Electrical Safety: Things you Didn’t Know

There’s an old electrician saying:
There are a lot of old electricians…
There are a lot of bad electricians…
But there aren’t a lot of old bad electricians

overloaded electrical junction box

Electricity has the potential to cause great harm including death, and massive property damage.

If an electrical system is properly installed and not overloaded or physically abused, then your home’s electrical system will function properly for many decades.

Our home inspections have identified some amazingly dangerous electrical situations. Each year home electrical fires in the U.S. kill nearly 500 and injure another 2,300 Americans. Most of the electrical fires are caused by faulty installations (DIY homeowners) and abused electrical components.

It is true that some of these fires are in fact caused by electrical system failures and appliance defects. However, most fires are caused by misuse and poor maintenance of electrical appliances, incorrectly installed wiring, and overloaded circuits and extension cords.

Here are are a few safety tips to remember:

  • Always use the proper type of fuse and fuse rating to protect a circuit.
  • Look for and correct overloaded circuits.
  • Since heat can lead to fire, never cover extension cords with rugs or carpeting.
  • Never place weight on top of any extension cord or allow the cord to be stepped on. Crushing extension cords causes wires and wire housing to break down.
  • Outlets near any water should always be GFCI-type outlets.
  • Outlets in the kitchen, bathroom, laundry room, or anywhere outside should always be GFCI-type outlets.
  • Stay out of trees, off of fences, and off of roofs which are near power lines.
  • Keep ladders, kites, pool cleaning poles, any any other equipment away from overhead power lines.

Electrical Panels 
Electricity enters the home through a “service control panel” which is equipped with a main breaker switch so someone can shut off all the power in an emergency. In California these panels are often located outside and on the side of the house. Additional “sub-panels” might be located inside the home.

Wrong Manufacturer’s Breakers

Service control panels use either fuses or circuit breakers which are specific to the manufacturer, make, and model of that panel. Make sure the correct manufacturer’s fuses or breakers are installed for that panel. Sometimes one manufacturer’s breaker will fit into another manufacturer’s service panel, but this is a dangerous error which should be immediately corrected.

Also, never use a higher-numbered fuse (or a metallic item such as a penny) to replace a blown fuse. If your control service panel uses fuses, and your power unexpectedly goes out, then look for the broken metal strip inside the glass at the top of a blown fuse. Replace the fuse with a new one marked with the correct amperage number (15, 20, 25, 30, and so on).

If your control service control panel uses circuit breakers, and your power goes out, then reset the tripped circuit breakers from “off” to “on.”

For either blown fuses or tripped breakers, be sure to investigate why the fuse or circuit blew.

Possible causes include damaged wiring, frayed wires, overloaded outlets, or defective appliances. Check the wattage on appliance labels and never overload a circuit with high-wattage appliances. Damaged insulation or a frayed or broken wire can cause a dangerous short circuit and may result in a fire. If blown fuses or tripped circuit breakers continue, or if a frayed or broken wire is found, then contact an electrician.

Yes, control service panels can wear out. Plus, control service panels have an average expected service life of 50 years. If your control service panel has signs of physical abuse or is more than 50 years old, then you should consult with a licensed electrician to determine if it needs to be replaced.

Outlets and Extension Cords
Make sure all electrical receptacles (“outlets”) are updated to three-hole, grounded outlets. If there is ever water in the area, then there should be a GFCI or ground-fault circuit interrupter outlet. All outdoor outlets should be updated to GFCI outlets.

The length of an extension cord and its wire gauge matters. The longer the cord, and the thinner the wire, the more “resistance” (and heat) is created along the wires. In addition to being a fire hazard, too much resistance (and heat) can permanently damage motors and other electrical devices.

There should be plenty of electrical capacity to run equipment without tripping circuit breakers or blowing fuses. Always try to reduce the use of extension cords. Never place electrical cords under rugs because the rug acts as insulation which increases heat within the cord.

Use extension cords sparingly and periodically check the cords for damage or wear. Use the proper electrical cord for the job, and install safety plugs into unused outlets to prevent children from sticking metal object into the holes and getting electrocuted.

Electrical Appliances
Appliances heat up and need adequate air flow to keep within acceptable operating temperatures. Avoid enclosing appliances within a cabinet that doesn’t have proper vents or other openings, and do not store flammage materials (papers) around them.

Level appliances so they do not tip. Washers and dryers should be checked often. Their movement can put undue stress on bearings and electrical connections.

Appliances or other devices that give off a tingling shock should be turned off and unplugged. Have a qualified professional inspect and correct the problem. Shocks can be fatal. Never touch the internal electrical areas or insert any metal object into an appliance without first unplugging the appliance. Periodically inspect appliances to identify worn or cracked insulation, browned or singed connections or components, loose electrical terminals, corroded wires, defective parts and any other components that might not work correctly. Replace these damages or worn appliances or have them repaired by a qualified professional.

