11 Shocking Electrical Safety Tips
Sparks fly, a couch burns and the rest of us get some critical lessons in dealing with circuit breakers and electrical fires.
ElecPros contributor and owner John Rodrigues is a local business owner, mentor, and a master electrician, so when his Androids “Metallica” ringtone sounds, the call could be about any kind of electrical problem. Still, he was surprised when he answered the call on Dec. 29th. It was his girlfriend, and there was this urgent tone in her voice. Her brother’s house was on fire, she said–apparently a switch on an electrical baseboard heater had blown apart.
The difficulty began when Barbara, sister of John’s girlfriend, in the neighboring city of Baltimore, MD., had a circuit breaker trip. She looked around the room controlled by the breaker and unplugged a few things. Then she tried the breaker again. Several more times, in fact. Finally, it reset. At least it held long enough for her to return to the living room to find sparks flying from behind a burning sofa.
Barbara hurried back to the electrical panel and threw the main breaker, cutting power to the whole house. Next, she grabbed a fire extinguisher and began to spray down just about everything in sight, pausing only long enough to call Kelly, who relayed the urgent message to her boyfreind. When the fire was under control, Barbara called the fire department.
“The moral of the story,” John says, “is don’t keep trying a breaker if it doesn’t reset.” Which leads us to our first key electrical safety tip:
Pay attention to your breaker.
A breaker that trips immediately after it’s reset is telling you that there’s an electrical problem. Sure, sometimes the breaker itself is to blame, and in some cases there may just be too large an electrical load operating on that circuit. But it’s more likely that the breaker is tripping because there’s a severe electrical problem. Keep pressing that breaker, and you’re likely to cause a fire.
Know when to fight and when not to.
Firefighters recommend that if you have any doubt about fighting a fire, you’re best bet is to get out of the house as quickly as possible. Once you’re safely outside, call the fire department. If you decide that there’s a reasonable chance that you can fight a fire and win, then stand your ground, but don’t let the fire get between you and the exit. If you sense that the fire’s going to overtake you and block your exit, get out!
Never throw water on an electrical flames.
This will be obvious to many PM readers, but in the heat (ahem) of the moment, grabbing a bucket of water can seem tempting, if unreasonable. Water conducts electricity (this is why you don’t want to be in a lake during a lightning storm), so throwing water on the fire could cause it to get larger. Instead, use your chemical fire extinguisher.
Use your fire extinguisher effectively.
Firefighters highly recommend the classic PASS procedure:
Pull the fire extinguisher’s safety pin.
Aim the extinguisher mist nozzle at the base of the fire.
Squeeze the extinguisher’s deal with.
Sweep the extinguisher’s nozzle in a side-to-side mostion until the flames are out.
Sure, it sounds easy, but let’s hope you never have to use this advice. Start by paying attention to what the circuit breaker is telling you. If it trips immediately, evaluate the situation if you are electrically competent or call an electrician. Don’t call Pat, though; he’s already got enough to do.
Lights that flicker or that trip the circuit breaker
Cause: Loose wiring splice or a light fixture that’s worn out and needs to be replaced.
Solution: Cut power to the fixture and investigate the supply wiring and the fixture itself. Replace wire connectors with new professional-grade types. Replace the fixture if suspect.
Outlets with a faceplate that’s warm to the touch
Cause: An overly large electrical load operating on that outlet, undersized wiring or a loose electrical splice. (Note: it’s not unusual for dimmer switches, especially large ones, to be warm. Unless the switch face is actually too hot to touch, a warm dimmer is not a hazard in most cases)
Solution: Cut power and investigate. Look for a loose splice, melted connections, burned insulation. Repair as necessary. Also, evaluate wattage of device; it may be too large relative to supply wiring. Move device to another circuit, preferably one served by a 20-amp circuit breaker and 12-gauge wire. If condition persists, contact an electrician.
Extension cords wrapped in electrical tape or with loose ends
Cause: Wear and tear has taken its toll on the cord.
Solution: Cut off damaged sections of cords; replace loose or damaged male/female ends. Replace severely damaged cords.
Wobbly switches or outlet receptacles
Cause: Device is improperly mounted to the electrical box or the box itself has come loose from the stud.
Solution: Cut power. Remove faceplate and tighten mounting screws. Occasionally, overly long screws will not fully seat. Shorten screws with an electrician’s multitool (a pair of pliers that strip wire, bend wire and cut screws ). Reinstall device. Otherwise, tighten connection of box to framing.
Ceiling fans that slowly wobble
Cause: Fan is out of balance or may be installed on a box that’s not listed for supporting a fan.
Solution: Balance fan or cut power and reinstall fan, checking for loose, damaged or missing hardware. If necessary, replace box. Use a retrofit/old-work box rated for fan installation (note: These are not to be confused with old-work boxes or other electrical boxes not listed for fan installation. Specialized retrofit boxes rated for fans tend not to be common hardware-store or home-center items. Visit an electrical supply house or use a Web-based supplier. One version is the Steel One Box manufactured by Arlington Products. ().
GFCI outlets that trip repeatedly
Cause: A ground fault or a worn-out GFCI outlet receptacle.
Solution: Move appliance or tool to another GFCI and test. If GFCI trips, appliance or tool is suspect. If GFCI does not trip, electrical problems are likely. Cut power and investigate for damaged wire insulation, a loose splice or a small length of exposed wire making contact with a metal electrical box. If you don’t find wiring or splice problems, replace the GFCI. If condition persists, contact an electrician.
The beer fridge in the garage that occasionally gives you a small shock
Cause: Many an old refrigerator will have a tiny leakage current because of worn-out insulation on its internal wiring, especially if it has a defrost circuit. This phenomenon is well-known and can even be quite dangerous when the refrigerator is placed on an electrically conductive concrete floor, especially a floor that’s damp with condensation.
Solution: Replace the refrigerator with a new energy-conserving model.