Electrical Safety Check
© 2004 Electrical Safety Foundation International
The Indoor Electrical Safety Check booklet is made possible through a grant from Intertek Testing Services.
No endorsement of any particular product, company or service is implied by their mention in this publication.
Note: Throughout the booklet, words in blue are listed in the glossary.
Each year many consumers are injured and killed in and around their homes. Unsafe conditions such as overloaded circuits and damaged wire insulation as well as the misuse of extension cords and other electrical products create fire and electric shock hazards.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) estimates that between 1994 and 1998, there was an annual average of 208 accidental electrocution deaths related to consumer products. In 1999, there were an estimated 150 accidental electrocutions. This reduction is due to improved product safety engineering, better standards and electrical codes, safer installations, and better safety awareness thanks to attentive consumers and the efforts of organizations like the ESFI.
However, during the 1994-1998 period there was an estimated annual average of 165,380 electrical-related home structure fires which accounted for an annual average of 910 deaths, nearly 7,000 injuries, and nearly $1.7 billion in property damage. While the numbers vary from year to year, there is no clear downward trend as we see with electrocutions. This underscores how important it is for us to remain vigilant.
Take a few minutes to look for and correct electrical safety hazards in your home. It does not take too long to check the insulation on a cord, move an appliance away from water, check for correct wattage light bulbs, or have ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCls) and arc fault circuit interrupters (AFCIs) installed. On the other hand, it sometimes takes a lifetime to overcome severe electrical injuries that can result from overlooking these simple things.
Electricity is a powerful and useful energy source that also must be treated with respect and extreme caution. This brochure is intended for use only as an information guide, NOT a training or instruction manual.
In a number of cases of electrical-related home structure fires investigated by the CPSC, homes ranging from 40 to 100 years old had not been inspected since they were built. Just like any product, our electrical systems gradually deteriorate with use, abuse, age and increased demand. Systems installed in the 70s and earlier likely never anticipated the demand we place on them today. To ensure the electrical safety of your home, your electrical inspection should be up-to-date, defects corrected, and service upgraded to meet present and foreseeable demands.
ESFI recommends asking the following questions to determine whether you need to have your home electrically inspected:
If you answer yes to any one of the above questions, you should consider having a qualified, licensed electrical inspector, electrician or electrical contractor perform an electrical inspection of your home. Depending on the size of the home, a basic inspection could take between 30 minutes to an hour. ESFI recommends that at a minimum the inspection should check the following items:
While you cannot perform your own electrical inspection unless you're a qualified, licensed electrician or electrical inspector, something you can do is create a detailed circuit map and perform a power audit. This is not a substitute for an electrical inspection, but it will help you establish and maintain a safer electrical system.
A good circuit map goes beyond what the sticker on the inside of the electrical panel door provides. It details every receptacle and fixture each circuit serves. To create one is a simple, though admittedly time-consuming process of shutting off a single circuit at a time and determining which outlets and lighting fixtures have been affected each time.
As you proceed, note what appliances are plugged in at each receptacle. circuits can only handle a specified total wattage of all the electrical products connected to that circuit. If too much wattage is demanded from a circuit, serious electrical problems can result. Here is an easy equation to use to determine what a circuit can handle:
Volts x Amps = Watts
Your electrical panel will indicate your system's voltage, and each fuse or circuit breaker is marked for its amperage. Using the equation above, a 15-amp circuit in a 120-volt system can carry a total of 1800 watts. It is not recommended that you exceed 80% of the total circuit capacity at any given time, in this case 1,440 watts.
Now, find the nameplate on each appliance indicating its power rating in watts. Note the appliance and its power rating on the entry for that circuit. Lamps and light fixtures, too, should note the maximum wattage they can take. If you cannot find the power rating, contact the manufacturer.
Finally, do the math. Add up the power demand of every appliance and fixture drawing power from the circuit. A typical entry in the circuit map should look like this:
circuit #3- Kitchen-20 amps
If your total exceeds what the circuit is designed to provide, you may have a dangerous overload and should take immediate measures to alleviate the demands on that circuit by moving some appliances to another less taxed circuit, or by adding another circuit. In fact, you may find the total demand on your entire system exceeds the service to your home. In that case, consider contracting with your utility for a "heavy up", or upgrade to a higher level of electrical service.
A good circuit map will let you know at a glance, which circuits are overloaded and which are still available for additional use. Also, in the event of an electric shock or electrical fire, or if you need to remove power to do home maintenance or repairs on or around a circuit, you'll know without a doubt which circuit to shut off.
