Top 7 Electrical Safety Tips All Homeowners Totally Need to Know

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While electricity powers many modern necessities – TVs, cell phones, home appliances – it also can present danger in a home.

Between 2015 and 2019, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reported an average of 46,700 home fires annually that involved electrical failure or malfunction. There was also an estimated average of 390 civilian deaths, 1,330 civilian injuries, and $1.5 billion in direct property damage per year.

In honor of National Electrical Safety Month, we reached out to Corey Hannahs, senior electrical content specialist for NFPA. Corey is a third-generation master electrician and recently stopped by the vipHome Podcast with seven electrical safety tips all homeowners totally need to know. 

1. Check off essential electrical fire safety steps tips at home

If you live in a newer home or recently moved into one, your home and its electrical system have probably been inspected within the last few years. However, there are a few home electrical safety maintenance items you should check off:

  • Test the functionality of your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and replace as needed.
  • Test your ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCI) as per manufacturer’s instructions. (“Those are typically receptacles that are often located in kitchens, bathrooms, outdoors, garages, and unfinished basements,” says Corey.)

When it comes to your electrical panel, you may have to test breakers inside there as well.

“[Manufacturers] also make GFCI breakers that have a test button,” says Corey. “In some cases, the installer may utilize that because then they can use less GFCIs throughout the home, or for accessibility reasons.”

2. Keep the area around your electrical service panel clear

“Space is often hard to come by, especially in smaller homes or even condos,” says Corey. “If [the panel] is in a dedicated closet or something of that nature, things can get stacked in front of it.”

Corey suggests keeping a three-foot minimum clearance in front of the panel, so you’ll have accessibility to it quickly during an emergency. This clearance can also help electricians.

“They can have that accessibility without anything impeding what they’re trying to do safely.”

3. Your kitchen and bathroom standard outlets may be connected to GFCIs upstream

a GFCI outlet with a plug inserted

Do you have GFCIs in your home?

“GFCIs can be fed downstream to feed other outlets or receptacles and give them GFCI protection,” says Corey.

In newer homes, a kitchen circuit may be equipped with one GFCI outlet and also regular receptacles that are essentially “daisy-chained” off the load side of that GFCI.

“If something goes wrong and those regular receptacles sense a ground fault – they will trip the upstream GFCI,” says Corey.

A front porch receptacle may be linked to a garage GFCI receptacle, or a second-floor bathroom’s regular receptacle may lead to a first-floor bathroom GFCI. So how do you know if your standard outlets are, in fact, GFCI-protected?

“The outlet still is supposed to be identified as GFCI protected,” says Corey. “It should have a sticker on that regular receptacle plate stating that it is a GFCI protected outlet.”

If you’re having difficulty with a certain receptacle not working, make sure to check all your GFCIs. Corey notes that exterior receptacles are sometimes connected to GFCIs in other places in the home, such as the garage.

“[The GFCI] is not always going to be located in the same area or necessarily on the same floor,” says Corey. “If I’m going through the garage troubleshooting power loss, I’m going to pull stuff off the shelves. The owners may not even remember a receptacle that is hidden behind something, and that one just happens to be the GFCI receptacle that’s been tripped for whatever reason.”

4. Be careful not to overload your outlets

a person holding a flashlight on a breaker

Don’t find yourself in the dark.

Microwaves, curling irons, hair dryers, and space heaters all generate heat and typically a higher load. When you have one or more of these items plugged into the same circuit, circuits can overload quickly.

“If power goes out to an area of the home, the first thing I would suggest is to go down and check your electrical panel,” says Corey. “Check the circuit breakers. Sometimes they’ll appear to still be on but just have not fully tripped to the mid position.”

When a breaker trips, the handle should move into the mid position between on and off. Unplugging items from the circuit and turning the breaker fully off, and then back on to reset it, may do the trick if it it’s the result of an overload. If the breaker still trips after trying to reset it, make sure to enlist the help of an electrical professional.

The issue could also be a short circuit (not the 1980’s robot) where wires within the box may be touching or a terminated wire wiggled loose. 

“In that case, it may be a dead short, and it may not want to reset,” says Corey. “So no question, you’re going to need to call an electrician.”

5. Beware of the usual suspects

Homeowners should always be on the lookout for the obvious dangers that can create electrical hazards:

  • Discolored or charred receptacles.
  • Uncomfortably hot switches (“Some dimmers will get a little warm, not necessarily hot.”)
  • Frayed electrical cords to appliances, lamps, etc.
  • Flickering lights (“which signal a loose connection in the panel or somewhere within the wiring system that can cause a fire”).

“If something just seems off, it’s always best to have a qualified electrician take a look at it,” says Corey.

6. Smart home technology updates must still be installed to meet code requirements

a homeowner opening a smart lock with her phone

Upgrade your devices safely.

As smart home tech pervades our society, you should continue to be conscientious of loads. Some smart home devices need to be installed and connected to 120-volt power, which may require additional wiring and other electrical work.

“In those cases, it’s going to go back to your comfort level, what your jurisdiction allows you to do personally yourself.”

7. Think twice before you DIY

Like heart surgery, is household electricity dangerous? Yes! Electricity can kill somebody if the right steps and precautions are not taken when working with electrical equipment, and the effects are not always known immediately.

That’s why NFPA always encourages homeowners to contact a qualified professional for electrical work.

“In many cases, people know enough to get some things working, but it has not been done properly or per code requirements,” says Corey. “These kinds of scenarios present serious risks, which is why it’s always safest to contact a qualified electrician.”

In some states, like Michigan, homeowners are allowed to pull their own electrical permit and do some work themselves. The local government then sends an inspector to verify that everything is done properly. It is important to know your local permitting laws before starting any projects.

Of course, the most important part of DIY is knowing your skill level and limitations. 

Expert tips at your fingertips

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