available. Remember electricity is dangerous so if you are not confident and knowledgeable on the subject you should hire an electrician for your electrical needs. 

: I am told there is a new invention called a GFCI that makes electrical plugins safer in areas near water. Can you explain how these work and why they are safer?

The best way to describe this device is to say it has a circuit board inside it which is constantly measuring the flow of electrons within the circuit. When one side of the circuit gets out of balance from the other the circuit board detects a fault and trips shutting off the flow of electricity. Think of it as a river flowing underground which resurfaces a short distance away. If the river has always had the same flow and all of a sudden only half the volume emerges from the ground you would know there was a problem. The GFI works the same way. If even a little of the current strays into your body for instance, the GFI will detect it and trip potentially saving your life. We know that as little as 1 amp of electrical current can kill a person. The breaker in most cases will not trip until it reaches a load of 15 Amps. The GFI will trip at 5 milliamps or 5% of one amp.

My House was very cold the other night because someone turned the furnace emergency switch off by accident. What is the best way to prevent this from happening in the future?

The furnace switch is generally located in one of two places, in the utility room near the furnace or in the stairwell to the basement. I suggest you go to a local hardware store and buy the red plate cover with the word “emergency” written on it. This should be enough to prevent accidental use of this switch. I have seen some people place a piece of tape over the switch and that can work as well. I would think once everyone in your home is shown what this switch is for it should be easy to leave it alone. We have technology today that will call us when the house cools down too much, this type of protection is a good idea as well.

 

I was recently up in my attic and found an old type of wiring I have never seen before. There are glass pieces the wires are threaded through and the wires look smaller then wires we use today. What type of wiring is this and is it safe?

You are looking at an old type of wire called knob and tube. I could be wrong but I don’t believe there are any regulations that say it must be replaced. Having said that I can say insurance companies do not like it as it is a higher risk for fire then our newer lumex wire. Another issue with knob and tube is that it is not a grounded system. Today’s wire has three wires, a positive, neutral and ground. The ground wire is there to provide a path to the ground should any electricity stray from its intended path. For instance, if you were using an electric drill and stepped into a puddle of water the electricity may travel through your body. With a proper ground system it would be less likely that this would happen as the electricity always travels the best or easiest path and your body would not usually be that path. Many two wire systems look to be grounded when they are not. This is hazardous to both your health and your electrical appliances. This picture shows an insulator that used to hold the knob and tube wire in the attic. As you can see the attic was on fire at some point and an educated guess tells me it was started with the knob and tube. I am not suggesting that all knob and tube will catch fire, only that some will and that it is more likely to then today’s lumex wire. Don’t believe me, just call an insurance company to see what they think. knob and tube wire - fire

I smell burnt wires sometimes in the area of the panel. What would cause a wire to get hot and smell?

If you small hot burning wires you likely either have a loose connection or a load on a breaker that is not tripping when it should. Another common problem is over amping a wire by putting a light duty wire on a heavy duty breaker. For instance a 14 gauge wire is rated for 15 amps. If you connected this wire to a 20 amp breaker the wire would need to carry the full 20 amps before it would trip the breaker. This means it would begin to heat up and potentially cause a fire. If your smelling hot wires you may soon be looking at a fire, I recommend calling someone to look at the problem. I have a thermal camera I would use in this situation to try to locate the problem. I would also remove the panel cover to check for problems inside. I do not recommend homeowners remove the panel cover unless qualified to do so.

I just bought a house and the insurance company wants me to upgrade the panel to 100 amps. Can you explain this to me?

The electrical panel is the first point of entry for electricity into the home. Most panels have a main breaker that is designed to trip if the home uses too much power at any one time. Most panels today are 100 amp because they must feed a lot of different sources of equipment. In 1960 a 70 amp main breaker in the panel would have been adequate as we didn’t have as many appliances to power back then. The problem is today’s power needs are over taxing the older panels and in some rare cases are causing fires. Some panels in particular were known to overheat such as the Federal Pacific panel. I recommend that you ask your electrician if the service entrance wire can be changed and a 100 amp breaker installed. Many of the older panels were rated at 100 amps but the wire coming in was only rated at 70 amps. In this case only the wire from the meter to the panel and the main breaker need to be changed. 

Our electrical service mast is pulling away from the house. What do you suggest?

First of all whenever you are dealing with high voltage you should contact the power utility and an electrical contractor. There are just those jobs that are not well suited to the do-it-yourselfer. The problem with this type of repair is that it must be done live unless the power utility can shut off the power at the pole. By working around live wires outside the home you could easily be killed. As to the actual job, it depends upon the type of mast. Generally speaking there are two types, wood and conduit. Wood masts are often mounted through the side of the home with bolts. When the wood rots out it is best to replace it with a metal mast. If the mast is metal conduit and is just bent you may be able to pull it straight and use guy wires to keep it straight. The big thing is that the wires coming to the home have a single cable included that is supposed to be anchored to the house if this wire comes off the weight of the wire is placed on the drip Loop. Once again it is best to get the help of a professional.