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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.
5 common signs that may point to an electrical issue in your home
In our prior installment, we provided a simple overview of electricity in the home. Here we cover 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.
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 (click on 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 INSIDE 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).
Fortunately, there is cutting-edge technology that monitors for 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.
Staying in-tune and aware is important to help prevent issues and to maintain peace of mind. That’s why we developed Ting, the most significant advancement in electrical fire safety for the home.