HOLMES: Make sure your home’s electrical system is safe

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Electrical consideration should always be a top topic when renovating or improving your home, but since it’s also National Electrical Safety Month, this seems most fitting.

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When buying or renovating an older property, you typically expect a mix of hardwire, aluminum, copper, button and tube, or all three. While knob and tube wiring was the norm in the early 1900s, it was replaced by aluminum wire in the 1960s and 1970s, followed by modern copper wiring, now found in most new homes.

When you combine outdated wiring with home improvements like home offices, improved lighting, basement apartments, and hot tubs, the risk of fires and electric shock increases. If the work is done improperly, the danger is amplified. Whatever your plans for your home, there are a few things homeowners should know about electrical systems.

Aluminum is a softer metal than copper and when heated expands more making it more susceptible to damage during installation. When properly connected and disconnected without hurting the wire, it is safe. This is why it is essential to hire a licensed electrical contractor to do the job properly; I don’t recommend doing it yourself.

Make sure the gadgets are compatible with aluminum wiring; otherwise, an electric arc may occur, which could result in an electrical fire. Signs of arc flash are hot or discolored cover plates or switches, flickering or dim lights, light bulbs blowing out too often, circuit breakers tripping, or the smell of burnt plastic.

Although it is not necessary to replace your aluminum wire, it is recommended if you are remodeling and intend to remain in your home. You will almost certainly need to upgrade your electrical panel, and some insurance companies may refuse to provide or renew coverage unless the wiring is inspected and modified to meet code requirements.

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The basic difference between knob and tube wiring and today’s wiring is that there is no ground wire. Contemporary households contain more electrical appliances and components, which are more than the old button and tube can support. Three-prong plugs cannot be used in homes with an old knob and tube because the risk of shock and fire is considerably higher.

With knob and tube wiring, the wires are normally insulated in a rubberized cloth covering and have porcelain “knobs” to hold them tight and prevent them from coming into contact with wood. The best way to see the knob and tube is to look at exposed floor or ceiling joists in an older home, such as a basement. However, most of the time it’s what’s behind the wall that can complicate things. Hire a licensed electrical contracting company (LEC) to open the walls or send a small camera inside the walls to confirm whether or not you have a button and tube.

The best advice I can give any homeowner is to test and troubleshoot, especially if you’ve just purchased an older home. I would get a full troubleshooting inspection with a licensed electrical contractor. The LEC tests and verifies all appliances (outlets) and wiring in the home. It takes about six to eight hours and costs around $2,000.

The alternative is to discover hidden problems or old cables and hire an electrician to open your walls and ceilings and fish out new cables. Then someone else has to do the repairs. It’s drywall, plaster and paint, which costs you even more.

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Try to obtain documents or permits related to your property. In Ontario, contact ESA for any work notification or electrical inquiries. Check with your local electrical authority for other provinces, as each province and territory regulates electrical safety in Canada. There are minimal fees, but it will give you peace of mind knowing the permits have been closed, tested and passed for inspection.

Additionally, you need a permit any time your home’s wiring is changed or a circuit is changed. If you are working with aluminum wiring, the electrical code states that you need a permit if you decide to change your switch.

Even when paying someone else to undertake the work, the landlord often needs to check that the necessary building permit applications have been filed and secured for the residence. Don’t forget that the person who does the work must be the one who submits the permit. If an LEC asks you to drop off the permit or tells you it’s not required, that’s a big red flag.

Our homes, toys, and gadgets use a lot of electricity, and it makes sense to make sure your home is safe, especially if you’re planning on doing any renovations. Have your home inspected by a licensed electrical company. Stay safe.

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