When you are making repairs and updates to your home, it’s not uncommon for you to encounter your home’s electrical system. Online how-tos make dealing with electrical wires often seem easy — but the truth is that it’s even easier to make a mistake that puts your home in jeopardy. If you aren’t careful, you could take a shortcut or make a mistake that does damage to your electrical system or, worse, your home, family or yourself!
Instead of risking it, you should learn about the most common electrical mistakes, so you can avoid making them in the future:
Confusing the wires
Different wires have different purposes — they don’t all do the same thing. It’s relatively easy to confuse the wires and connect them improperly to outlets, switches and other fixtures, but doing so creates the potential for a lethal shock.
While incorrectly wired fixtures will function properly, they can shock anyone who uses or approaches them, causing serious harm.
Some wires are hot, meaning they have electrical current flowing through them; other wires are not hot, meaning you won’t be shocked by touching them. Typically, hot wires are sheathed in black plastic, but you should always identify them with a multimeter before starting electrical work.
The not-hot wires can fall under one of two categories: neutral or ground. Both wires connect to the ground, but they serve different purposes. The neutral wires, sheathed in white, should connect to the silver neutral terminal to provide the electricity with a return path. The ground wires, which tend to be bare or sheathed in green, connect to the box or the green grounding terminal.
You can learn how to use a multimeter here.
Not using an electrical box
Electrical boxes, also called junction boxes or J boxes, contain connections between wires and fixtures. Typically, these boxes are made from plastic, which is both non-conductive and non-flammable, protecting the rest of your home from any arcs or sparks that might escape from poor connections. Additionally, electrical boxes make it easy to find the places in the home where connections are made, so you can update or alter them with greater ease.
Unfortunately, many connections occur outside electrical boxes. This drastically increases the likelihood for housefires due to loose or improper connections, which arc and ignite surrounding materials, like insulation and drywall. It’s easy enough to install boxes around these connections, and the sooner you do so, the better.
Cutting wires too short
You don’t want electrical wires that are too long, crowding your walls and boxes or poking out into your living spaces. To prevent this, you might be tempted to cut your wires shorter — but you should know that you can cut them too short. Short wires might not be able to reach the terminals of your outlets and fixtures, and if there are any gaps in the connection, the electricity will arc and cause damage.
Fortunately, if you did make the mistake of trimming your wires too short, you can always add extensions. Wires should be able to extend about three inches from the box; you can purchase short lengths of wire and connectors from your local hardware store.
You can learn what kinds of connectors you need here.
Leaving cables exposed
Wires and cables are sheathed in plastic to prevent arcs along their length, but that plastic isn’t indestructible. In fact, you can peel back some plastic sheathing with a butter knife or even the edge of a countertop or table.
When you leave electrical cables exposed, not hidden behind the wall or enclosed in a channel, you increase the likelihood of the wires becoming damaged by environmental factors, even pests, which can chew through the plastic with their teeth.
It’s common to find exposed wires or cables in unfinished rooms, like the garage, the basement or the laundry room. You should enclose these wires, keeping them safe from damage — and keeping children, pets and others safe from life-threatening shocks.
You can learn more about this kind of electrical safety here.
Keeping outlets loose
If you can see space between an outlet’s frame and the plug, if you can wiggle the outlet around in the wall and if plugs continuously fall out of the outlet, that outlet is loose.
Most homeowners try to deal with this problem because it is unsightly and inconvenient, but loose outlets are dangerous, as well. When an outlet moves around, the wires connected to it tend to move and stretch, eventually becoming slightly or fully unattached. This causes arcing, which causes shocks and fires.
There are several fixes for loose outlets, but the best is adding spacers around the box and the outlet to keep everything secure. You should use specially made electrical spacers, which are made of plastic and are available at hardware stores.
Extreme voltages of electricity are coursing through the walls of your home every second of every day — but if your home is electrically sound, you might never realize it. The safer you are around electricity, the better, and safety requires knowledge about your electrical system and care to get things right.