How old is the wiring in your home?

Easy upgrades can boost electrical safety in older homes
By Kelly Trapnell
How old is the wiring in your home?

GFCI outlets are required in areas around water, such as outdoors or near a kitchen or bathroom sink. Many older homes don’t have these safety measures installed.

Nothing quite has the charm of an older home on a family farm or a cute cottage in a historical downtown district. But cosmetic and structural upgrades often come with older abodes.

When upgrading, a fresh coat of paint and updated fixtures may come to mind, but it's important to consider electrical safety upgrades. Do you know the hidden dangers of aged wiring in your home? What about hiring a professional to update the wiring behind a switch plate or outlet, just like you'd hire a painter or renovation contractor?

Don't take on wiring problems yourself — electrical upgrades often require a professional who knows what inspections and permits are needed.

Here are some signs and considerations in finding out if your home's electric network needs a professional switch.

Type of wiring

Modern wiring is insulated, meaning it is covered in plastic. Older homes may have copper or aluminum wiring. Copper wiring can work just as well as modern wiring if it is still in good condition and has not been altered or improperly installed. However, fire risk increases in homes with both copper and aluminum wiring. Corrosion to aluminum from copper can lead to loose connections causing fires. Use only aluminum-approved switches, outlets, and other accessories if your home has aluminum wiring.

Plugs fall out of outlets easily.

Loose plugs are a high fire danger. Older outlets that have lost their grip need to be replaced. Luckily, this upgrade is affordable.

Not enough outlets

The increasing use of chargers for cell phones and many other electronic devices means outlets are in high demand. A lack of outlets can result in overuse of extension cords and power strips. Be sure to use quality, 14-gauge or thicker cords that are approved by Underwriters Laboratories (UL). Never overload an outlet, which can cause heat and is a fire risk. Consider hiring a licensed electrician to add outlets.

Danger in wet areas

Today, GFCI (ground fault circuit interrupter) outlets are required in areas around water, such as outdoors or near a kitchen or bathroom sink. But in older homes, GFCIs may not have been installed. It is fairly simple to replace old receptacles with GFCIs; hire a professional to upgrade outlets near water.

Wind causes lights to blink

If you notice your lights blinking on windy days, it may be due to worn wiring in the weatherhead (where overhead lines enter your home). Contact your electric co-op to check weatherhead wiring. c

Source: This Old House, Underwriters Laboratories

About the Author

Kelly Trapnell writes on writes on safety issues for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

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