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Electrical Systems Inside Your Home- The HomeOwners' Advisor

Part 1 – Electrical

In the next three posts I’ll discuss systems – electrical, plumbing, and mechanical (heating, venting, and air conditioning – HVAC).

I call them systems, because more than anything else these are either the moving parts themselves, or the mechanism that in turn moves the parts in a house. Either way, a failure can create situations that range from annoying to dangerous. While these posts are only going to cover some of the simple and perhaps obvious (to some) fixes and maintenance presently, we’ll also briefly look at some upgrade options later. Let’s get started.

electric breaker box

First up, electrical:

The ceiling light is out, but the switch is on, and the bulb is new – you know because you just changed it… what’s up? OK, many folks know that it could be a tripped breaker[1], or a bad switch, or a defective fixture. But just to make sure, let’s look at some aspects of the power that keeps your home (or small business) running, and keeps you comfortable and connected.

It’s pretty smart to know a bit about how your house’s (or other space’s) wiring functions. Sometimes it can mean the difference between continuing the project on which you’ve been intently working with just an added mild inconvenience, or else a damnable disruption in your schedule. Worse, it can mean actually waiting for hours and losing all momentum while dreading the bill from your electrician. Then when Mr. Fixit comes out, flips a switch in your panel, and says, “That’ll be $85,” you’re shocked (pun intended)…

We’ll focus somewhat on breakers because, as many folks know, a building’s electrical wiring consists of a series of circuits, each of which contains a number of receptacles or fixtures (plugs, lights, etc.). Each of these circuits is controlled by a breaker, which is basically just a big switch that enables or disables the circuit. These are generally divided into two categories: 110 and 220[2] volts. In the US (other countries might differ), most outlets, lights and so on are 110, while most heavy appliances are 220 (such as range, oven, water heater, AC). OK… so you understand this – let’s move on.

Before we go too far though, if you don’t know where your electrical panel[3] is, locate it. To the extent that you can, familiarize yourself with the breakers and circuits and what they operate – bathroom; hall lights and plugs; master suite; living room; garage; and so on. They are usually grouped by location, but sometimes it’s not so obvious. Occasionally a building (usually larger structures) will have more than one panel box. Be sure you know where all of the electrical boxes are and, most importantly, which breaker is the main cut-off. It shuts off everything in the house. It’s usually the very top switch of the panel, and in the middle. Knowing the location of the main breaker can be critical in case of a fire.

The electrician who installed the breaker box should have marked the circuits (describing what they control), but occasionally that doesn’t get done, so if you have to re-set a breaker that’s not marked, be sure to label it when you figure it out – it will make your life easier. But even if you’re not interested in or comfortable doing this, at the very least you should be able to open the door to your breaker box, and flip the switches… it’s perfectly safe and really basic stuff.

Most electrical problems come from circuit overload – too many appliances running at once (the wire can’t handle so much current so it will overheat and trip the breaker). But sometimes there can be a short in the wiring, and that can be dangerous (we’ll get to that later). In the case of overload, what usually happens is that the breaker trips, and the entire circuit ceases to function – a bunch of things go dead.

If this happens, go to the box (being sure to first make sure all appliances and other switches are off), and find the breaker that looks neither on nor off – sort of in between – and that’s the likely culprit. Click the breaker all the way off and then all the way on, and the electricity should come back on. Turn on the appliances and switches one by one, and if any one of them trips the breaker, it’s probably defective and needs replacing.

electrical outlet

However, bad components notwithstanding, this probably means you’re running too many devices, and might need to unplug or turn something off, or move an appliance to a different circuit. More modern homes experience this issue less frequently than older houses, but it can occur in any structure.

If you re-set a breaker and it immediately trips again, try turning off every switch and unplugging every appliance on that circuit (no need to turn off fixtures that are still working – they’re on a different circuit). Once you’ve done this, if the breaker still trips, then it’s possible that you have a short in your wiring. An electrician should be consulted, as there is a potential fire danger. Leave the breaker off until a professional can look at it.

But what if the lights are off, and you try an appliance and it won’t work, but the breaker is not tripped? Then it could be that a GFCI (ground fault circuit interrupt) plug needs to be reset. These plugs are usually found where there’s a possibility of coming into contact with water (bath, kitchen, garage, exterior, etc.), although sometimes other rooms (usually adjoining) might be included in one of these groups.

The GFCI function is to disconnect an entire circuit at the first hint of a short (they react in a millisecond) – before someone can be shocked. In this case, there’s actually a breaker on the outlet itself… as well as a tiny green LED that indicates that it’s functioning normally. Look for two small buttons on the plug – one says test and the other says reset. Push the reset button until it clicks, and the circuit will come back on… unless there’s a problem. At that point, it’s probably best to call a professional (or your landlord).

Sometimes an appliance will have its own reset switch (though most don’t), so if the circuit where the device is plugged in seems to be otherwise functioning normally, look for a small button on the appliance, usually at least partially concealed, and push it until it clicks. That should turn the equipment back on – this is especially common with plug strips.

The main idea here is to familiarize yourself in at least a rudimentary way with the basic features of your electrical system: the main breaker box, any sub-panels (often adjacent to the main box, but sometimes in a closet or other location), the circuits and what they control, the main cut-off, and the GFCI circuits (on the wall outlets). Do yourself a favor – invest a couple of hours and locate these things – learn just a little bit about them. Time, money, and composure might not be the only things you save.

Thanks for dropping by – happy building, and mazal tov!

[1] Some older houses might have fuse boxes instead of breaker panels. A blown fuse must be replaced with a new one – this is rare in today’s homes, but if you have a fuse box, consider an upgrade. Do not follow the ancient advice of inserting a penny in the circuit, it’s not safe!
[2] Most 220 circuits operate one appliance (see ¶5 above) – some 110 circuits are dedicated as well, and only control a single item, such as a microwave.
[3] You might have just a single panel, or more than one (a main switch cut-off box, and a central breaker panel). This varies from house to house. A box/panel may be on the exterior or interior. On the exterior look for a (usually gray) box on a wall that’s easily accessible. If you locate a panel, and there is only one, or perhaps a few breakers, that is probably the main switch cut-off box, so look for a sub-panel (the central breaker panel). Sub-panels (or main ones) might be on the interior – often in the garage or inside of a closet and will almost always contain at least 15-20 breakers (usually more).

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