Every homeowner should know a thing or two about electricity. While electrical work is best left to qualified professionals and licensed electricians, it doesn’t mean you should put off learning as much as you can about how electrical systems work. Maintained properly, they can literally empower a home. Left untended, they can present potential hazards and collateral and financial risks. They can even cause problems in matters like home maintenance and homeowner insurance.
A typical home in, say, Chicago or other suburban American neighborhoods requires a minimum of 100 ampere (A) of electric capacity. That’s the general rule, but with today’s increasingly electronic and modernized world, we can raise that to about at least 150 A. All electric homes, meanwhile, require 200 A. Furthermore, homes that go through major renovations, upgrades, and additions in electric appliances may require an increase in electric capacity, and that’s why setting certain service sizes for any particular home is no longer as common a practice as before.
The service lines carrying electric power from the utility company are usually buried underground. They may also run overhead, provided that the lines are kept clear from accidental contact with ladders, poles, tree limbs, and other such elements. This is to avoid damaged service lines, potential accidents, and problems with electrical systems.
Connecting these service lines to the wiring system of a house is the main electric panel. Typically it contains: a service disconnect (the main shut-off of the panel), overload protection (circuit breakers or fuses), and conductors, which usually take on the form of wiring. All the circuits, ideally, are labeled, so that they’re easy to identify in case of emergencies, maintenance, and servicing needs. The main disconnects, meanwhile, are there so that turning off the whole house’s electrical system – no matter the number of sub-mains or household circuits – can be done quickly.
Fuses and circuit breakers should always be compatible with the connected wires; otherwise the risk of potential hazards increases. Standard wire sizes in most American households are 14 and 12 AWG (American Wire Gauge); and standard protection for these conductors are 15 and 20 A fuses and breakers, respectively. To minimize the risk of overload hazards, it’s best to avoid connecting too many circuits to a single overload device – a common practice, but not always a safe one. If you can, have only a single wire connected to an individual fuse or circuit breaker.
From all the points in your electrical system, electric continuity or bonding should always be provided to a rod or grounding electrode. Licensed electricians and home inspectors in Chicago (and elsewhere, actually) will be the first to tell you to immediately correct all ungrounded components of your electrical system, or include grounding provisions for all your appliances. Three-prong receptacles are recommended, because while older two-prong electrical receptacles and adapters may work, they’re usually only for temporary situations. In other situations, you may even have to rewire the circuits, or at least have a spot check of your electrical system to determine whether or not there’s been a case of improper grounding or reverse polarity in certain areas.
Another thing to take note of is the kind of wiring you have. Is it the knob and tube kind? While common in older homes, knob and tube wirings may present hazard risks today – and we’re not just talking about damaged insulation. That’s because this two-wire system is not compatible with some modern appliances that require grounding. If unsure, have an electrician check all areas, or consult professional home inspectors and determine if repairs or upgrades are necessary.
Meanwhile, if you have aluminum wirings on your household circuits (as was common in the early 1960s and mid 1970s), you might want to regularly check your electrical connections: after all, aluminum poses fire-related concerns when under hazardous conditions. If you’re just moving into a new home, make sure that aluminum is on the checklist for the home inspection.
A lot of Federal Pacific Electric (FPE) Stab-Lok panels were installed in homes before 1990, but recently, the safety of these panels has been questioned. Concerns focus on the ability of breakers to trip under overload conditions, and many are wondering: how suitable and safe are these breaker connections? If you are one of those who have FPE Stab-Lok panels, have them inspected by qualified professionals, home inspectors, and electricians. They should be able to tell if you’ll need upgrades or replacements.
If you want to keep your electrical system running smoothly and safely, it’s recommended that some form of safety device is installed. It can be Ground-Fault Circuit-Interrupters (GFCI), which work in potentially hazardous locations like kitchens and bathrooms. You can also use Arc-Fault Circuit-Interrupters (AFCI), which reduce hazards caused by frayed wires and arcing.
No matter the size of your home or the kind of your electrical system, it’s always advisable to know a thing or two about electricity and keep your home safe from hazards. For more information on home safety, home maintenance, and home inspections, visit HouseMaster.com.