Your Guide to Avoiding Electric Shocks in the Home

Posted in blog on August 29, 2016

We live in a Do-It- Yourself kind of world—for proof, just look at the popularity of Pinterest. The DIY mentality can save you money and allows you to add personal flair to your home, office, and social events. DIY is only a savvy choice when you take appropriate precautions, especially when it comes to home care. Many DIY projects may have you tackling wiring or doing other electrical work in your home. Do you know enough to avoid injury? Follow this guide to avoid electrical shocks in your home for your next DIY project.

Hidden Dangers

Many people don’t realize how dangerous working with electrical components can actually be. A shock less than 14 milliamps is enough to stop a person’s heart—and that’s the draw from your average nightlight. Wiring in older homes can be particularly dangerous, as it’s neither grounded nor safeguarded in the same way modern wiring is. When in doubt, cut the power before your next project. Knowing how to avoid electrical shock requires a basic primer on how electricity actually works.

At its most basic level, alternating current (AC) electricity powers your house through voltage, current, and resistance. Voltage is a measure of the force that moves electrons through a conductive element (like wires), current is the measure of electrons passing through the wire, and resistance is the opposition to that movement. We plug into AC electricity through outlets, which are standardized at 120 V, though the current, measured in amps, varies based on the load (i.e., what you’re powering). The amperage of a toaster is enough to send your body into muscle spasms, while 20 milliamps can cause atrial fibrillation, which is fatal.

Safety Basics

To avoid electric shock, follow some electricity safety basics:

  • Check for live wires. A tool called non-contact voltage tester (NCVT) can tell you if there’s an electrical current running through a power source. Simply hold it close to the source (outlet, switch, or wire), and it will emit a beep if it’s electrified. You can purchase these at any home improvement store.
  • Don’t assume that a wire is dead just because you turned off the circuit breaker. Some enterprising handy person could have turned an electrical box into a junction box and run other wires into the circuit breaker, making the wires active when you may think their power has been shut off. Test every wire with your NCVT before starting any project.
  • Beware of mis-wiring. Other DIY-ers before you may have messed up the area you’re working in, creating reverse polarity. You can check for bad wiring using a Receptacle Tester, which are also available at home improvement stores. If you find bad wiring, stop your project and call in an experienced electrician to finish the project.
  • Know when to call a professional. There are certain projects that you just shouldn’t try to handle on your own: bare copper wires, burned insulators, and melted contacts all signal the need for a qualified electrician. Other signs of shoddy electrical workmanship, like duct tape and using coffee cans for electrical boxes, also call for professional assistance.

Check Your Work

Once you’re done with your DIY electrical project, take a few moments to check your handiwork. Use a receptacle tester to make sure your wiring’s correct, and then check for switches with the NCVT before putting any load into the circuit.

DIY projects can save you time and money, but they’re only worth the effort if you proceed safely and know what you’re doing. Abide by basic safety precautions to avoid electric shock, and don’t be afraid to call a professional if you notice any potential hazards. With a little planning, you can safety perform basic electrical work in your home.

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