With your circuit map and power audit done, it's time to take a run through the house with a keen eye on safety. Use the following checklist on a regular basis to ensure your home remains electrically safe year in and year out. If you haven't already had an electrical inspection performed by a qualified, licensed electrician or electrical inspector, this list can also help identify clues that an inspection and/or repairs are needed.
Fuses and circuit breakers are safety devices located in your electrical panel that help prevent overloading and fires. They stop the electrical current if it exceeds the safe level for some portion of the home electrical system. Overloading means that the appliances and lighting on the circuit regularly demand more electrical current than the circuit can safely deliver.
If the demand for electrical current exceeds the safety level, a fuse opens once and must be replaced to reconnect the circuit. A circuit breaker "trips" its switch to open the circuit, and the circuit is reconnected by dosing the switch manually.
Replacing a correct size fuse with a larger size fuse can present a serious fire hazard. Doing so will allow excessive current to flow and possibly overload the outlet and the house wiring to the point that a fire can begin.
Consumers sometimes replace a fuse that repeatedly "blows" with a higher ampere rated fuse. Although the new fuse may not open, it also may not protect the branch circuit. Doing so masks the real problem of too high a demand being placed on the circuit. The fuse will not open at the appropriate load for that circuit.
Instead of using an inappropriate fuse, take something off the circuit to bring the demand to an appropriate level.
If fuses continue to "blow," keep track of which branch circuits are affected and which appliances are in use when the power outage occurs. Consult a qualified, licensed electrician to correct the problem.
Just like fuses, circuit breakers provide overcurrent protection by opening the circuit, or "tripping" when an unsafe level of demand has been placed on the circuit.
Circuit breakers are also rated for various current levels, such as 15 or 20 amps. Breaker systems offer more flexibility for new protective technologies like ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCls) and arc fault circuit interrupters (AFCls). They also offer you the ability to reset the breaker once tripped, getting lights up and running quickly to prevent accidents resulting from the lack of power in the home. Resetting a circuit breaker is quicker than replacing a fuse and avoids the hazards of oversized fuses.
When resetting a tripped circuit breaker, be aware that your circuit breaker may trip to an intermediate position dose to "ON" instead of the "OFF" position (sometimes it is difficult to see that it has tripped). To reset, move the switch fully to "OFF" and then to "ON."
Switches are used to turn the power on and off. Outlets, or receptacles, are usually mounted on a wall or floor to supply electricity through a cord and plug to appliances, lamps, TV, etc. These are the key points in our electrical systems that give us our first line of control to our electrical use, and they are critical connection points. With time and use, these connections can become loose, creating potential hazards.
Power cords, part of electrical products and appliances, connect the item to the power supply by plugging into the outlet. They need to be kept in good condition. Even an electrical item that is in otherwise good working order can still represent a shock and fire hazard if its power cord is damaged.
Extension cords can be very helpful in delivering power right where we need it. However, no matter what the gauge or rating of the cord is, the extension cord is designed as a temporary solution, not as long-term extension of your household's electrical system. With continuous use, the extension cord can more rapidly deteriorate, creating a potentially dangerous electric shock or fire hazard. In addition to the same safety tips that apply to power cords, keep the following principles in mind when using extension cords.
Power strips give us the ability to plug more products into the same outlet, which can be a help, but also a hindrance to safety if used inappropriately. Power strips and surge suppressors don't provide more power to a location, just more access to the same limited capacity of the circuit into which it is connected. The circuit likely also still serves a variety of other outlets and fixtures in addition to the multiple electrical items you might be supplying with the power strip. In addition to the tips above, keep these safety principles in mind when using power strips and surge suppressors.
We've come to take the light bulb for granted, but there is a wide variety of bulbs available that provide different levels and quality of light, and that demand different levels of power. Make sure you are selecting the bulbs that are appropriate for your intended use and for the power rating of the intended lamp or fixture.
Portable space heaters can be a blessing in a cold and drafty house in the deep of winter. But space heaters, and any electrical product with a heating element, can demand a lot of power. By their nature, they also produce a lot of heat, and, if not used carefully, can become a fire hazard. Make sure to follow these safety principles with portable space heaters:
Follow these simple safety precautions with all your small appliances and tools:
Ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) which protect against accidental electric shock or electrocution by acting immediately to shut off the circuit if they sense a ground fault, or "leak" of current off the circuit - have been in homes since the early 70s on circuits that come within six feet of water. Homeowners, however, should consider having GFCI protection on general purpose receptacles throughout the home.
