The Home Buyer's Korner

Information presented should be used for educational purposes only.

January 27th, 2017

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Circuit Box

Circuit Box

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KNOW YOUR WAY AROUND

After moving into a home, particularly an older one, of the most daunting issues for a new homeowner is figuring out how all the systems work. One system with some unique issues is the electrical system. It may take some time to determine what switch controls what light or what receptacles are on what circuit, which may just seem to be an inconvenience. But safety issues can also come into play as well – from not seeing where you’re going if you can’t find the right switch in the dark, to possibly overloading a circuit, which could lead to a fire if adequate overload protection isn’t present.

Here are some simple basic electric system tips that can help make this critical house component less of a mystery or safety concern.

LOCATE THE PANEL

The first thing to do is make sure you know where the main panel is in the event of an emergency or servicing needs. Most electric panels are located in the basement, garage or utility room, or on the exterior of the home adjacent to a garage or utility room.

The main panel is the connection point between the incoming service and the house wiring. In many areas, the panel typically contains a service disconnect (the main shut-off), overload protection (circuit breakers or fuses), and the connected wires that carry electricity throughout the house. For safety reasons, usually only the breakers (or fuses) and shut-off switches are visible. The rest of the electrical components are hidden behind the panel cover. If there are any openings in the panel or exposed connections, they should be addressed as soon as possible.

IDENTIFY THE CIRCUITS

You’ll also want to know what house appliances, fixtures and receptacles are serviced by each circuit. This will help you determine how you can use the system without causing an overload. Even some portable appliances like hair dryers and microwaves can draw a significant amount of current. If these are both used on the same circuit and operated at the same time, the circuit can be overloaded. This would be an inconvenience if it happened regularly, but by identifying what is on each circuit and clearly labeling the panel with the appropriate information, you will know your system’s limitations and the adjustments that need to be made. You’ll also be able to locate the appropriate circuit when needed.

If you are lucky, an electrician or someone else has labeled the panel. But even then, expect that some labels may not be correct. So best to run through and check all again – and in the process, correct any labels or errors, While there are some devices to help identify circuits, it is often a matter of turning off one circuit at a time and recording all lights, receptacle outlets and appliances affected.

OVERLOAD PROTECTION

Aside from the wiring materials and methods used, the most basic safety consideration with any electrical installation is the type and condition of its overload protection. Fuses and circuit breakers are safety devices located in your electrical panel to prevent system or circuit overloading; they stop the flow of electric current if it exceeds a safe level for the circuit wiring. Overloading means that the appliances and lighting in the home demand more electrical current than the home electrical system can safely deliver. If the demand for electrical current exceeds the amount a wire can safely handle, such as with an overload or short circuit, either a fuse opens (“blows”) or a circuit breaker opens (“trips”) to stop the current flow before the wire or other components overheat. Before replacing a fuse or resetting a breaker, the cause for the problems must be identified and corrected.

CIRCUIT BREAKERS VERSUS FUSES

Fuses, which are found mostly in homes built before the mid 1950s, come in various types and sizes. While many people believe a fused system is not safe, that isn’t the case if everything thing is wired properly and the right size fuses are used. The greatest failing with this type overload device is not with the product but with the homeowner. Fuses should be replaced with only the size acceptable for the circuit. Frustrated with repeated blown fuses, homeowners often replace the blown fuse with a large capacity one or worse, with a penny or other conductor (thereby negating the intended overload protection). To prevent the potential installation of over-sized fuses, an electrician can install special sockets that accept only fuses of the correct amperage rating.

Even if the fuse size is not an issue, a fused system is an older system. This means it has older wiring, devices, most likely doesn’t have the distribution system currently needed or desired, has probably been worked on over the years (often not by a licensed electrician or other qualified person) and is more likely to have issues that need to be addressed. Consequently, with any upgrades or other major work, while not always required, replacement with a new circuit breaker panel may be a desired or the most feasible approach.

To reset a circuit breaker, the breaker must be manually reset. There are at least two different types of circuit breakers. One has a hand control handle that flips all the way to “OFF” when it is tripped. The other has an intermediate position, between “ON” and “OFF.” Both types must be reset with the hand control after the problem has been eliminated. The first type should be moved back to “ON”; the second must be first moved fully to “OFF” and then to “ON.”

SAFETY FIRST

Don’t take any chance when working around electric components. If there is a leak, water or exposed wiring anywhere near the panel or other electrical component, do not approach it. If you have any reservations about even operating breakers or fuses to label a panel, leave it to someone more qualified. All electrical work is best left to a licensed electrician and you can find one nearby at our Google+ General Contractor community.

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