JD’s Blog | Minor Electrical Issues? No Problemo! Learn the Basics!
Many people think that handling electrical repairs is one of the toughest or scariest things to avoid. This is not entirely correct. Yes, it can be tricky and even risky if you don’t handle electrical issues wisely. Knowing some basics is always helpful. This way, you might attend to the minor electrical issues on your own without unnecessary delay or needing professional help. But first, you’re going to need some basic tools.
I absolutely do not wish to sound condescending. I am a professional electrician with 44 years of experience. My intent here is to help guide you so that you do not fry yourself. That’s never good and it leaves a mess. First, turn off the power (you need to do this at the main circuit panel). Make sure it’s off by testing the wires. NEVER assume that power is off. ALWAYS check. NEVER take someone else’s word for it! Trust me on this one! Also, try to make sure your wiring is up to date with the local codes – you may need to check with an electrician if you are in doubt. Depending on what you’re looking for, try removing the wall plates to expose the devise, but don’t touch any wires until you’re sure they are not carrying current. NEVER work with wet hands or feet, and try not to be grounded! Remove the devise (switch or plug) and check the wires. You’ll need to turn power back on to get a voltage reading. Just don’t touch anything with your hands! If you are sitting or standing on cement, and not wearing well insulated shoes, you my friend, are very grounded! Touching a live wire will knock you into tomorrow!
Okay, you’ve got the devise pulled out of the outlet box. There have been various methods of wiring over the decades. Knob & tube began the very first wired homes. If you have knob & tube wiring, do not even attempt to fix it! Then came BX steel jacketed cable in the 20’s & 30’s. After that, during the 40’s came steel conduit pipe carrying individual wires inside. After that came all forms of Romex cable beginning in the 1950’s. It’s what’s still used today, although some bigger cities like Chicago still require the use of conduit in new homes. The one basic similarity is that you’ll find either a two or three wire system, with ground wire (or not).
- White – neutral (sometimes this also might be a hot)
- Black – always hot
- Red – hot or switched hot (if it’s present)
- Exposed copper wire – ground
Every wire originates from your circuit breaker panel. If you are still using a fuse box, call an electrician. Like right now. Anybody who still has plug fuses is someone who can fix overloads with bigger fuses or places pennies behind blown fuses! That’s a fire waiting to happen. Your breaker panel has only two wire termination points inside once a circuit breaker has been installed. There is a bar with numerous terminal screw holes running either down the side, or across the top or bottom of the panel. This is the neutral bus. All the white AND bare ground wires terminate here. Remember this rule though, “the neutral wire is always white, but the white wire is NOT always neutral”! The white can be, and often is used as a hot. If you have only one black wire and only one white wire in a light switch box, the white wire is HOT! If you have a black and white wire in a panel being used for a double pole breaker (240v circuit), the white wire is HOT! It is supposed to be marked black when being used as a hot, but good luck with that. The remaining black and red wires attach to the breakers. If you have a red wire in a residential panel, then it is sharing a neutral wire with another black wire. It’s a shortcut for electricians to run two circuits with one wire. It’s called a 3 wire split circuit. I don’t like them.
The primary role of the circuit breaker is to limit the flow of electricity over the wires to prevent electrical shocks and fires caused by overloads. Current flows around the wire, not through it. Fuses usually have the maximum amount of amps printed on them, ranging from 15 to 30 amps for 120-volt circuits. Any fuse larger than 30 amps will be a cartridge fuse. It looks like a shotgun shell.
- Circuits involve three components, listed below. This is known as OHM’s Law.
- Voltage – Represented by the symbol “V,” voltage is a force created by the separation of charges.
- Resistance – Represented by the symbol “R,” resistance is the measurement of how hard it is for electrical charges to move across a circuit.
- Current – Current is the result of the movement or flow of charges (electrons) from a negative to a positive pole.
GFCI’s, or ground fault circuit interrupter, called GFI’s by the pros, protect your body against a potential electrical shock, which can happen due to any ground fault, or by dropping your electric razor into a sink (or tub) full of water. Think of every movie where the evil husband plops a loud radio into the tub while his wife snoozes in the hot water with zucchinis over her eyes. In real life, a GFI protected devise would have tripped before she could be fried. If that movie was made after 1972, the murderous husband is facing a major code violation…Plus that awkward moment afterward with the wife. A GFI’s primary function is to monitor the flow of electrical current and interrupt it when there is a spike in power, loss of power or a leakage of power outside the outlet, IE radio in the tub. In homes built during or after 1972, GFCI protected outlets have been required for secure connections within 6 feet of a sink or at wet outdoor locations. Later, the requirement was updated to include garages, kitchen counter outlets, and anywhere 3 hole receptacles are installed where no ground wire is present. The only exclusion, in my common sense opinion, is where a refrigerator or freezer is plugged in. Garage door openers are another common sense location. GFI’s do NOT like motors. Motors trip them all the time! That freezer in the garage? Do not go on vacation if it’s plugged into a GFI protected outlet. But I digress.
When it comes to electrical repairs in your home, you also need to know about other devices that are involved. These include:
- Light-Emitting Diodes
- Transistors And Relays
- Photo resistors
- Flex Sensors
- Piezoelectric Devices
- Flux Capacitors
- Dylithium Crystals
HOWEVER. The professional electrician will never encounter most of those items unless he (or she) works at Radio Shack, is Back From the Future, or drives the Starship Enterprise. As a non-professional electrician, you will most likely encounter only light switches, receptacles, dimmers, light fixtures, exhaust fans, circuit breakers or even maybe the occasional line voltage thermostat. Any one of these is easily replaceable.
Backstabbed vs. Pigtailed Devices
According to most users, connections using the backstabbed technique have many more issues than pigtailed ones. Well duh. Pigtailed wires attached to devices are preferred for this one reason. Back-stabbed connections represented 90% of all my calls as a service technician. If one single wire becomes loose on a back-stabbed devise, every receptacle, light fixture, ceiling fan, everything will stop working past that one devise. Pig-tailing the wires will send the current through without the devise being present. It’s a matter of quality over laziness & speed. Remember, black wire on gold screw, white wire on white screw.
Electrical Safety Checkup – Only $129!
With this basic electrical information, you’re well on your way to start making electrical repairs on your own. But be careful! Electricity can kill you! If you would prefer to have our professionals check your home to see if your system is up to date, Point Loma Electric offers a full electrical safety inspection for all customers! We’re currently offering our home electrical safety checkup for only $129, regularly priced at $395! One of our qualified electricians will visit your home and check your home’s electrical system and panel. A detailed, written checklist will be filled out and given to you on site. Our electrical safety checkup will let you know of any areas that need immediate attention, recommendations for improvements and potential electrical upgrade possibilities for your home – all for $129! Schedule yours now! Be safe out there!