This article is to help bring electrical awareness to people with older homes and the potential dangers.
Like people, houses age, and like with people, electrical wiring can deteriorate and become “worn out,” causing dangerous situations within the walls that cannot be seen. For example, the insulation around the wires sometimes wears out due to excessive heat caused by overloaded circuits or even household pests, like mice, can damage this protective outer coating. Homeowners should be aware of what the safety concerns are of old wiring in their houses and learn the most common electrical wiring warning signs. As a word of caution, homeowners should NEVER perform their own testing or repair of electrical devices or wiring in their homes, and if there is any doubt about a house’s electrical wiring, especially within older homes, it is well worth the investment to have a licensed electrician examine the house’s electrical systems.
Safety Concerns of Old Wiring
According to a 2009 study by the National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA.com), faulty wiring is the most common cause of residential fires in the United States. As fire and building codes improve, the longevity of electrical devices and wiring improve as well. However, any wiring over 40 years old should be checked by a qualified licensed electrician periodically. This is an investment for a household’s safety and an owner’s peace of mind.
Five Electrical Wiring Warning Signs
Checking circuits periodically is a good practice, but sometimes electrical wiring issues have a habit of sneaking up on an unsuspecting homeowner. If a house or apartment is approaching or has exceeded 40 years of age, residents will want to keep aware of some simple signs that there may be a problem with electrical wiring in the walls. Breakers and fuses that go out regularly are a bad sign, as are dimming and flickering lighting. Buzzing, charred, and discolored outlets and switches are a very bad sign, as is an acrid burning smell with no visible spark or fire. Additionally, if any switch or outlet shocks the user, this could be an indication of a very bad situation.
Sign 1: Breakers and Fuses Go Out Regularly
Circuit breakers are designed to help to protect the house from fire by “tripping” when they are overloaded by exceeding the number of amps the circuit is rated for. Fuses provide the same protection, but circuit breakers are reusable and can be “reset”, where fuses need to be replaced whenever they “blow out.” Circuit breakers do wear out over time and, and the more often they trip, the more likely they can go bad. If a circuit breaker or fuse goes “blows out” or “trips” often, one of two things could be happening. If too many appliances are plugged into a single circuit, the breaker or fuse may blow out because the total amps plugged in are more than the breaker or fuse is rated for. If, however, the electrical load of the appliances is less than what the circuit breaker or fuse is rated for, then there may be a short in the wiring somewhere along the circuit.
Homeowners should resist the urge to replace the fuse or breaker with a higher rating unit. This is extremely dangerous and increases the likelihood of a fire on that circuit. The wiring installed on that circuit may not be the correct size for that higher rating circuit breaker or fuse. If the amp load is lower than the circuit rating and the circuit breaker is fine, there is something wrong with the wiring and a licensed electrician should be called out to troubleshoot and repair or replace the wiring as soon as possible.
Sign 2: Dimming and Flickering Lights
Dimming and/or flickering lights are a sign of an overloaded circuit. As another device turns on in a circuit, especially motor driven devices, they pull more amperage than when they run at a steady pace. Good wiring on a circuit will rarely dim or flicker. However, occasional dimming or momentary flickering is normal in some cases. But, if it happens often, this may be a sign of faulty wiring or a bad circuit breaker that needs to be replaced.
Sign 3: Buzzing, Charred, or Discolored Outlets and Switches
Buzzing, humming, charred, and/or discolored outlets or switches are a bad sign of a potentially dangerous situation. The outlet or switch should be replaced right away, but the problem is not always in the outlet or switch. In some cases, faulty wiring, usually near the outlet or switch, or a loose connection on the switch is the cause. This causes the outlet to arc and make a small, short-lived mini fire that causes the outlet’s surface to char or discolor from heat.
Sign 4: Burning Smell
A burning smell in a home can be scary. An electrical fire initially has a fairly acrid smell. A short in a circuit that causes a brief burn has the same smell. Electrical fires that catch surrounding material on fire, however, have a much different smell. If a burning smell is present, especially if it smells acrid, call an electrician immediately. In some cases, the short is in the outlet, but if it is in the wiring within the wall, it can more easily catch surrounding materials on fire. In either instance, homeowners should turn off the circuit breaker or remove the fuse for that circuit until the electrician can examine the circuit and make repairs.
Sign 5: Shocking Switches and Outlets
Shocking switches or outlets are a good indicator that the switch or outlet is bad. Sometimes it means that there is a wire in the circuit shorting out to the conduit enclosing the wires. Aside from being physically unpleasant, this is a sure sign that something is wrong. It could be a device plugged into the outlet, the outlet or switch itself, or a wire that has lost its outer insulation. If devices are removed or replaced and it still happens, the outlet or switch should be examined or replaced, and it would be a good idea to have the wiring examined as well.