Frequently Asked Questions
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In every modern home wired for electricity, circuit breakers protect against overloads that could cause a fire or injury.
Older homes may still have fuse boxes while newer homes have breaker boxes (aka circuit breaker panels) which trip to cut power in an overload situation. Many appliances also have built-in circuit breakers.Your electric panelensures your home’s electrical safety, but is it safe? If your home was built between 1950 and 1990 and is equipped with a Federal Pacific Electric (FPE) panel with Stab-Lok circuit breakers, you run a significant risk of breaker malfunction and fire.
The breakers inside the panel are designed to guard your home’s electrical system against circuit overload, short circuits and outside power surges coming into the panel. When an overload occurs, a breaker protects you by tripping, thus shutting down the power to the circuit. However, if a breaker is defective or not operating properly, the risk of fire to the panel and consequently to your home becomes imminent.
Multiple tests done on the breakers since the 1980s have proven that one in four Stab-Lok breakers will be defective and not properly trip off. Unfortunately, when the testing began in the early 1980s, a New Jersey court later ruled that FPE committed testing fraud and a cover-up, labeling the breakers as meeting the standards set by the UL when in reality, they were defective.
In 1983, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) closed its two-year investigation and felt it impossible to create a product recall at the time because of budget issues, even as Federal Pacific panels and breakers continued to be installed in millions of homes that to this day still run the risk of an electrical fire. An estimated 2,800 fires each year directly result from Federal Pacific panel breaker malfunction. Federal Pacific Electric has been out of business for many years, but the danger and damage caused by their negligence continues.
Many electrical panels have Federal Pacific or its logo on the front cover.
Do you have a Federal Pacific panel?
If you own a home between 23 and 63 years old, check your breaker box. A Federal Pacific panel will usually have its name or logo on the front cover. Inside, you will find the name Stab-Lok printed near the center or side of the panel. The intact breakers will have the signature red strip that runs across the front.
If you find you do have a Federal Pacific panel or Stab-Lok breakers, call a licensed electrician in your area for further information regarding replacement.
Five Electrical Wiring Warning Signs
Checking circuits periodically is a good practice, as already mentioned, but sometimes electrical wiring issues have a habit of sneaking up on an unsuspecting homeowner. If a house or apartment is approaching or has exceeded 40 years of age, residents will want to keep aware of some simple signs that there may be a problem with electrical wiring in the walls. Breakers and fuses that go out regularly are a bad sign, as are dimming and flickering lighting. Buzzing, charred, and discolored outlets and switches are a very bad sign, as is an acrid burning smell with no visible spark or fire. Additionally, if any switch or outlet shocks the user, this could be an indication of a very bad situation.
Sign 1: Breakers and Fuses Go Out Regularly
Circuit breakers help to protect the house from fire by "tripping" when the circuit begins to overload by exceeding the number of amps the circuit is rated for. Fuses provide the same protection, but circuit breakers are reusable where fuses need to be replaced whenever they "blow out." Circuit breakers do wear out over time and, as they trip more often, they can sometimes go bad. If a circuit breaker or fuse goes out regularly, one of two things may be happening. If too many high amp appliances are plugged into a single circuit, the breaker or fuse may blow out because the total amps plugged in are more than the breaker or fuse is rated for. If, however, the amp load of the appliances is less than what the circuit breaker or fuse is rated for, then there may be a short in the wiring somewhere along the circuit.Homeowners should resist the urge to replace the fuse or breaker with a higher rating unit. This is extremely dangerous and increases the likelihood of a fire on that circuit exponentially; the wiring installed on that circuit is not the correct size for that higher rating circuit breaker or fuse. Circuit breakers can be tested with a circuit breaker tester if the appliance amp load should not be tripping the circuit. If the amp load is lower than the circuit rating and the circuit breaker is fine, there is something wrong with the wiring and a certified electrician should be called out to examine and fix the wiring as soon as possible.
