The Top 5 Electrical Hazards in Your Home
While Kansas City household electrical systems are generally safe and designed not to fail easily, it is still possible to create dangerous situations by using them in the wrong way. These five hazardous situations are among those most commonly seen by electricians who are called upon to do repairs in the aftermath of an emergency. Each of these situations is extremely preventable with caution and good electrical sense.
Too Much Strain On One Outlet
Each power outlet can only power so many devices. It’s usually no problem to plug a regular outlet strip into an outlet and make use of most of it, but when you start plugging multiple strips in together you start getting into the danger zone.
The best-case scenario for an overloaded outlet is that it simply trips the circuit breaker and temporarily cuts power to the area. In the worst case, if the wiring or outlet are outdated or deficient, you could be looking at an electrical fire.
So how do you know how much you can attach to one power outlet? It’s a simple matter of knowing what type of outlet you have and doing a little math. Outlets in United States homes will generally be wired for either 15 amps or 20 amps. The 15 amp outlet is most common, and will provide about 1600 watts.
Information on the exact wattage usage of each device can usually be found in the manual, and might possibly be listed on a safety sticker on the actual unit as well. You’ll also need to know if the device uses any wattage while plugged in but not powered on; for example, many of the larger modern LCD and plasma TV still use in the neighborhood of 400 watts even when they aren’t turned on.
You also have to account for the limitations of the circuit breaker. Each individual outlet will be on a line that has a certain maximum amperage for all the power usage along the line. So if multiple outlets are on this line and each one has a bunch of devices plugged into a power strip, it may be possible to trip the circuit breaker even if no one single outlet is overloaded.
Frayed or Damaged Electrical Cords
Power cables consist of a collection of smaller wires, each with their own thin layers of insulation, wrapped up in a thicker outer layer of insulation. If the copper of the interior wires becomes exposed, it creates both a shock and a fire hazard.
If the copper wire of the internal wiring has not yet been exposed, it is safe to use electrical tape as a temporary repair to small breaks in the outer insulation of a power cord. This should only be for temporary use, however, and the cord should be replaced or professionally repaired as soon as possible. If the copper wire has become exposed, electrical tape should NOT be applied to it as it will melt. If electrical tape is applied, it should also be sprayed with dielectric spray to add an extra layer of protection to the tape.
Exposed copper wire can cause a fire due to the heat output it creates. Insulation normally dissipates this heat, but when the wire is exposed the heat can wind up being applied directly to a flammable substance such as a carpet or a curtain. Exposed wire is also much more easily damaged, and this damage can cause fluctuations in power delivery which in turn can damage sensitive components in electronic devices or restrict total power flow to them which negatively impacts their performance.
Misuse of Extension Cords
The thickness and hefty feel of an extension cord sometimes creates a misapprehension that they are entirely safe to use under any circumstances. In reality, these cords often have more weaknesses and build quality issues than the standard power cable! They are only meant for short-term use, and it is important to use them as labeled.
For example, not all extension cords are designed for outdoor use. The insulation is thin and may be easily cracked or damaged, and they are generally also not waterproof. It is important to not use indoor cords outside, even if they are under cover. Moisture can still easily seep into the insulation, and they are much more susceptible to accidental damage.
It is also not a wise idea to string together different extensions cords, as this causes voltage fluctuations that can damage the items that are plugged into the cords. A single cord can also only handle so much of a load, often less than a comparable standard power cord. A way to quickly tell if a cord is under too much strain is to simply touch it. If it is hot or very warm to the touch it is likely under a dangerous level of strain.
While unsafe use of an electrical cord definitely presents a fire hazard, over half of the annual injuries caused by these cords actually comes from people tripping over them! People get sprains, lacerations, even broken bones and concussions from losing track of an extension cord and tripping over it.
For quality, look for an extension cord that is UL rated. Cords also have different wattage ratings that you can look up in advance to ensure they can handle the load they are connected to.
Outdated Wiring and Breakers
Modern Kansas City household wiring is protected by both plastic and insulation and is relatively well-protected from damage and shorting. Many older houses may be operating on their original wiring, however, and these systems may have had a patchwork of less-than-professional repairs over time that could be making them even less safe.
The oldest style of wiring, called “knob and tube,” is copper wire covered with nothing more than cloth and ceramic tubes. This wiring style cannot be grounded and the connections can melt if there is a power surge. It is also important that insulation does not cover these wires as it can easily cause them to overheat, and these wires are the most susceptible to shorts caused by rats or other pests chewing on them.
Later wiring was first protected by a steel sheath, and then by PVC. These later systems are a little more resilient, but the insulation can degrade after they have been in operation for a few years and the PVC systems are known to fairly easily take damage to their covering.
These older systems aren’t dangerous when installed and maintained properly, but they do take a little more attention and TLC to keep safe than modern systems do. When it comes to breaker panels, it’s important to keep an eye out for fuses and wires that have physically worn down or corroded and may no longer do their job properly. Rats and other rodents may also chew on breaker panels. You don’t have to be an electrician to keep these systems up, but you may want to call one if there is visible damage.
GFCIs Not Installed In Wet Areas
Ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCI) are a type of outlet installed in wet areas, like near a bathroom sink. You can tell them by their distinctive red and black buttons built in between the outlets, and usually a small yellow light by the top outlet.
These outlets basically have a small internal circuit breaker that trips automatically when it senses that water has short-circuited the outlet. Obviously, with the increased chance of splashing or flooding, a GFCI is absolutely vital if the outlet is going to be within realistic reach of water. This is a job that a professional electrician in the Kansas City area should definitely be called upon for.
Give KB Complete Plumbing, Heating and Cooling, Inc. a call at 913-722-6835 for electrician services in the Kansas City area.