Monday, March 21, 2011

Beware the Electricity in Your Old House

If you are rehabilitating an old house, it's a good bet that the wiring in the house is downright scary.  And, since bad wiring can cause a fire and burn down your new investment, it's best to have a professional assess the situation and give you the bad news about rewiring.  As the DIY'er, here are a few red flags that suggest your wiring is probably not up to snuff:

  • The electrical panel is on the porch.  For some reason, this was really popular in our area and many old houses still have the panel on the front porch near the front door.  The panel is outdoors so it's susceptible to wind-driven rain, temperature swings, insects, rodents, and anything else that might be on your porch including someone with less than legal intentions.  Seems like an episode of CSI just waiting to happen.
  •  The electrical panel contains fuses instead of circuit breakers.  This can be okay if it signifies that the house's wiring has not been changed in any way.  However, an electrician with experience in older wiring systems should be consulted to be sure that hi-amp fuses haven't been installed that could cause wires to overheat.
  • There are a mixture of old and new outlets in the house.  When many of old houses were wired, electricity was still a luxury.  There is often just a single outlet and switch in each room.  Today, our lifestyles demand many more outlets for lights, TVs, computers, clocks, this gadget, and that.  Old knob and tube wiring can not be safely grounded or spliced with new wiring so if you see a mixture of outlet types, investigate further.  
  • The wiring looks dangerous.  If the wiring looks dangerous, it probably is.  With the main circuit breaker off, open up one of the outlets and gently pull it away from the wall.  Is it frayed?  Is it even the appropriate kind of wire?  We found one outlet in our project house wired with speaker wire.  Not appropriate.
  • There are bare wires protruding from the wall or ceiling.  Don't touch them!  It's quite likely they are live and you'd rather find out with an amp meter than by shocking yourself, wouldn't you?   
  •  There's charring on the framing near an outlet.  Turn off the circuit breaker.  Do not turn it on again until you get the wiring inspected!
  • The electrical wire servicing your meter hangs low over your house.  It might touch your roof or you could reach out a window and grab it.  This is an electrocution hazard.  Talk to your electrical company about moving the wire.  If it's hanging over the roof, that means it's a danger for someone roofing the house.  If you can reach it out the window, than a child may try.  Get it moved.
  • You don't have any GFCI outlets.  These are code today and important for safety in kitchens, bathrooms, and anywhere else that water and electricity might mix.  They automatically shut the juice off to prevent electrocution on a ground fault.  Add them.
Don't mess with electricity yourself.  Call an electrician and have the wiring inspected and corrected to preserve your investment!

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