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Being ‘tuned into’ your home depends heavily on two key variables: a fundamental understanding of the basics, and good situational awareness. But these are not always easy to obtain. More than any other home topic, this holds true for your home’s electrical system and its health, including some of the more common signs of electrical issues and potential fires.
In this installment, we’ve ‘scratched the surface’ to provide a brief and non-technical overview of the basics, followed by a few of the more common signals that there may be an underlying problem in your electrical system or a device that is causing an issue – or about to cause an issue.
We’ll briefly cover:
- The basics – 2 essential electricity concepts to keep in mind
- How electricity travels to your home.
- How electricity travels within your home.
- 5 common signs that you might have an electrical issue in your home.
First, let’s step back for a second…
Electricity is really good – but particularly dangerous
Electricity is a fundamental force that plays an ever-increasingly important part of our lives. It plays a critical role in our bodies. It also holds great importance in other aspects of the world around us, including in nature and the weather.
And it is with weather where electricity manifests itself at the most significant amplitudes – up to 100 million volts – in the form of lightning. But bigger doesn’t always translate to the most impactful.
Injuries and deaths from electrical fires in the home far exceed those caused by lightning strikes. And yet these insidious home fires often originate from tiny lightning-like events whose intensity is a mere fraction of what we find in the sky.
(Read more here about how lightning expertise inspired our mission to develop Ting and bring advanced electrical hazard awareness and electrical fire safety to the home.)
Electricity is the power that causes all natural phenomena not known to be caused by something else.Ambrose Bierce
American short-story writer, journalist, poet, and Civil War veteran
Ok, we can all agree that electricity is pretty important. It certainly warrants respect and understanding. With that, let’s narrow our focus to the home. How it is incorporated into our homes and how it powers our lives is a mystery to most of us – despite our high reliance on it.
As homeowners, caretakers, parents and pet owners, possessing a basic understanding of electricity and knowing what to watch out for when it ‘goes rogue’ are not unreasonable expectations.
Let’s get to it.
Electricity – a simplified view
Let’s review 2 basic concepts, briefly.
Voltage and Current
These terms are certainly common but are largely not well-understood. While electricity is very much different than water, a good way to frame the concept – for the purpose of this article – is to think about water pressure. Water pressure is the force that moves water through a pipe. Voltage is the force that moves electrical current through a wire. Both water and electricity require more force – and larger/stronger pipes and wires, respectively – as factors such as distance and quantity increase.
Good water pressure means your shower is more invigorating, your garden hose can reach further, etc. Lower pressure can result from simultaneous water demand as it is used at other points in the home or in the general neighborhood. Too low, and it can reduce the effectiveness of your dishwasher, for instance. Too high, and it can damage an appliance or even burst a pipe or valve.
When it comes to your home’s electrical system, voltage behaves in roughly similar ways. All wires, switches, and components that make up your electrical system are rated for a specific voltage level and level of current. Connected devices such as lights, fans, computers, appliances – anything using electricity – are designed to draw the amount of current needed to operate. And they are designed to operate safely within a specific range of voltage. Too high or too low can severely impact your electrical system and everything connected to it.
A well-designed electrical system essentially provides a ‘closed route’ for electricity to travel to the point of use, and then travel away from the point of use. Codes and regulations ensure best practices are implemented for these pathways in everything from new construction and renovations to everyday minor electrical repairs.
Whether inside the home – or outside your home from your house to your electricity (alternately utility) provider – any issue along a given path, no matter how minor, has the potential to increase in intensity and induce harm, cause damage, electrocute, lead to a fire, or even kill if left undetected.
How electricity travels to your home
With few exceptions, electricity is delivered to any given home via a vast transmission and distribution network. While on its journey from where it is generated, it is at much higher voltage – tens of thousands of volts. It is more efficient to move electricity this way across long distances.
As it travels closer to your neighborhood, voltage is gradually ‘stepped down’ (aka ‘reduced’). The final step-down to the level we need in the home occurs at a local transformer, which is usually on a nearby utility pole or on the ground in an enclosure.
