If you’re like most homeowners, the electrical system is the most intimidating system in your home. After all, electricity isn’t always intuitive, and when mishandled it can result in fires, injury, or even death.
Electrical issues can cause other problems, too, such as exorbitantly high energy bills and unreliable outlets.
Many homeowners are so apprehensive about electrical systems that they ignore them entirely when they work and put off fixes when they don’t.
Like most home systems, though, the electrical system requires some maintenance and attention, or problems could arise that could put your family and your belongings in jeopardy.
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Fortunately, it’s not hard to make sure your electrical system stays in tip-top shape. Just pay attention once in a while and notice if there are any signs of trouble.
Here are 9 big signs that your electrical system has a problem—and what to do to keep the problem from growing even bigger.
Table of Contents:
1. Flickering, Dimming Lights
Flickering lights are not a sign of a mysterious presence. Instead, anytime lights flicker or dim without prompting, you can assume there is a loose or faulty connection somewhere in your electrical system.
If the flicker only happens to one light fixture, the fix may be relatively straightforward. First, try the easy fixes: tighten the bulb, or replace it if necessary. If the new bulb doesn’t work either, check the wall switch. Turn off the circuit breaker that controls the switch and make sure the wiring is properly connected. If it is, it’s possible the switch wasn’t designed to work with newer LED bulbs and you may need a new one.
If many lights in many rooms have the same issue, though, several circuits could be affected—or it might even be a fault in the utility drop outside the home. If the simple fixes aren’t working, you should call in an electrician for expert help.
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2. Sparks from Outlets or Switches
At no point should electricity leave the wires in your home or appliances. Stray sparks can catch things on fire. In fact, arcing electricity is one of the primary causes of house fires across the country. As soon as you see a spark emerge from an outlet or switch, you should be on guard.
There are a few reasons sparks can emerge from the system, including electrical shorts and overheating. A homeowner with enough electrical experience can try replacing the sparking electrical box, but if that doesn’t solve the problem, professional help will be required to identify the reason behind the spark.
While you wait for professional service, make sure the area around the spark is cleared of any flammable material. The sooner the spark is addressed, the less likely it will cause a fire or another major issue.
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3. Heat from Outlets or Switches
As a part of routine maintenance, make a habit of holding your hand near outlets and switches. It’s not uncommon for electrical devices to heat up during operation, but if unused plugs or switches are generating warmth on their own, something isn’t right. In fact, hot outlets should not be used. If you find a hot outlet, disconnect all cords immediately and call an electrician to help.
The one exception to this rule is dimmer switches, which function by dissipating the excess electrical energy and becoming warm. Check the wattage of a light before you install any dimmer switch to ensure that the dimmer won’t have to work overtime and get too hot to touch.
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4. Aging Aluminum Wiring
Unfortunately, most homes built during the late 1960s and early 1970s were fitted with aluminum wiring because copper prices were simply too high.
While aluminum transfers electricity as well as copper, it is much more malleable—with the result that, over time, aluminum wires compress, leaving gaps that can cause dangerous sparks and arcs.
Additionally, aluminum can oxidize faster than copper, which causes the wire to build up excess heat and cause fires.
It didn’t take long for issues with aluminum wiring to become obvious, and now aluminum wiring is no longer used in residential properties.
If your property was constructed or renovated during the late 1960s or early 1970s, be on the lookout for aluminum and consider paying to have your electrical system rewired with copper as soon as possible.
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5. Loose Outlets or Switches
When you plug something into an outlet, the outlet should be strong and stable. If it’s not—if it seems like the insides of the outlet are moving around—it’s absolutely necessary to have it checked out.
If you’re handy and follow safety precautions, you can examine the outlet or switch yourself.
First, turn off the electricity from the breaker box in order to prevent life-threatening shocks. Test the switch or outlet to make sure it has no power.
Then you can open the outlet or switch and see what’s going on.
Often, the problem is merely a loose screw or wire, which is easy enough for a handy homeowner to fix. But if you can’t quickly diagnose the problem, reach out to an electrician and avoid using the switch or outlet until it’s repaired.
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6. A Burnt Smell
Clearly, you never want your home to smell like something is burning.
First, eliminate kitchen appliances and electrical tools as the source of the smell. If there’s nothing on the stove or in the oven, check for a misplaced hair straightener or hot glue gun.
If you don’t find the culprit, assume it is the electrical system and take quick action.
A burnt smell means the electrical wires are heating up enough to melt their plastic sheathing and even singe the materials around them. Shut off your electricity immediately and call an electrician for help. Ignoring the issue can result in a major disaster, like a house fire, so quick and confident action is mandatory.
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7. A Buzzing Sound
A perfectly functioning electrical system is completely silent. If you hear incessant buzzing, first make sure that it is coming from the electrical system and not some appliance, like the HVAC or refrigerator. If it is definitely an electrical issue, the next step is calling an electrician.
Buzzing can be caused by a variety of problems, from ungrounded wires to improper loads to incorrectly sized breaker boxes and more. An electrician can quickly identify the source of the buzzing and stop it, so you won’t have to live with the annoying sound for long.
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8. A Frequently Tripped Breaker
It’s common for homeowners to trip their breakers by pulling too much electricity at once. After all, that’s what the breakers are for. However, if a home’s breakers trip every day—and if the same breakers are the problem—then it’s likely the home’s electrical system isn’t meeting the homeowner’s electrical needs.
Homeowners with a number of heavy electrical tools might want to have a new circuit connected to the breaker box to prevent overloading the rest of the system. As with other electrical work, it is wise to hire this job out to a professional electrician to avoid additional problems.
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9. Rodents and Other Pests
When you see evidence of one pest, you should immediately start searching out the rest. Common rodent pests like rats and mice live in groups of at least five, whereas insect colonies can number in the millions. All sorts of pests can affect the electrical system, either by chewing directly on the wires or by compromising other elements of the home’s structure. It’s important for homeowners to conduct regular pest inspections and take measures to keep pests out of the home.
The idea that something could be wrong with the electrical system is enough to send many homeowners directly into denial. However, the sooner an electrical issue is identified and corrected, the sooner you can relax in your own home.
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