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Zap! How to Find and Fix Bad Wiring in Your Home

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A blown fuse, a shock when you plug in an appliance, or overheating electronics may be signs that your home has bad wiring. Faulty wiring and electrical issues account for 51,000 fires and $1.3 billion in damage each year, plus hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries. Addressing potential electrical issues, then, should move to the top of your honey-do list.

What dangers are hiding in plain sight? What problems can you address yourself, and when do you need to call a professional? Do an electrical audit of your home and address any electrical hazards today.

Signs of Bad Wiring & Solutions

We’ll explore several indicators of bad wiring, plus tips on how to solve each electrical problem. Troubleshoot and determine if the job’s an easy DIY fix or it’s time for a qualified electrician. Your home and family’s safety is worth it.

Hot or loose outlets: Electrical outlets and light switch plates should never feel hot, but it’s a common problem, especially in older homes. The cause could be an overloaded outlet or something more dangerous behind the wall. And if the outlet is loose, the wiring behind it could be loose as well, creating a potential fire hazard.

  • What to do: Unplug anything in the outlet. Turn off the circuit for the outlet and let it cool before retesting. If the outlet doesn’t reheat when it’s back on, determine if you’ve overloaded the outlet or if one of the electronics has an issue. If the outlet does get hot after the breaker is back on, the wiring or outlet may need to be replaced. If you have some electrical knowledge, you can replace an outlet yourself (see these safety steps), or play it safe and call an electrician for outlets and wiring. If it’s loose, see how to secure an outlet.

Flickering lights: A single flickering light fixture or lamp may just be a faulty bulb or connection issue, but multiple flickering lights can indicate circuit problems. A problem breaker box could cause the whole house to look like a light show. 

  • What to do: An electrician is likely needed to inspect the box and behind walls to pinpoint circuit problems. If it’s as simple as changing out a bulb or light fixture, follow these Family Handyman steps.

Burning smells and sizzling sounds: Engaging your other senses, burning odors and cracking/sizzling of any electrical device or outlet should be addressed immediately! The culprit could be wiring that’s melting plastic or rubber coating or a bad switch or socket. 

  • What to do: Turn off breakers and find the source to see if there are burn marks or scorching. Remove switch covers for any signs of lingering smoke or fire, while keeping a fire extinguisher nearby. The cause could be a bad appliance or cord, but a wiring issue could also be the source. Electrical codes and devices help reduce fires, but older homes without upgrades are more at risk. Once the immediate danger is under control, stop using that outlet and contact an electrician.

Circuit breakers tripping frequently: If you constantly have to visit your breaker box for tripped circuits, you may be overloading the circuit and need to move plugins to other outlets. Other reasons, however, could indicate electrical problems like a short circuit from a hot wire, ground fault surges, a defective breaker, and arc faults.

  • What to do: If you’ve determined it’s not an overloaded circuit, call an electrician to investigate. 

Aluminum wiring: This cost-effective wiring was used in homes built in the 1960s and 1970s, but connection issues and overheating resulted in discontinuing it for residential home building. Aluminum wiring can be 55 times more likely to cause fire damage. 

  • What to do: If your home was built in that time period, check cables in the breaker box or attic to see if they’re labeled AL, ALUM or ALUMINUM. Call a certified electrician to replace connections with copper wiring or do a complete rewire.

Gas and electrical grounding issues: Flexible gas lines that are improperly grounded mean a power surge, like a lighting strike, could damage tubing and cause a gas leak or explosion. Likewise, getting shocked when you touch an outlet or metal object in your home could indicate electrical systems aren’t properly grounded. Grounding helps short-circuit electricity or a surge redirect safely to the ground. 

  • What to do: For electrical issues, three-pronged outlets typically indicate grounded outlets — though DIYers may have installed three prongs for convenience without grounding them properly. For gas lines, properly grounded flexible lines and tubing are safe. Hire a professional electrician to examine your home’s grounding system.

Messy and rodent-damaged wiring: You may never see the tangle of wires behind the walls unless a red flag alerts you to it. Quick building, hasty upgrades, and DIY fixes can result in electrical problems, including leaving old wiring alongside new. Also, evidence of rodent activity like seeing mice (or rats) and their droppings could mean they’re chewing away at your home’s wires. 

  • What to do: Hire an electrician to remove old wiring and check for code violations. Make sure to reduce messy electrical hazards inside your home, like safe placement of extension cords, cables, and power strips. Make sure the cords and connection posts are in good shape. If you see critters, inspect for frayed wires and call a professional to deal with damage. 

Fake UL stickers: You’ve likely seen the UL stickers on electrical appliance cables, which demonstrates a product sold in the U.S. meets minimum safety standards. But some manufacturers bypass the step with fake labels.

  • What to do: When buying a lamp, appliance, or any electrical device, do a quick check to see if the UL label is authentic.

More Home Electrical Safety Tips

As homes are teeming with more devices that need charged, take additional common sense measures. Always, always turn off circuit breakers when inspecting electrical issues! Be diligent about safety when you’re testing an outlet, fixture, or wiring. Use extension cords only temporarily, not as a permanent electrical source. For lighting, use bulbs at or below the recommended wattage for the fixture. Finally, keep in mind these Kitchen Safety Tips when working with water and appliances.

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