1. Check for excessive circuit load. Overloaded circuits are a leading cause of electrical fires and may require the attention of a professional electrician. Look for the three danger signs:
• Warm receptacles. Make a lap around your house, touching the faceplate of every outlet when in full use—a warm receptacle may signal an overloaded circuit and present a potential fire hazard. If the outlet is hot, unplug all cords leading to it immediately.
• Dimming voltage. If a light bulb dims when you turn on an appliance, it means there’s been a voltage drop in the circuit. This may be a sign that your circuit is near its full capacity.
• Fuses that blow/breakers that trip repeatedly. The easiest way to eliminate an overloaded circuit is to reduce the number of appliances on the circuit. If after moving some appliances to another circuit the circuit still fails, the cause may be a faulty breaker or a short in a lamp, appliance or house wiring. If you are unable to identify the cause, call an electrician. The problem may be something that could cause a fire, so don’t delay.
2. Get to know your electrical panel. As part of your annual maintenance routine, open your electrical panel and switch each circuit breaker on and off a few times to keep its mechanical parts working freely. If your electrical system uses fuses, check to see that you have spares of the appropriate amperage handy.
A chart showing which circuit breakers/fuses control which room or appliances can add to your safety if you should ever need to make repairs. Many electrical panel doors have space for this information; make sure yours is up to date. Note: this is also a great time to show family members how to turn off the main power in an emergency.
3. Identify heavy-use outlets that need GFCIs. Ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) offer significant protection from electrocution. When the GFCI outlet senses a fault, it can cut off electricity in a circuit before anyone is hurt. Required since the mid-1970s by the National Electric code in all new bathrooms, kitchens and laundries, GFCI receptacles are highly recommended wherever water and current co-exist.
Fortunately, most GFCIs outlets are inexpensive and can be installed by an able do-it-yourselfer who’s familiar with electrical work and follows the manufacturer’s instructions. For the rest of us, hiring an electrician is the way to go. Once they’re installed, be sure to test your GFCI outlets regularly and according to the manufacturer’s instruction. Learn more about GFCIs at http://www.ul.com/consumers/groundfault.html.
Kids can explore electrical safety in a fun interactive way at http://www.smud.org/safety/world.