From the transformer, it travels to your meter, then into your main electrical panel.
Conducted safely to your home in the right way – and used in the home in the right way – and electricity is nothing short of a wonder of our modern age. But with this wonder, we need to remember and respect its power – and its intrinsic danger.
How electricity travels within your home
Alright, let’s review.
- Electricity has traveled miles at tens of thousands of volts to reach your home and has been ‘stepped down’ in voltage at various points along the way.
- It has made it past your meter and into your main panel, and into the home.
- In the home, many 120-volt and one or more 240-volt circuits branch out in all directions to power everything.
Similar to water, electricity should only ‘flow’ when it is needed. Every time a device, appliance or system turns on, electricity begins to flow ‘through’ it, providing the required power to operate. From table lamps to ceiling fans, space heaters to garage door openers, coffee makers to phone chargers, and on and on. But this is where the similarity between water and electricity ends.
Importantly, we use the phrase above, ‘flow through it’, because electricity needs a return path. It is not just ‘used up’ at the lightbulb when we flip the switch on the wall. Electricity flows through the bulb, then back through a return path, back outside to the electrical grid.
Faults in wiring, connections, or even in connected devices can lead to electricity flowing where it should not, or errantly, ‘jumping across’ conductive elements, spawning the arcing process and potential fire hazard. And with higher voltage or higher electricity demand on a given circuit, the greater the distance a ‘jump’ can occur, and in turn, the greater the intensity of the arc.
No matter how small, most electrical fire hazards originate from a compromise somewhere along a given pathway. A failure in an insulator or a loose connection can create a ‘new’ undesirable path, starting the arcing process with a very small ‘discharge’.
Early origins of electrical fire hazards
Our very own Dr. Stan Heckman describes it best here:
As Dr. Heckman mentions in the brief video clip, once the process starts it does not stop. Age, temperature, vibration, prior flooding, and prior close proximity lightning strikes are all aggravating factors that can increase the risk of new faults occurring, and in escalating existing ones.
That’s why old, damaged, or inadequately installed and maintained wiring can lead to fire hazards. Any interruption to the pathways in your home – whether leading to or away from a device – can have dreadful consequences.
Now that you have a good understanding of the basics, we turn your attention to situational awareness. Keep your senses alert for these easy to spot warning signs of faulty electrical wiring.
5 common signs that you might have an electrical issue in your home
It is not uncommon to have a few miles of wiring in our walls and ceilings, and hundreds of connection points. Not to mention the cords and devices we plug into our outlets. Unfortunately, 99% of our electrical infrastructure is hidden from plain sight.
You may witness only one sign – or a combination of them. Either way, common signs of issues are not always directional in terms of an underlying cause – but merely an indication that there is an issue somewhere.
A light can slightly dim or get brighter when your air conditioning system or other major appliance turns on or off, respectively. A slight change like this is relatively normal. In some cases, a light or set of lights might flicker due to incompatibility between a dimmer switch and the type of lighting fixture. These are fairly common and are normally not cause for concern.
In contrast, where you really need to pay attention is if your lights flicker randomly, or even turn off and on intermittently. Assuming you’ve already checked to make sure the bulb or bulbs are secured correctly in their respective socket, this symptom is usually a sign of an issue somewhere within your home’s electrical system, such as a faulty or loose breaker in the main electrical panel.
In reality, it may not be lights that you notice, but maybe a TV or other device that behaves erratically, either on its own or when other loads are incurred on your electrical system (such as turning on lights in the next room).
A common hazard that causes lights to flicker
Ting recently discovered a fire hazard in this home (see video below), traced all the way back to the electrical panel. Turn up your volume to hear the arcing.
Maybe it’s not an issue IN your home. In some instances, a neighbor may observe the same flickering in their home; this means, more than likely, the issue lies outside your respective homes. In this case, responsibility would fall to your electric utility (aka ‘power’) provider. If you think it is a utility issue, here’s some guidance in contacting your power company.
