Home wiring over the hill?

Ground fault circuit interupter (GFCI) outlets are required in areas around water such as near a kitchen or bathroom sink or outdoors, but many older homes don't have these safety measures installed. (ESFI photo)

Consider easy upgrades to boost safety

BY KELLY TRAPNELL

Nothing has the charm of an older home on a family farm or a cute cottage in a historical downtown district. But cosmetic and structural upgrades are often packaged with the cozy charm.

When upgrading your home, a fresh coat of paint and updated fixtures may come to mind. But what about hiring a professional to update the wiring behind a switch plate or outlet? Do you know the hidden dangers of aged wiring in your home? Don’t take on wiring problems yourself—electrical upgrades often require a professional who knows what inspections and permits are needed. Here are a few clues to find out if your home’s electric network needs a professional switch.

  1. Type of wiring. Modern wiring is insulated, meaning it is covered in plastic. Older homes may have copper or aluminum wiring. Copper wiring can work just as well as modern wiring if it is still in good condition and has not been altered or improperly installed. However, fire risk increases in homes with both copper and aluminum wiring. Corrosion to aluminum from copper can lead to lose connections causing fires. Use only aluminum-approved switches, outlets and other accessories if your home has aluminum wiring.
  1. Plugs fall out of outlets easily. Loose plugs are a high fire danger. Older outlets that have lost their grip need to be replaced. Luckily this upgrade is affordable.
  1. Not enough outlets. The increasing use of chargers for phones and many other electronic devices means outlets are in high demand, especially in older homes where outlets are not as plentiful. A lack of outlets can result in overuse of extension cords and power strips. Be sure to use quality, 14-gauge or thicker cords that are approved by Underwriters Laboratories (UL). Never overload an outlet. Overloading can cause heat, leading to fire risk. Consider hiring a licensed electrician to add outlets to your home.
  1. Danger in wet areas. GFCI (ground fault circuit interrupter) outlets are now required in areas around water such as near a kitchen or bathroom sink or outdoors. But in older homes, GFCIs may not have been installed. It is fairly simple to replace old receptacles with GFCIs; hire a professional to upgrade outlets near water.
  1. Wind causes lights to blink. If you notice your lights blinking on windy days, it may be due to worn wiring in the weatherhead (where overhead lines enter your home). Contact your electric co-op to check weatherhead wiring.

 

Sources: This Old House, Underwriters Laboratories

Kelly Trapnell writes on safety issues for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the Arlington, Va.-based service arm of the nation’s 900-plus consumer-owned, not-for-profit electric cooperatives.

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