Every problem or shortcoming throughout a house’s electrical system results in an elevated risk of injury from electrical shock and/or a fire. Therefore, correcting any problems throughout this system should be at the top of your priority list.
The following are the most commonly found problems, many of which are very easy to correct:
Reverse Polarity: This is the result of wiring an outlet “backwards”. Most often this occurs when the incorrect color wires are attached to the screws on an outlet. By convention the black wires must go to the gold colored screws and the white wires to the silver screws.
Ungrounded Outlets: Having grounded outlets is a very important part of a safe electrical system. A properly installed ground acts as an emergency path for electricity to flow to a safe place as opposed to a person. In most cases a ground will never be needed but not having it when you do need it could be deadly. Grounds are also used to dissipate static electricity from electronics and not having one puts your equipment at risk.
A disconnected or “open” ground most often occurs when the bare copper wire travelling along with the hot and neutral conductors becomes detached at some point. Also, on houses built before about 1960 there usually was no ground wire provided so when a modern three prong outlet is installed it’s common (but incorrect) practice to leave the outlet ungrounded. This is particularly unsafe because the outlet on the wall will accept three prong plugs but the ground hole has nothing attached to it.
GFI protecting an ungrounded three prong outlet is an option that generally protects people but, due to the absence of a solid ground path, does nothing to protect electronics plugged into the system.
Ground Fault Interruption (GFI): This is one the single most important safety inventions throughout a house’s electrical system. These are the outlets you’ve probably seen in bathrooms or kitchens that have the two buttons on their face. The purpose of a GFI outlet is to constantly monitor the amount of electricity flowing through it and shut off if even a small ground fault is detected. A ground fault occurs when electricity flows to an unintended place (like a person). It’s most common for a ground fault to occur in wet locations like bathrooms, kitchens or garages. An example of a ground fault is the often used example of standing in a bathtub with a hairdryer in your hands. In theory, the outlet will turn off before a person is electrocuted (we recommended using the “test” button on the outlet to be sure it’s functioning properly).
Modern day building codes require these outlets to be installed in all wet locations (currently defined as kitchens, bathrooms, garages, exterior, crawl spaces and over any bare concrete floors). If your house was built prior to 2000 there’s a good chance some of these places do not have this safety protection.
As you check for and install GFI protection throughout your house there is one thing to keep in mind. A GFI outlet installed on a circuit will provide the safety protection to all outlets downstream on the same circuit. So, just because an outlet near a bathroom sink doesn’t have the buttons present, it may have protection provided by an outlet in another bathroom or other area of the house. A very common way for electricians to wire a house it to install a GFI outlet in the garage (often very near the service panel) and then run a circuit into the bathrooms. So, by “testing” an outlet in one part of the house you can actually turn off power to all the outlets on that circuit. This is also important to keep in mind if you mysteriously lose power at a standard outlet. There is a good chance one of the GFI outlets has “tripped” and needs to be reset. It’s rare but sometimes a GFI outlet can simply turn off for no real reason and needs to be reset.
Smoke Detectors: Modern day requirements for smoke detectors are the following:
Interconnected detectors in every bedroom and in common areas (generally, hallways outside bedrooms) on each level, “Interconnected” means if one detector sounds, all of the units on the system will sound as well.
Also, a modern day smoke detector has a “hush” feature which allows the unit to be silenced for about 15 minutes following a nuisance alarm (burning something on the stove, etc.). The “hush” feature prevents the need to remove the detector or its batteries. Leading up to the invention of the “hush” feature, many fatal fires were the result of people taking the batteries out of their smoke detectors after a nuisance alarm and forgetting to re-install them.
Another standard feature of battery powered smoke detectors is a 10-year battery. This prevents the need to constantly check and change the batteries and greatly reduces the chances of a unit being non-functional when needed.
If your house was built before about 1995 it’s likely that the detectors are not interconnected. While connecting them with actual wiring would usually be very difficult there are wireless interconnected detectors available that allow you to link all the units throughout the house together.
According the manufacturer’s of smoke detectors the service life from their product is no more than 10 years. So, if yours are older than that or if they lack any of the modern features described above, replacement is strongly recommended.