No matter how handy you are around the house, dealing with electricity is rarely a “do it yourself” job. When it comes to rewiring or repairing electrical problems, you really need to ask yourself if the risks involved are worth the cost of hiring a licensed electrician.

Licensed electricians undergo extensive training in order to receive their electrical licenses. It’s virtually impossible for somebody without such training to understand the intricacies of electrical work and uphold the same safety and reliability standards as someone who’s undergone a high level of training. Improper electrical work can result in premature failure or shorting of appliances and fixtures, and may result in the need for extensive repair work down the road. A task as simple as properly tightening an electrical termination, if done wrong, can lead to a house fire.

In general, homeowners should seek the services of a licensed electrician for any type of electrical repair. While pinching pennies is admirable in some circumstances, it’s cheaper to get the work done right the first time than it is to call on backup to fix a careless mistake.

Amateur or shoddy electrical work is downright dangerous! It can, and frequently does, result in a nasty shock or in the worst-case scenario — accidental electrocution. According to the Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI), thousands of people in the U.S. are critically injured or electrocuted each year in their own homes due to electrical mishaps, including attempting to do their own electrical work.

Electrical fires are among the most devastating fires in the country, and according to firefighting officials, they also cause more injuries to firemen than any other type of fire. Home electrical fires account for an estimated 51,000 fires each year, nearly than 500 deaths, more than 1,400 injuries, and $1.3 billion in property damage.

If your DIY electrical work doesn’t meet your state or local building code requirements, it could actually void your homeowner’s policy if it causes a fire in your home. That means that for the sake of saving a few dollars by doing the work yourself, you could be setting yourself up for a substantially higher bill down the road if your insurance carrier refuses to cover damages caused by electrical work that doesn’t adhere to building code.

You may feel confident about dealing with certain simple electrical problems like swapping out a light switch or replacing an outlet cover, but if you encounter one that you even suspect may be beyond your skill level, put down your tools and call a licensed electrician. Examples of when to call include:

  • your circuit breakers seem to be tripping frequently

  • you notice switches or electrical circuits feel warm to the touch

  • you have older electrical components that need replacing

  • you’re renovating and part of the project includes electrical work

  • you notice exposed wires anywhere in your home

  • your lights dim when you turn on your air conditioning

  • you discover wiring that’s been attacked by “critters”

It is a good idea to conduct an annual assessment of your home electrical system, electrical cords, extension cords, power plugs, and outlets. Every few years, have your home electrical system thoroughly inspected by qualified electricians to ensure that all electrical work in the home meets the safety provisions of the National Electrical Code (NEC). Install smoke detectors on every level of the home, inside each bedroom, and outside each sleeping area and test them monthly to ensure that they are working properly.

Establish an evacuation plan that can be used in case of an emergency, and practice with your family. Only use light bulbs that match the recommended wattage on the light fixture. In homes with young children, install tamper resistant receptacles to prevent electrical shocks and burns. Use extension cords only temporarily, and never with space heaters or air conditioners. Avoid overloading outlets. Consider having additional circuits or outlets added when needed.

Even the most modern, well-maintained home or building can have electrical problems or need their electrical service modified. Whether an outlet stops working or is loose, or the lights are flickering, these are indicators that a repair is necessary.

When replacing old appliances, or adding additional appliances or equipment, make sure your electrical service can handle the load. If your circuit breakers are tripping frequently, especially when you turn on an appliance, you may need to have an electrician create a separate electrical circuit for that energy-hogging appliance.

If you’re building a new house, garage, or home addition, it’s important to start with proper wiring. A good electrical contractor will safely wire your home according to local building codes and work with you to understand your needs and how you’ll be using the space to ensure that the electrical system will address those needs.

Addressing minor issues as they occur will almost always turn out cheaper for you than if you let the problem escalate into a serious problem or an emergency. For example, you might be inclined to pay no mind to periodically dimming lights. But if this happens often enough, it might be an indication that you’re experiencing a drop in voltage. Instead of waiting for disaster to strike, it’s best to hire an electrician to trace the problem and fix it. The same goes with occasional burning odors without an ascertainable source; you probably have a problem with your wire connection and need an electrician immediately.

If the appeal to do it yourself is simply too strong, then at least keep these safety tips from ESFI in mind when working on electrical projects:

  • Make sure that the project you plan to take on does not require a permit. Otherwise, hire an electrician.

  • Always unplug appliances and switch off your circuit breaker before working on anything.

  • Never touch plumbing or gas pipes when working on electrical projects as an amateur.

  • Make sure the floor you’re standing on is not damp.

Above all, let common sense prevail and let safety be your priority. Only work on an electrical problem you’re familiar with, and hire a licensed electrician when you decide to seek the services of a professional.

Donald Pagano, President, DRP Electrical Contracting Inc.
President, Staten Island Electrical Contractors Association
(917) 577-1031