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Frequently Asked Questions about Electricity

I have an outlet with buttons that keeps clicking off. What's going on?

That outlet with buttons is called a GFCI (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter). It turns off the outlet if it detects electrical current in the ground wire, which is a possibly deadly situation.

If a device makes a GFCI outlet click off, it's probably faulty and possibly dangerous and should be replaced.

When I turn the lights on I hear a popping/crackling noise. What's going on?

Loose wiring or a damaged switch is causing electricity to arc between exposed contacts. Sparks and very high temperatures accompany the sound, even if it's not where you can see it. The heat can set fire to the walls, ceiling, or floor wherever the wires are exposed.

You should immediately cut power to the area and contact the electric company or a certified electrician in this event.

When I plug a device in it makes a spark. What causes this and is it dangerous?

This is caused by a high-voltage device being turned on before it's plugged in. It's not dangerous unless the sparks are quite large or the outlet or cord ends are visibly damaged or loose. It can also happen when poor quality AC adapters are plugged in or if the outlet itself is loose or damaged.

Always plug devices in BEFORE turning them on.

Should I use a surge protector?

Yes, especially on high-value electronics. They protect against voltage spikes caused by lightning strikes and electrical malfunctions.

In addition to the surge-protecting power strips you can buy at the store, you can install a whole house surge protector which is installed in the main electrical panel and requires 2 available circuit spaces. Some whole-house surge protectors come with a warranty that will pay for damaged electronics as a result of surge protector failure.

My house has aluminum wiring. Should I be concerned?

Aluminum branch circuit wiring was used in the 1960s and 70s, but was banned due to its potential as a fire hazard.

Some symptoms of immediate problems with aluminum wiring are lights flickering or plugs that will not work even with all the circuits turned on. Almost all insurance providers will require that a home with aluminum wiring be inspected and certified by a licensed electrician. This involves physically inspecting all of the connections, installing approved connectors, using approved aluminum devices or copper pigtail wiring and using an anti-oxidant compound. If your original installation was done to the highest standards or if the wiring has been inspected and certified then the aluminum wiring system will outlast the other systems in your home.

Aluminum is still in widespread use today for distribution wiring. It is an excellent conductor, lightweight, strong and much more cost effective than copper. Almost the entire power grid outside your home is made from aluminum. Aluminum is used within apartment buildings, condominiums and townhouses to bring power from the main service to the individual units. It is also used within houses to bring power from the main electrical panel to sub-panels, stoves or other large loads.

I have an old electrical panel. Should I replace it?

If your electrical panel has the old-style, screw-in fuses you should replace it. If you have a Square D XO style electrical panel it should also be replaced as it has been recalled by its manufacturer.

If you have water or oxidation damage in your electrical panel it should be inspected and replaced if necessary.

Generally, if your panel has circuit breakers and was installed by a licensed electrician and is properly maintained, it will generally outlive the other systems in your home.

When I turn more than one appliance on, the circuit trips. What causes this?

Not having adequate circuits in your kitchen. Going back 20 or more years ago electrical appliances were not as commonplace as they are today. The electrical codes of the time did not require the amount of circuits that are required in homes today.

You can try moving your appliance plug from the top half of the outlet to the bottom half. Many kitchen outlets have one circuit for the top half of the outlet and another circuit for the bottom half (split circuit plug). This may solve the problem. The issue could also be "breaker fatigue" and the circuit breaker will need to be replaced.

My light-bulbs burn out too often. How can I prevent this from happening?

Make sure there is no damage to the light fixture, use long life bulbs (6000hr 125V or 130V rating) or use compact fluorescent bulbs. Having loose wiring, either at the switch or at the light fixture can also cause bulbs to burn out quickly. Low voltage on the circuit will also reduce bulb life.

Some of my dimmers get hot. Is this something I should be concerned about?

It is normal for a dimmer to be warm to the touch. They should never be hot. Count the total wattage of the bulbs the dimmer is controlling (i.e. 9 bulbs at 65 watts each is 585 watts) to confirm that the dimmers' rating is not being exceeded. The most common rating for a dimmer is 600 watts. We recommend using a 1000 watt dimmer if you are exceeding 500 watts. If dimmers are grouped together in one switch box their wattage ratings must be reduced as well. Dimmers have some great features such as reduced energy consumption; also, a bulb dimmed to 90% will last twice as long. Do not use a dimmer with compact fluorescent bulbs unless they have a dimmable ballast and a compatible dimmer.

I want to install a hot-tub but there is no more room in my panel. What do I need to do?

Hot tubs need either 2 or 4 circuit spaces in your electrical panel. Existing breakers can sometimes be replaced with a narrower type to free up the required space or a sub-panel may need to be installed.

I just want to install a new light. It’s not really that dangerous is it?

If you see something in the instruction manual that says anything like "This fixture must be installed by a licensed electrician in compliance with all national and local electrical codes and regulations" then you need help from a professional electrician. There are many potential hazards involved in the simplest light fixture installation, including an electrical shock or a fire caused by improper installation.

I have some outlets that don’t work. What can I do about this?

Check that all your circuits are ON. Before making a call to an electrician, systematically go through your electrical panel and turn all circuits completely off then back on again. Even though a circuit is tripped it is not always obvious that it is not in the ON position.

Some outlets are controlled by a switch. Either the entire outlet or just the top or bottom. Make sure all switches are turned on.

My circuit breakers keep tripping. What does this mean?

Generally one of two things: 1) Breaker fatigue, internal weakening of the circuit breaker causing it to trip before maximum load, or 2) the breaker is simply doing what it was designed to do: interrupt the flow of current before it reaches a dangerous level.

You may also have a "short circuit". If the breaker trips immediately or if a flash or sparks are visible at the panel when you attempt to reset the breaker then this is the case. Try unplugging all devices and turning off the light fixtures in the affected circuit. If the problem persists then the issue is with the electrical circuit itself.