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Electricity is an essential part of our lives. But as much as it enriches our lives,  it also has the potential to cause great harm if not used correctly.

If properly installed and used, electrical systems will function almost indefinitely. Even so, electrical fires in our homes claim the lives of 485 Americans each year and injure 2,305 more. Some of these fires are caused by electrical system failures and appliance defects, but many more are caused by the misuse and poor maintenance of electrical appliances, incorrectly installed wiring, and overloaded circuits and extension cords.

Below is a brief summary of safety tips to remember when using electrically powered items:

  • Never use anything but the proper fuse to protect a circuit.
  • Find and correct overloaded circuits. 
  • Never place extension cords under rugs. 
  • Outlets near water should be GFCI-type outlets. 
  • Don’t allow trees near power lines to be climbed. 
  • Keep ladders, kites, equipment and anything else away from overhead power lines.
  • Frayed wires can cause fires. Replace all worn, old and damaged appliance cords immediately.
  • Use electrical extension cords wisely and don’t overload them.
  • Keep electrical appliances away from wet floors and counters; pay special care to electrical appliances in the bathroom and kitchen.
  • Don’t allow children to play with or around electrical appliances, such as space heaters, irons and hair dryers.
  • Keep clothes, curtains and other potentially combustible items at least 3 feet from all heaters.
  • If an appliance has a three-prong plug, use it only in a three-slot outlet. Never force it to fit into a two-slot outlet or extension cord.
  • Never overload extension cords or wall sockets.
  • Immediately shut off, then professionally replace, light switches that are hot to the touch, as well as lights that flicker.
  • Use safety closures to childproof electrical outlets.
  • Check your electrical tools regularly for signs of wear. If the cords are frayed or cracked, replace them. Replace any tool if it causes even small electrical shocks, overheats, shorts out or gives off smoke or sparks.

The above provides a brief summary of electrical safety in the home, but there’s a lot more to know about electrical dangers and how to avoid them. Read on to find out how you can protect you and your family from electrical injury.

Electrical Panels

Circuit breaker image, copyright Stack Exchange.

Electricity enters the home through a control panel and a main switch where one can shut off all the power in an emergency. These panels (also called breaker boxes) are usually located in the basement. It’s important to understand how to use your home’s control panel in case of a power outage or other emergency.

Control panels use either fuses or circuit breakers. Depending on which is used, you’ll need to take different steps to regain power if a fuse or circuit blows. Be sure to investigate why the fuse or circuit blew. Possible causes include frayed wires, overloaded outlets, or defective appliances. Never overload a circuit with high-wattage appliances. Check the wattage on appliance labels. If there is frayed insulation or a broken wire, a dangerous short circuit may result and cause a fire. If power stoppages continue or if a frayed or broken wire is found, contact an electrician.

Outlets and Extension Cords

Make sure all electrical receptacles or outlets are three-hole, grounded outlets. If there is water in the area, there should be a GFCI or ground-fault circuit interrupter outlet. All outdoor outlets should be GFCIs. There should be ample electrical capacity to run equipment without tripping circuit breakers or blowing fuses.

Minimize extension cord use whenever possible, and check them periodically for wear and damage. Never place them under rugs. Use the proper electrical cord for the job, and put safety plugs in unused outlets.

Electrical Appliances

Appliances need to be treated with respect and care. They need room to breathe. Avoid enclosing them in a cabinet without proper openings, and do not store papers around them.

Level appliances so they do not tip. Washers and dryers should be checked often, since their movement can put undue stress on electrical connections. If any appliance or device gives off a tingling shock, turn it off, unplug it, and have a qualified person correct the problem.

Shocks can be fatal. Never insert metal objects into appliances without unplugging them. Check appliances periodically to spot worn or cracked insulation, loose terminals, corroded wires, defective parts and any other components that might not work correctly. Replace these appliances or have them repaired by a person qualified to do so.

Electrical Heating Equipment

Portable oil radiator heater. Image copyright Wikipedia user Ashley Pomeroy.

Electric space heaters are a common supplement to central heat, especially on the coldest Michigan winter nights. However, caution must be taken when using these heating supplements. Keep them away from combustibles, and make sure they cannot be tipped over. Keep electrical heating equipment in good working condition. Do not use them in bathrooms because of the risk of contact with water and electrocution.

Many people also use electric blankets in their homes. They will work well if they are kept in good condition. Look for cracks and breaks in the wiring, plugs and connectors. Look for charred spots on both sides. Many things can cause electric blankets to overheat. They include other bedding placed on top of them, pets sleeping on top of them, and putting things on top of the blanket when it is in use. Folding the blankets can also bend the coils and cause overheating.

Another common type of heating equipment used in the home is hair dryers, curlers, and flat irons. Use safety precautions listed on the product’s packaging. Wipe up any nearby water spills and puddles before use. Never use them near flammable materials or place on flammable surfaces such as wood or plastic.

Children and Electricity

Electricity is important to the workings of the home, but it can be dangerous, especially to children. Electrical safety should be taught to children early on. Safety plugs should be inserted in unused outlets, or child-proof outlets should be installed when toddlers are in the home. Make sure all outlets in the home have face plates. Teach children not to put things into electrical outlets and not to chew on electrical cords. Keep electrical wiring boxes locked. Do not allow children to come in contact with power lines outside. Never allow them to climb trees near power lines.

Electricity and Water

Water is one of the most conductive substances. Because of our high water content, people are good conductors of electricity, particularly when standing in water or on a damp floor. Never use any electrical appliance in the tub or shower. Never touch an electric cord or appliance with wet hands. Do not use electrical appliances in damp areas or while standing on damp floors. In areas where water is present, such as bathrooms and kitchens, use outlets with GFCIs. Shocks can be fatal.

Animal Hazards

Mice and other rodents can chew on electrical wires and damage them. If rodents are suspected or known to be in the home, be aware of the damage they may cause, and take measures to get rid of them.

Pets can also cause damage or be injured by chewing on cords. Monitor your pets near appliances and check cords for damage. This is especially important around the holidays if you use Christmas lights in your home.

Outside Hazards

There are several electrical hazards outside the home. Be aware of overhead and underground power lines. People have been electrocuted when an object they are moving has come in contact with the overhead power lines. Keep ladders, antennae, kites and poles away from power lines leading to the house and other buildings. Do not plant trees, shrubs or bushes under power lines or near underground power lines. Never build a swimming pool or other structure under the power line leading to your house. Before digging, learn the location of underground power lines.

InterNACHI electrical inspector certification

When to Hire a Professional

If you’re buying a new house or have just purchased one and haven’t had it inspected yet, it’s a good idea to have your home inspected by an InterNACHI certified home inspector. All InterNACHI certified members have professional training in electrical systems and will be able to spot any hazards or code non-compliance in your home’s electrical system. A home inspector may also provide a recommendation for a qualified electrician in your area should you need one. Schedule your inspection today for peace of mind.