Sign 2: Dimming and Flickering Lights
Dimming and flickering lights are a sign of an overloaded circuit. As another device turns on in a circuit, especially motor driven devices, they pull more amps than when they run at a steady pace. This is somewhat normal; very good wiring on a circuit that is close to capacity will rarely dim or flicker. However, even on good wiring, dimming or momentary flickering is normal in some cases. If it happens often, however, this may be a sign of faulty wiring or a bad circuit breaker that needs to be replaced.
Sign 3: Buzzing, Charred, or Discolored Outlets and Switches
Buzzing, charred, and discolored outlets or light switches are a very bad sign of a potentially dangerous situation. The outlet or switch should be replaced right away, but the problem is not always in the outlet or switch. In some cases, faulty wiring in the circuit, usually near the outlet or switch, or a loose connection on the switch is the cause and causes a short. This causes the outlet to arc and make a small, short-lived mini fire that causes the outlet's surface to char or discolor from heat buildup.
Sign 4: Burning Smell
A burning smell in a home with no identifiable source can be scary. An electrical fire initially has a fairly acrid smell and a short that causes a brief burn has the same smell. Electrical fires that catch surrounding material on fire, however, have a very different smell. If a burning smell is present, especially if it smells acrid, call an electrician immediately and keep a fire extinguisher handy until an electrician can come out. In some cases, the short is in the outlet, but if it is in the wiring inside the wall, it can more easily catch surrounding materials on fire. Either way, homeowners should also turn off the circuit breaker or remove the fuse for that circuit until the electrician can examine the circuit.
Sign 5: Shocking Switches and Outlets
Shocking switches or outlets are a good indicator that the switch or outlet is bad. Sometimes, however, it means that there is a wire in the circuit shorting out to the conduit enclosing the wires. Aside from being physically unpleasant, this is a sure sign that something is shorting out. It could be a device plugged into the plug, the plug or switch itself, or a wire that has lost its insulation. If devices are removed or replaced and it still happens, the outlet or switch should be examined or replaced, and it would be a good idea to have the wiring examined as well
You may think that your eyes are tired or they’re playing tricks on you, but if you notice light bulbs or lamps flickering while lit, there may be an underlying cause that you should investigate. It could be a simple fix or the problem could be a more serious issue.
You’ll learn the simple and not-so-simple issues that could be causing your flickering lights. Once you know three causes of flickering bulbs, you’ll be able to investigate the light to determine whether it’s something you can fix yourself or something an expert should check.
If the electrician suspects exterior issues outside your home, call the electric company to examine your electric cables outside the house. The simplest cause of a flickering light bulb could be a loose bulb in the socket of the light fixture. Turn the light fixture off and gently grasp the light bulb to tighten it slightly. It’s not necessary to tighten it strenuously – simply making sure the light bulb sits snugly in the socket should suffice. Turn the light fixture back on to see if it stops flickering. If you still notice flickering, try replacing the defective bulb. If the light bulb continues to flicker, the issue lies elsewhere.
Faulty Switch or Connection
Eventually, it’s possible that the switch of the fixture will wear out. You can determine if the switch is causing the flickering by jiggling it gently to see if this induces a flicker. It’s also possible that screw terminals on the light switch have a bad connection. Check the plug where it connects with the outlet, making sure it’s seated snugly within it.
If you determine that the switch is faulty, replace it to resolve the flickering. If you determine that the issue lies with screw terminals, make them tighter. If the plug is loose in the outlet, remove it and squeeze the prongs together gently with your fingers to make the plug sit more snugly in the outlet. If you find you do have a Federal Pacific panel or Stab-Lok breakers, call a licensed electrician in your area for further information regarding replacement.
When you hire an electrician, even for a small job like installing a light switch, be aware that most charge a minimum fee for a visit. But that fee will roll into the cost of the job. In other words, although an electrician may charge $70 just to walk in the door, that money might cover the first hour of work. The cost of the job will vary depending on the complexity and parts needed. One factor that often contributes to a job's complexity is access. How difficult will it be to run wires, etc.? Will your electrician need to cut into the walls, and, if so, how much? Also that issue of capacity may arise when you add new wiring or install switches. A cheap and simple job can get expensive when you need to update or change your electrical board.
