JD’s Blog | How Do You Really Know They’ve Improved The Taste of Dog Food?
Or How Do You Really Know When Your Home’s Electrical System is in Need of An Overhaul? A Detailed Discussion on Needs vs. Wants.
In case you’re wondering, I once heard that a catchier headline will capture a wider audience. What exactly has led you to even consider an electrical upgrade? Did an electrician or someone else advise you, or maybe you just suspect that you’ve got some issues? Let’s talk about “needs over wants.”
I was once called by a man who’d won a very nice, big Jacuzzi spa while attending his company picnic. He was thrilled! He set his new spa up at the edge of a high cliff overlooking a San Diego freeway, about 80 feet away from his house. He’d poured a cement pad, filled the spa with water, and he was so excited to enjoy his new spa! He called me out for an estimate to do the electrical work necessary. I had to pop his balloon and give him some really bad news. His spa required a 50 amp, 240 volt circuit. The NEC requires all spas to be protected by a 50 amp GFCI breaker. That breaker alone costs about $125. We had to dig a trench from his panel to his new spa, 2 feet deep. If that weren’t bad enough, his 100 amp panel was full to capacity. We had to upgrade his electrical panel to 200 amps. The electrical work alone cost this man close to $5000, and that was in 1996! He later told me he wished he’d never won the spa in the first place. The installation cost more than the spa itself.
There are indicators – some of which are easily observed, some of which are not. Depending on whether or not you’ve had some electrical upgrades done in the past, you may already be aware of some of the easier indicators, as well as the invisible ones. Visual discrepancies can include broken outlets, rusty panels, missing covers, flickering lights, tripping circuit breakers, etc. These are visual indicators that might suggest that some electrical upgrades are in your near future. Maybe you received an estimate for some additional lighting or for additional outlets somewhere, and perhaps an electrician told you that first, you should address your electrical “needs” before addressing your electrical “wants.”
Over the course of many years, I have encountered potential customers who had decided that it was time to make some aesthetical changes to their home when it came to their light fixtures and other visual aspects. Some wanted to add recessed can lights, exterior lighting or even ceiling fans where there were no ceiling outlets present. Some wanted to add additional circuits for new appliances or home offices, but panels were full. Yet, even though I could have easily offered a quote for the work, and I would probably have made some good money, I advised them, whenever applicable, to first consider some minor (or major) upgrades to the existing electrical system before adding anything to it. To me, this is the only right answer, and more often, not the answer they wanted to hear.
Sometimes people just want what they want and they only hear what they want to hear. I’ve heard it said on numerous occasions, “It’s worked fine all these years without a single problem.” And that’s exactly why “it,” meaning the outdated wiring or the ungrounded plug, or the obsolete circuit breakers, or the dangerous electrical panel (or fuse box), needs to be professionally evaluated or replaced before putting an additional load on it. This electrical system has been in use for a long time, and now someone wants to put ten recessed cans on a system that’s been around since Edison! Keep in mind that older homes built before the mid 1980’s were never intended to handle the load demand of today’s more modern appliances. Furthermore, much of the wiring before the early 1970’s had no ground wire! Lack of a ground does not affect the load, but any appliance, including lights that require electricity, puts an additional strain on not only the wires & connections, but also the devices (switches & plugs), circuit breakers, and circuit panels. When in use, wires heat up. They expand and contract whenever something electrical is in use, even just a light bulb. Wires that have expanded and contracted for as few as 50 years or even much less, are at risk of some sort of electrical breakdown. The insulation that covers the copper can deteriorate and then, once it wears through, there’s a risk of an electrical fire. Wires in attics are especially susceptible wherever they pass over wooden ceiling joists. And it’s already blazing hot up there during the summer. These are some examples of unseen indicators that suggest that you may need an electrical overhaul. Only a comprehensive inspection by a skilled, licensed electrician can tell you absolutely for sure. But again, some people hear only what they want to hear. They want what they want. When this happens, I suggest to them that maybe we aren’t the right company for them.
Another visual indicator: old wall plugs and worn-out light switches. For this example, lack of ground wire aside, if the plug-in slots are loose or worn, and cords can fall right out, you’ve got a serious problem. All electrical connections must be tight. This includes cord plug-ins, especially if the cord is attached to a high wattage appliance such as a hair dryer or microwave. In fact, most kitchen appliances consume a lot of wattage. A loosely-connected cord at the outlet can cause the end of the cord, as well as the wall plug to melt into a molten mess, thereby creating the possibility of an electrical fire. Did you know that electrical issues are the number one cause of residential fires in the U.S.?
Getting back to “needs” as opposed to “wants”, let’s take a common hair dryer for example. Prior to the mid 1980’s, the typical bathroom outlet (called “receptacle”) was just one of many outlets, sharing a circuit that could operate up to as many as 15 (more or less) other outlets and lights. A “circuit” consists of a number of plug outlets, lighting outlets & switch outlets, all connected together, and operated by a single circuit breaker or plug fuse. (If you still have plug (glass) fuses, call an electrician!) Bedroom outlets typically shared a circuit with bathroom outlets and were usually connected with 15 amp rated, #14 gauge copper wire. The circuit breaker or fuse should also be rated at 15 amps. That breaker (or fuse) should trip itself off if the load demand on that 15 amp circuit exceeds 1850 watts. Think of eighteen 100 watt light bulbs, then add 50 more watts. That amount of load would (should) trip a 15 amp circuit breaker or blow a 15 amp fuse.
