First, if you did not buy your house new, you should consider having a home inspector or an electrician inspect your electrical system for any defects or unsafe conditions. It is NOT unusual to find that a previous homeowner (amateur electrician) has wired in an appliance with a lamp cord or some other inappropriate material. These conditions need to be identified and corrected for your family's safety, as they can be possible fire and shock hazards. Once the defects have been corrected, it's just a matter of maintaining your electrical system.
There are several ways to keep your electrical system in good repair. To begin with, it is important to avoid overloading the circuits. Overloading usually occurs when more than one appliance is operated on the same circuit at the same time. Many appliances, even small ones, draw a significant amount of amperage (i.e. vacuum cleaners, hair dryers, power tools). Copper wiring is standard in most homes, but due to a copper shortage during the 1970's and 1980's, many homes built during this period were wired with aluminum instead. If you have an aluminum electrical system, overloading can be extremely dangerous due to its low melting point.
However, your home has built in safety devices to prevent overloading the circuits. These devices are called fuses and circuit breakers. Without getting into too much detail, these devices will shut off the power in the event of an overloaded circuit. But they will only do so if they are in good working order. If you have fuses (mostly in older homes) never replace a fuse with a larger one to keep it from blowing out. If the fuse routinely blows out, there may be several reasons and you should call an electrician to evaluate the circuit. And NEVER hot wire the fuse with a piece of metal, such as a coin. If you do, you are asking for a shock, or even a fire. If circuit breakers are installed in your home, it is recommended that you exercise your breakers once a year. No, we are not talking about doing push-ups or sit-ups! All that is needed is to move your breakers from the ON position to the OFF position and then back ON a few times. This will keep them lubricated and able to move freely. But first, be sure to turn off and/or unplug all appliances. Don't forget to shut down and unplug your computer!
In addition to the circuit breakers, Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters (GFCI's), if installed, should be tested on a monthly basis to insure proper operation. GFCIs are usually installed in kitchens and bathrooms for increased safety near water. Just push the test button and it should pop, cutting power to all outlets on that circuit. If it fails to operate correctly, it should be replaced immediately. GFCI's cost about $10 each and should take an electrician less than a half-hour to install. It is definitely worth the small price to ensure these safety features work properly around water. (Click here for picture)
Cords should always be removed by the plug to avoid damage to both the cord and the outlet. Also, never use an appliance if the cord is damaged. The cost to repair an electrical cord is usually less than the cost of a trip to the emergency room. Remember, an electrical circuit is only as good as its weakest point. That weakest point is often an appliance that is in poor condition. Take a few seconds and look before plugging in an appliance to be sure it's not damaged. Broken or loose switches and cover plates should be tightened or repaired.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) publishes a list of all recalled items in the United Stated. Many of these products are electrical. Unfortunately, most recalls dont occur until someone is hurt, or even worse, killed. With the holidays approaching, it might be a good idea to visit their web site at www.cpsc.gov for ideas on what NOT to buy.If you have any questions or concerns, contact a professional.
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