Outlet type GFCI
Circuit Breaker type
Portable type GFCI
A GFCI-protected outlet can provide power without giving an indication that it is no longer providing shock protection. Be sure your GFCI is providing protection from fatal electric shock by testing it monthly and after every major electrical storm.
A light plugged into the GFCI receptacle should go out when the test button is pushed. If the light remains on when the button is pushed, either the GFCI is not working properly or has not been correctly installed. If the "RESET" button pops out but the light does not go out, the GFCI has been damaged or was improperly wired and does not offer shock protection at that wall outlet. Contact a qualified electrician to correct any wiring errors or replace defective GFCIs.
Newer arc fault circuit interrupters (AFCIs) can help prevent fires that often result from problems at the outlets, switches and frayed and cracked cords connected to the circuits. The AFCI senses the particular signature of an arc-where electricity has to jump through an insulating medium-and, like the GFCI, acts immediately to shut off the circuit, thus reducing the risk of fire associated with arcing faults.
AFCIs are currently required by the National Electrical Code® in new construction in all bedroom circuits, but should be considered in all homes and all general purpose receptacles. Consult a qualified, licensed electrician to determine if your home is compatible with AFCI protection.
Over the years, we have begun to safety engineer our electrical products to include some of the same technology that has been applied to our electrical systems. Immersion detection circuit interrupters (IDCIs) and appliance leakage current interrupters (ALCIs) are typically found on hair dryer and specific appliance cords. They operate in slightly different ways but perform essentially the same function. Leakage current detection interrupters (LCDIs) are protective devices that help prevent fires due to damage to cords. They are presently being built into the plug cap of room air conditioners. If the cord is damaged, the LCDI circuitry detects an abnormal condition and immediately shuts off power. LCDI technology is also available in select extension cords and power strips.
When used correctly, batteries provide a safe and dependable source of power. However, if they are misused or abused, overheating, leakage, or in extreme cases explosion or fire, can occur. Follow these safety principles when using batteries:
Congratulations! You've just completed a thorough electrical safety check of your home. The few minutes you took to check your home using this booklet could prevent a safety hazard and save a life.
Ampere (amps) - A measure of electrical current flow.
Arc-Fault Circuit Interrupter (AFCI) - Provides protection from fires caused by effects of electrical arcing in wiring. An AM device will de-energize the circuit when an arc fault is detected.
Circuit - The path (usually wire) through which current flows between an electrical energy source and an electrical device, appliance or fixture.
Circuit breaker or Fuses - Protect against over-current and short circuit conditions that could result in potential fire hazards by opening a circuit path in case of an overcurrent.
Electrical faults - A partial or total failure in an electrical conductor or appliance.
Energized - Electrically connected to a source of potential difference, or electrically charged so as to have a potential different from that of the ground.
Gauge - Standard or scale of measure for circuit conductors.
Ground-Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) - Provides the best available protection against severe shock and electrocution. A GFCI device will de-energize a circuit when it senses a difference in the amount of electricity passing through the device and returning through the device, or a "leak" of current from the circuit.
Grounded/grounding - A conducting connection, whether intentional or accidental, by which an electric circuit or equipment is connected to the earth, or to some conducting body of relatively large extent that serves in place of the earth.
Overcurrent - Any current in excess of the rated current or ampacity of a conductor. May result in risk of fire or shock from insulation damaged from heat generated by overcurrent condition.
Outlet - A contact device installed along a circuit for the connection of an attachment plug and flexible cord to supply power to portable equipment and electrical appliances. Also known as receptacles.
Three-pronged plugs and outlets - Grounded appliances and outlets (unless marked otherwise) have a third socket or prong. The third wire, or grounding conductor, provides a path from the frame or housing of grounded electrical appliances back to the circuit breaker panel to permit current flow in event of an electrical fault in the equipment. When a ground fault occurs, the circuit breaker can trip to remove energy from the faulty equipment but does not respond quickly enough to prevent the risk of severe shock.
Short circuit - An abnormal electrical path.
Voltage (volts) - A measure of electrical potential
Wattage (watts) - A measure of power or the rate of energy consumption by an electrical device when it is in operation, calculated by multiplying the voltage at which an appliance operates by the current it draws (Watts = Volts X Amperes).
Get the Savvy Consumer Newsletter! (FREE)