If the cost to install a light fixture seems high, that's because it includes the price of the fixture. Here's one of the few electrical jobs that may end up costing you more in materials than labor. But, again, capacity issues that require board upgrades or access complications may raise those labor costs. Your electrician should be able to give you an estimate before starting the job.
If you have recently purchased a home with an older panel or your current panel cannot supply the amount of power you need, then you might need to upgrade the panel or install a new one. The minimum requirement for an electric breaker panel is 150 amps. Panels come in 100, 150, 200 and 400 amp capacities. Old panels, especially those with the old glass fuses, are prone to tripping and can pose a fire hazard. Remember to choose a panel that exceeds your electricity needs so you won't tax your electrical system, which can cause outages, or worse, a fire. Your electrician can advise you on whether your panel can be upgraded or needs to be replaced. Upgrades will cost you about $ 1800.00 on average. Keep in mind that an old style fuse box cannot be upgraded and must be replaced with a new panel.
GFCI outlets are commonly known as the outlets "with a button". GFCI stands for Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter. The outlet monitors itself for an electrical current imbalance. (Those imbalances are what can give you a nasty shock!) If it recognizes an imbalance, it will "trip" or shut itself off. The national electric code requires that GFCI outlets are installed anywhere near water including bathrooms, kitchens, laundry rooms, and outdoors. If you have a GFCI outlet that is constantly tripping, you should have it looked at as that may be an indicator of a more dangerous problem.
When looking at your electrical panel there should be one switch that is not aligned with the others. If you look closely it should show that it is in the off position. To turn the breaker back on you will need to push the breaker towards the off position first and then turn it back towards the on position. The breaker should click back into alignment with the rest others
This may just be the lightbulb. Check that the light bulb is properly screwed in and if there is no difference, then replace the bulb. Is it still flickering? This is an indication that there is a loose wire which should be handled as soon as possible. If you can, try to not use the light until the electrician arrives as loose wires can lead to fires and/or personal injury.
This is usually caused by three things. The first reason could be there are too many electrical items plugged into the circuit. Circuits are designed to only handle so much electric demand. The second reason is there could be a short in the wiring, or the third reason is the breaker or fuse could be faulty. It is recommended that an electrician evaluate the problem to ensure there are no safety issues. Your electrician can also talk with you about adding more circuits to your home so that your electrical system can support all your needs.
Statistics show that fuse panels have a much larger risk of fire than circuit breakers. This can be caused by loose fuses, corroded contacts, or having the wrong size fuses installed. In addition most fuse panels are outdated and not equipped to handle the electrical load of homes in the 21st century.
There is a test button on all GFCI outlets. The outlets should be tested from time at time – at least yearly. Press the "test" button to trip the outlet. Press the "reset" button to fix it. If nothing happens when you press the test button or if the outlet will not reset, that could indicate a dangerous situation. The outlet needs to be inspected by an electrician to ensure it safely operating and there is no underlying electrical issue.
No! The third prong is designed to prevent deadly electrical shock from the electrical item you are using. The third prong acts as a "ground" so that, if a wire inside the item were to come loose, the plug can help divert the electricity back into your home's electrical system rather than shocking the next person to touch that item. If the third prong is disabled, there is nothing protecting you or a family member from receiving a nasty shock from the equipment.
Extension cords are designed for temporary use. The US Consumer Product Safety Commission recently released a report on the dangers of using extension cords long term.
You should never use an indoor-rated extension cord outdoors. There are extension cords rated for outdoor use that have a special covering to help protect the wires from the elements. However even outdoor-rated cords are not designed to be exposed to water or snow nor are they designed for very cold weather. Because of these reasons, if you are regularly using extension cords to bring power the same areas, you should look at a more permanent solution.