Home Electrical: DIY or Professional
The Arizona Republic
Of course, I’m not allowed to do electrical work at my house any more. My wife, Jennifer, threatens that if she ever sees me take electrical tools out again, she’ll take all the kids and pets off to the ER to wait for me there. In the past, I’ve had sparks fly across the room, and I’ve felt that eerie voltage sting creep through my body.
“Some homeowners get worried about doing electrical jobs, and they should be,” said Joel Wheeler of Wheeler Electric in Glendale. “If you make a mistake with electrical wires, even if nothing goes wrong at first, eventually something could catch fire.”
Still, plenty of homeowners are confident about their knowledge of electricity and successfully change outlets and install new lighting fixtures. “They can do that if they have a little know-how and common sense,” said Michael Bensel of the Mighty Electricians in Phoenix. “But sometimes they go down to the hardware store, and ask someone what to do and he tells them the wrong thing.”
We’re not going to give details on any difficult jobs, but we do have suggestions about handling some basics involving electricity at your house that can be important to you in future:
To start with, get familiar with your electrical service panel and relabel the circuit breakers – Usually, the panel is outside the house on a wall or inside a garage. In most older homes, a few marks or labels have been scratched on the panel to indicate what areas breakers serve, but that doesn’t provide the detail on all outlets served by individual breakers. Often the labels are nearly unreadable.
The easiest way to fix this is to have two people – one inside the house and one outside -- both on cellphones and talking back and forth.
You can use one of two methods. You can turn on all appliances and lights in the house; then the person at the panel turns off the circuits one-by-one and the person in the house can report on what areas go dead. Or you can turn off all the breakers at once and turn them on one by one. This can be complicated if you are looking for what breaker controls a specific outlet. You may have to plug a lamp into that outlet for your testing.
As you work, draw a sketch of the box and indicate which breaker serves what appliances and what areas. Later, you can label the individual circuits on the box, but there will be only a small space to write on next to the breakers. So use the sketch to post more details. Keep the sketch in a convenient place in the house or garage or maybe post it inside the front door of the service panel.
Once your service panel is labeled, you will know how to turn off the power if you ever want to get into more complicated projects that require turning off electricity. However, you always want to double-check after turning off your labeled breaker by going back into the house to be sure that an outlet or switch or appliance is definitely off.
A few more tips:
1 – If you ever need to turn off all power to the house – for example, in a flood – you may need to turn off a master breaker. But do not do it while standing in water.
2 – If power goes out in one part of your house, you will usually know which circuit breaker to turn back on because that breaker will be leaning a little or a lot away from the center. To turn it on again, push it hard to the outside and then all the way back to the inside. It should snap into place. But a tripped circuit often means you need to call an electrician to install a new breaker or investigate an electrical problem.
3 – When power seems to be off in an area of the house, but the circuit doesn’t look obviously off, just touch the breaker slightly. It may then flip to the off position.
4 – Never force a breaker to stay on or continuously try to reset it.
Reset your GFCI outlets when they trip – GFCI or GFI stands for ground-fault circuit interrupter. These are special electrical outlets in kitchens, bathrooms, in the garage and outside your house. In some cases one GFCI will control a group of rooms – like all the bathrooms in a house.
These devices will protect you from being electrocuted while using an appliance in an area where water is often present. These devices can also prevent some electrical fires.
If any imbalance in electrical current occurs – perhaps caused by a bad cord on a hair dryer, for example – the GFCI will trip the circuit and shut down all outlets that are connected to the circuit. You might not even notice this has happened until you try to plug something into a bathroom outlet the next day and don’t get power.
To reset the GFCI in the area and turn the power back on in all these outlets, go to the outlet in the room that has test and reset buttons, and press reset. If the power is still off, according to Tim Schrimsher of Austin Electric Services in Phoenix, go to the electrical panel to see if a breaker has tripped. If so, reset it.
Electricians advise testing these GFCIs every couple of months. You simply plug a lamp into the outlet and turn the lamp on. When you press the GFCI test button, the light should go out. If it doesn’t, the outlet is not working correctly, and you should call an electrician. You may need to have the GFCI replaced.
Here are a few other relatively uncomplicated jobs you can do involving electricity:
Take down or remove long strings of extension cords – Household extension cords should never be strung through attics or used outside for outdoor lighting. There are special heavier extension cords for outdoor use, of course. Don’t use staples or nails to attach extension cords to walls or baseboards. Don’t overload them by plugging a number of appliances into extension cords that draw a total of more watts than the rating of the cord. Don’t use surge protector strips as extension cords. If you need more outlets, call an electrician. You can also install whole house surge protection at your electrical service panel for minimal cost and avoid using surge protector strips.
Replace old bulbs with LEDs and install new trim on ceiling canister lights – Incandescent bulbs in lighting fixtures can now be easily replaced with the newer LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes) shaped just like CFLs or incandescent bulbs. One special advantage of these new bulbs for Arizona residents is that they throw less than half the heat that CFLs or incandescents do.
In most cases, you can install new trim for canister lights without turning off the electricity as well. Simply turn off the light fixture and allow the bulb to cool. Pull the trim ring down from the ceiling slightly and look for wire springs or spring clips that connect to the back side of the ring. Then unhook the ring and take it off. Measure the diameter of the canister and purchase replacement trim rings that will fit your space.
Next week, we’ll talk about the new wave of urban gardening in Arizona and whether you want to join in on the trend.
For more do-it-yourself tips, go to rosieonthehouse.com. An Arizona home building and remodeling industry expert for 35 years, Rosie Romero is the host of the Rosie on the House radio program from 8-11 a.m. Saturdays on KTAR-FM (92.3) in Phoenix, KQNA-AM (1130) in Prescott and KAZM-AM (780) in Sedona, KAFF-AM (930) in Flagstaff and KNST-AM (790) in Tucson. Call 888-767-4348.