So, getting back to the hair dryer: a typical hair dryer uses about 1500 watts, leaving only 350 total watts for the remainder of a 15 amp circuit. After 1850 watts, the circuit breaker, which is commonly known as the “over-current protection,” says, “no more!” If a TV is on, or if other lights are on, or God forbid, a curling iron or space heater gets plugged into the same outlet. You’re about to lose your electricity! It’s simple arithmetic. Do not exceed 1850 watts on a 15 amp circuit. So how do you know which rooms are wired with what? That’s easy. Unless otherwise specified when the home was wired, residential wiring has been pretty typical across the US. Copper wire (#14) rated at fifteen amps, is generally accepted for all the lighting needs in pretty much every single room, including most wall outlets, for a typical house. There are exceptions regarding certain rooms as to the allowable size of the wire and amperage rating for wall outlets. These include kitchen outlets, dining room outlets, family room outlets, garage outlets, washing machine outlets, window AC unit, all of which are required to be wired with 12 gauge copper wire, rated at 20 amps, rated at 2200 watts. The number of outlets on a 20 amp circuit is usually limited to a only few or even just one single outlet. Many appliances require their own dedicated 20 amp circuit. For example, a window AC unit should be plugged into a wall outlet operated by a dedicated 20 amp circuit. Same for a refrigerator, washer, microwave, hair dryer / curling iron, dish washer, etc. I have been called out to many a home because the new microwave recently installed by a non-electrician keeps tripping the breaker. What I often find is so common: Where once was a hood exhaust fan over the stove, now sits a wall mounted microwave. The problem is that the old hood fan was only wired to a 15 amp, general lighting circuit, whereas the microwave requires a dedicated 20 amp line ran back to the panel. I call these “the handyman special”! The customer received a want, not a need. And maybe that’s why it was installed that way in the first place. Other examples of the need for a 20 amp circuit are space heaters, ironing boards, garage work benches, et al. The older kitchens are where we find the most electrical problems these days. They are under-circuited and under-amped.
Let’s go over some examples of “needs” vs. “wants.” I already went over frayed wiring in attics. But, ungrounded wiring within the walls can also be, or become a problem. Grounded wiring has been around since the late 1940’s, but was seldom used until later in 60’s. A grounded receptacle has 3 holes. Ungrounded receptacles are those old wall plugs with only 2 holes, and as you know, most of today’s cords have 3 prongs. That creates the need for those ugly 3 prong adaptors. Today’s appliances still need to be grounded. Using an adaptor simply allows the cord to plug in, but it’s still not grounded. Grounding prevents shocks and many electricians, even homeowners themselves, have replaced the 2 hole receptacles with 3 hole receptacles. But, they remain un- grounded and installing 3 hole receptacles onto ungrounded wire is a code violation. All 3-hole devices are required to be legally grounded. Call or contact your San Diego electrician.
In 1972, GFCI protection at specific outlets in specific rooms and wet locations became a new code requirement. All plug outlets within 6 feet of a sink, or any plug outlet outdoors shall now be protected by a GFCI device. Back then, only GFCI (called GFI’s by the pros) breakers were available. The more commonly seen GFCI wall plugs in homes today, seen mostly in kitchens and bathrooms was not yet available in 1972 to my knowledge. The NEC added GFCI protection to many other locations as the years passed.
In the mid to late 80’s the NEC made some additional changes regarding GFCI protection and where it should be present and how it should be wired. It was decided that all bathroom receptacles were to be wired to a “dedicated” 20 amp circuit using #12 wire protected by a 20 amp circuit breaker (“dedicated” referrers to a single outlet with no other outlets sharing the circuit breaker). The bathroom plug is now a single outlet on a single circuit, good for up to 2200 watts. Still, do not plug in a curling iron while a hair dryer is running! 1500 watts, plus whatever the curling iron pulls, will surely exceed 2200 watts. Do the math. The 20 amp breaker will trip because it’s doing what it was designed to do; protect the wire from getting too hot. Protect the house from fire.
There were also some new code revisions added in the mid 80’s which required that garage outlets to be GFCI protected, as well as most kitchen counter outlets, whether near the sink or not. The kitchens in older homes are usually the cause of most of the electrical issues I’ve encountered. Think of all the modern appliances we use in our kitchens today. Then think back to when your house was built. If it was built in the 50’s or early 60’s, you had a refrigerator, maybe an electric can opener, a percolator and a toaster. That’s all your kitchen was wired to handle. Even back then, kitchen plug outlets were required to be wired with minimum 12 gauge wire, but even as late as 1972, it was only required to have two 20 amp circuits for all counter top outlets, including the refrigerator. Today, a modern kitchen needs as many as five 20 amp circuits to handle microwaves, sub-zero refrigerators, coffee makers, toasters, toaster ovens, dishwashers, and other kitchen appliances. If your breakers are tripping every time you use your microwave, you are probably due for some electrical upgrades. Not only does a modern kitchen need more power, many homes now have home offices and power hungry entertainment systems. But that’s another blog.
So by now, you’re asking yourself, ‘Do I need electrical work?” If your home was built before 1985, and it’s never been electrically upgraded, you probably do have some issues. That’s not to say that your house needs to be rewired. Far from it! A panel overhaul or a re-devising job may be all you really need. There are a number of different factors that decide whether or not you’ll need additional work.