If you already have Ting protecting your home, good news. You’re already armed with important power quality information and evidence that will have your utility customer care team at full attention.
Excessive breaker tripping
If you have a breaker that seems to trip more than once in a month, it may be a sign that there is a problem somewhere. An overloaded circuit or a problematic ground fault can cause a breaker to trip. It happens.
Separately, if you are in a newer home that might have a few arc fault breakers installed, these often trip despite no arc hazards being present. Well-known examples of appliances that can cause these to trip include vacuum cleaners and blenders. These breakers are designed to trip when a sizeable arc fault occurs – the challenge here is that many of us will just attempt to reset the breaker.
Regardless of the suspected cause, any breaker that keeps tripping – or that won’t reset at all – indicates a problem.
Caution! Remember, though – a breaker does not have to trip to be a hazard. In many cases, a breaker will arc, and continue to arc…as the arcing grows in intensity. This can cause the aforementioned flickering lights. This will create a crackling noise at your electrical panel, but it very hard to hear unless the panel is opened, or the faceplate is removed (by an electrician, please!)
Cracking, popping, or buzzing at any point in your electrical system can be caused by several things. For instance, sometimes, a dimmer switch, or the lights connected to it, can create a ‘humming’ or buzzing noise when the lights are heavily dimmed. Also, an infrequent ‘crackle’ or small pop can sometimes be heard when using a wall switch. These are both common and normally not cause for concern.
In fact, a small electrical arc occurs whenever you use a rocker or dimmer switch to control lights, fans, and other devices. This ‘man-made’ arcing has similar characteristics to ‘arcing in the wild’ (i.e., hazardous arcing).
Luckily there is now cutting-edge technology that monitors for the bad arcing while ruling out all the ‘man-made’ arcing that occurs every day in the home. Yep, you guessed it – Ting.
Caution! As you saw in the video above, a crackling noise can easily mean your electricity is ‘jumping’ across conductors (and it should NOT be), and is arcing – a real and imminent fire hazard.
Warmth, vibration, or discoloration
As well, an outlet or switch (or the wall space around it) that is very warm to the touch, and/or which is vibrating, can be a sign of an issue. Safety first! Be sure not to touch any wires or touch near an actual socket.
Note however that a dimmer switch can feel slightly warm to the touch in the on position. This is perfectly normal, assuming:
- the switch is compatible with the bulb type you are controlling,
- the switch is ‘rated’ above the aggregate maximum power requirements of the lights being controlled, and
- the switch was properly installed.
Finally, outlets or switches can show signs of discoloration or ‘burn marks’, often signs that wiring or connection is damaged and is arcing and releasing heat.
A burnt / odd odor might point to overheating and melting of insulator materials. These smells could mean that damage from overheating may have already begun and, if that’s the case, it is crucial to have it addressed by a professional electrician as soon as possible.
Naturally, if the smell does not subside or gets worse – it could be a developing fire in a hidden space. If you’re just not sure, it is better to be safe than sorry – dial 911 and get everyone out of the home.
A cautionary note: Importantly, we’ve only covered the more common signs which can be observed without intervention. Meaning, we don’t incorporate further symptoms or conditions that might be revealed during actual electrical inspection or work. Put simply, taking down a light fixture, replacing an outlet, or opening up your electrical panel might present additional visual signs. For most of us, it will be an electrician that sees these more tell-tale clues of an issue. For some of us who are experienced enough for some DIY electrical projects, if you see something odd during your project, please consult an electrician.
Next step: enhance your awareness
As mentioned above, being in-tune and aware is important to help prevent issues and to enhance safety and peace of mind. But this is a tall order for even the most diligent among us.
That’s why we developed the most significant advancement in electrical ‘awareness’ and fire safety for the home. It’s like having an electrician watching over your home 24×7.
We’re thrilled to have the opportunity to provide insights, education, guidance, and recommendations. Be on the lookout for our next article, we’ll expand upon electrical hazards in electrical panels that can lead to fires.
…and PLEASE make sure your smoke detectors are in good working condition!