Electrical Heating Equipment
Portable electrical heaters are responsible for many house fires. While they are useful for heating small areas, caution must be taken when using these heating devices. Keep portable heaters away from combustibles (drapes, papers, clothing, carpeting), and make sure they cannot be tipped over.

Keep portable electric heaters in good working condition. They are not appropriate for use in bathrooms because of the risk of contact with water and possible electrocution.

Some people like to use electric blankets. Electric blankets work well if they are kept in good condition. Inspect them for cracks or breaks in the wiring, as well as the plugs and connectors. Look for charred spots on both sides. Many things can cause electric blankets to overheat, especially if other bedding is placed on top, or pets are sleeping on top of them, and putting things on top of the blanket when it is in use. Folding the blankets too tightly can bend the heating coils and cause overheating.

Electricity can be especially dangerous to children. Electrical safety should be taught to children at an early age, and repeated. Safety plugs should be inserted in unused outlets when toddlers are in the home. Make sure all outlets in the home have face plates so there are no visible wires in the receptacle. Teach children not to insert objects into electrical outlets and not to chew on electrical cords. Keep electrical wiring boxes locked. Never allow children be up in trees or on top of fences or roofs which are near outside power lines, utility poles, or high tension towers.

Electricity and Water

Electrical shocks can be fatal, and the human body is dangerously efficient at passing electrical current from the source to the ground, like a lightning rod. This is especially true when standing in water or on a damp floor.

Never use any electrical appliance in the tub or shower. Never touch an electrical switch, 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, make sure GFCI outlets are installed and used.

Animal Hazards
Rats, mice, and other animals can chew on electrical wires and cause damage. 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. Always keep electrical service panels securely closed, and determine if data, low voltage, and AC electrical wiring should be run in appropriate conduit to protect against damage caused by rodents.

Outside Hazards
People have been electrocuted when an object they are moving has come in contact with the overhead power lines, or they are digging and strike underground power lines.

Keep ladders, antennae, kites and poles (especially pool cleaning poles) away from power lines. Do not plant trees, shrubs or bushes under power lines or near underground power lines.

Never build an in-ground or above-ground swimming pool or place any other structure under a power line. Prior to digging, identify the location of underground power lines by calling 811.

Do not climb power poles or transmission towers. Never let anyone shoot or throw stones at insulators. If you have an animal trapped in a tree or on the roof near electric lines, then call your utility company.

Be aware of weather conditions when installing or working with electrical appliances. Never use electrical power tools or appliances with rain overhead or water underfoot.

Use only outdoor lights, fixtures and outside rated extension cords. Plug into GFCI outlets.

Downed power lines are extremely dangerous and can electrify their surroundings without you seeing any sparks or other evidence of the danger. If you see a downed power line, the electric company and 911, and warn others to stay away. If a power line hits your car while you are in it, stay inside unless the car catches fire. If the car catches fire, jump clear without touching the car’s metal and the ground at the same time.


  • Regularly inspect your electrical appliances and wiring, especially if the appliance has any moving parts.
  • Always hire a home inspector who is a member of California Real Estate Inspectors Association (CREIA). CREIA home inspectors must undergo extensive safety training and must successfully pass proctored testing to demonstrate their knowledgeable. (The other home inspection associations let you do tests online without anyone watching, so cheating is possible).
  • Crushed or frayed wires can cause fires. Immediately replace all worn, old and damaged appliance cords.
  • Use properly sized electrical extension cords and never overload them.
  • Avoid using electrical appliances around wet floors and wet counters. Give extra care to using electrical appliances in the kitchen and bathrooms.
  • Children should never be allowed to play with or around electrical appliances, including portable heaters, curling irons, clothing irons, and hair dryers.
  • Keep papers, clothing, curtains, carpeting, and other combustible items at least 3 feet from all heaters and heat sources.
  • If an appliance has a three-prong plug, use it only in a three-slot outlet. Never modify a 3-prong plug and force it to fit into a two-slot outlet or extension cord.
  • Never overload extension cords or wall sockets. Immediately shut off and have a qualified professional replace any light switches that feel hot to the touch, or any lights that flicker. Childproof outlets (electrical receptacles) by using safety enclosures or safety plugs.
  • Regularly check your electrical tools and their cords for signs of damage or wear. If the cords are damaged, cracked, or frayed, then replace them. Any tool that causes even the smallest electrical shock, overheats, shorts out, or gives off smoke or sparks should be immediately unplugged and replaced.

SacPro Home Inspections is your local home inspection service and a proud member of CREIA. Our home inspector professionals are pleased to inspect your home for important safety devices to keep your home safe.