Energy Adviser: Beware of faulty wiring in the home

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Your body is a very good conductor of electricity. Each year, there are 30,000 non-fatal shock injuries caused by unintended contact with electrical systems and electric-powered devices, according to Electrical Safety Foundation International. Worse, it says the nation averages about 400 electrocutions yearly. Portable heaters, extension cords, frayed wiring and overloaded sockets are among the causes of electrical injuries and fires.

As home electric usage has risen, outdated home wiring can fail to handle today’s electrical loads. Pre-1940 homes that still have ceramic insulators holding wires out from the walls are one example. Their wiring simply wasn’t designed to carry the heavier electrical load all our modern appliances require. Such out-of-date wiring could cause a fire.

Homes with aluminum wiring may also be at risk. Aluminum wiring in homes built from 1960 to 1980 has been linked to house fires. Experts say that this is often due to improper installation or the difference in the expansion rate of aluminum wires and their terminators.

“Newer termination technology offers a solution,” said Michael Getman, safety manager for Clark Public Utilities. “However, anyone living in a house where ceramic insulators are part of the electric system should update all their wiring.”

Terminators including arc-fault circuit-interrupters, ground-fault circuit-interrupters and tamper-resistant receptacles can make a home safer.

Arc-fault circuit-interrupters recognize a fire immediately and shut the electricity off. Ground-fault circuit-interrupters are electrical safety “switches” that trip an electrical circuit when they detect a fault or current leakage. Tamper-resistant receptacles use a shutter mechanism to prevent children from inserting objects into them. They also can’t be pried out of a socket like the protective plastic plugs. While you can find these at most home repair stores, unless you’re an electric expert, have an electrician install them.

Safety tips

The utility recommends hiring a qualified, licensed electrician to perform any electrical work on your home. Still, if you do it, follow these safety tips:

• Learn all about your home electrical system so you know it well and can work on it safely.

• Switch off the circuit breaker in the main service panel for any electrical circuit you will work on. Also, unplug any appliance or device before working on it.

• Test any wires before touching them so you know the power is off.

• Know your skill level. Don’t attempt a project beyond it. Call a professional when you need to, which will help avoid electrical fires, injuries and deaths.

“Neatness and cleanliness are often the best ways to avoid electric-caused fires inside a home,” Getman said. “Place portable heaters at least three feet away from anything that can burn — piles of books, files, clothing, as wells as curtains and furniture.”

Kitchens are a special concern. Keeping burners clear of anything that might burn — hotpads, napkins, dishcloths and towels — can help prevent an unwanted fire. So can keeping the oven and its hood clean and grease free.

Common sense also goes a long way toward increasing indoor electrical safety. Turn off any appliance not in use, especially ovens and cooking surfaces. Don’t install an extension cord for long-term use. Use one that’s appropriately rated — a label on them lists their rating. Don’t use frayed or broken extension cords, and never use one around water.


Energy Adviser is written by Clark Public Utilities. Send questions to ecod@clarkpud.com or to Energy Adviser, c/o Clark Public Utilities, P.O. Box 8900, Vancouver, WA 98668.