Spotting electrical wiring problems

By: Shannon Lee , Contributing Writer
In: Home Improvement Tips

Living in an older house means putting up with some quirks. Some are charming and some are frustrating, but a few can be downright worrisome. That's the case with electrical wiring. Old houses often have wiring that is just as dated as they are, and that can lead to some serious headaches -- and possibly worse.

Many homeowners find out about their electricity shortcomings in the most frustrating of ways. I once lived in a house where I could use only one plug in the kitchen at a time. That extended to the oven: If I dared start up the toaster while the bacon was frying, the whole house would go dark. I changed fuses so often that I swear I could have done it in my sleep.

My mother's house showed the first sign of an electrical issue when she touched her sink and got a mighty shock. Thinking it was a fluke, she went on about her business. A few hours later, she got the same shock again, this time from the refrigerator, and the lights went out. She called an electrician immediately, as you might imagine!

Most common electricity problems

Homes built before 1930 might have knob and tube wiring. This kind of wiring consists of open wires that run through tubes at the joists, and are held up by knobs as they run along the walls or floors. Over time, the wires begin to wear down, and that can lead to a serious fire risk. In fact, many insurance companies won't cover a home that still uses knob and tube, and many potential buyers will insist on an upgrade before they even think about purchasing the home.

Other problems can include the lack of grounded outlets, as well as the lack of ground-fault or arc-fault circuit interrupters. Old-fashioned fuse boxes are usually considered safe, but they often can't handle the full load of electricity for a home, and should be upgraded to circuit breaker panels. Old wiring can become worn out and brittle, and the insulation can flake away over time. Once the insulation is gone, your risk of fire goes up dramatically.

Pinpointing problems with your electrical wiring

Since the electrical wiring in your house runs through the walls, it can be impossible to take a look and see what's there. A thorough home inspection is the only way to be absolutely certain of what kind of wiring you have and what problems might arise.

But what if you have a problem in the middle of the night, or simply have a question about something odd happening in your house? Here are a few things to look for when contemplating the electrical situation:

  • Fuses are popping and circuits are tripping. We have all had that "uh-oh" moment when we turn on way too many things in the house at once and everything goes dark. But if fuses are blowing for no apparent reason, or you can't seem to plug in anything without the circuit tripping, something is probably wrong.
  • Lights are flickering. Your home has only so much power to give. Lights will occasionally dim and flicker, especially if you run the vacuum or other motor-driven appliances. But if the flickering is happening all the time, it's not a good sign.
  • You get a shock. We all know the feeling of static electricity and the little shock it gives. But if you touch any surface in your house and get a tingling shock, that surface could be electrified. It's time to call in an electrician as soon as possible.
  • Your switches buzz or pop. This is usually a big warning sign that your switch is about to go bad, or that some wires in the housing are actually touching something they shouldn't. If you smell something like ozone, that could be the plastic burning -- turn off the power to the switch and take a look immediately.
  • Discolored outlets and switches. If you notice that an outlet cover looks darker than others around it, pay attention. This could mean that there has been a small smoldering behind the plastic. As with the buzzing switch, turn the power off immediately.
  • The switch or outlet is warm. Dimmer switches can feel warm to the touch, and that's fine. But any other outlet or switch that feels warm is a sign of trouble.
  • An acrid burning smell. This is the warning sign that something is terribly wrong. Cut off the main power and call an electrician. Stay close to the house and keep a fire extinguisher handy.

An electrician can inspect your home and tell you what might be a hazard. Keep in mind that almost every old house will have some code violations -- that's because electrical codes are changed and updated so often. But old wiring will be "grandfathered" in, assuming that it was done properly in the first place and there is no significant deterioration.

However, savvy old house owners will plan the cost of rewiring into their "just in case" budget. Get that good inspection, then keep an eye on the electrical situation in your house. If problems arise, be ready to call the electrician out for upgrades.