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Is electrical work something I can do myself?
Is the National Electrical Code a good source of information?
I have a GFI that keeps tripping. What causes this?
My lights dim when the AC comes on. Should I be concerned?
I have fixtures that have light bulbs that keep burning out. Is there anything I can do?
I got shocked working on some wiring. Why didn’t the circuit breaker trip?
I can’t reset a circuit breaker. What can I do?
I have older, ungrounded outlets in my home. Can I simply install newer, grounded outlets in their place?
My dimmers get hot. Should I be concerned?
My ceiling fan hums when it runs. I want to use the fan at night, but I can’t sleep! What causes that annoying sound?
I have some outlets that don’t have any power. What would cause that?
Why do my recessed lights cycle on and off?
Why do my GFI outlets/breakers have a ‘TEST" button?
How often should I test my smoke detectors?
My house has aluminum wiring. Should I be concerned?
Why do some lights "hum" when they are dimmed?
I have an old/obsolete electrical panel.  Should it be replaced?
I have a 100 amp panel but there are no circuits left, what should I do?

Is electrical work something I can do myself?

Have you ever watched any of the popular home improvement shows on television? Shows like "This Old House" and "Home Time?" They will show you many ways to maintain and improve your home. You will see how to open a clogged drain, patch a leaking roof, frame a deck and hang wallpaper. They will instruct you how to replace everything in your home from cabinet knobs to windows. You can learn how to install tile, wood floors and doorknobs. Yet one aspect of home enhancement is conspicuously missing from these shows: The electrical. And for good reason, too. The producers of these shows know all too well the legal liability of attempting to show their viewers how to do electrical work.

In order to keep a TV show interesting, important information is often either left out of the broadcast, or it is overly-simplified to the extent that the average person thinks they can successfully complete a project easily and safely. If you are a homeowner who is thinking about starting a high voltage electrical project with little or no experience, you should reconsider. The trouble is, a rookie can create hidden problems that may manifest themselves in the form of a short circuit or shock hazard. Since electricity is invisible, these hazards can't readily be seen. And these problems may not be readily evident the moment power is turned on. It may take weeks, months, even years for a mistake to manifest itself. Household electricity is indeed dangerous.

Every day in this country alone there are over 100 house fires that are caused by electrical malfunctions or mistakes. Many people die in these fires, not to mention the loss of property and the effects on the family of those involved. Electrical burns are a common sight in a hospitals emergency room. By comparison, you probably have never heard of a person drowning in their own home because of a plumbing leak or burst pipe, or killed by falling wallpaper. Electricity must be treated with the utmost respect. It will be stated here for your benefit: ELECTRICITY IS NOT A HOBBY.

However, there are some things every homeowner can do by themselves to fix some common electrical problems that come up. Keep in mind these are very basic things, and unless you are confident enough to attempt your own electrical task, it is best to leave this type of work to the qualified electricians at Code Electric.

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Is the National Electrical Code a good source of information?

The National Electrical Code, or NEC, is a great source of valuable information, but only for professionals. It is a highly complicated book that reads more like a legal document than a how-to guide. In fact, one of the first statements in the book is Article 90.1(C), which reads, "This Code is not intended as a design specification or an instruction manual for untrained persons."

Take the simple task of replacing a switch with a dimmer. Due to the intricacies of the NEC, you would need to be completely familiar with the following Code Articles:

Article 90 – Introduction

Article 100 – Definitions

Article 110 – Requirements for Electrical Installations

Article 200 – Use and Identification of Grounded Conductors

Article 210 – Branch Circuits

Article 250 – Grounding and Bonding

Article 300 – Wiring Methods

Article 310 – Conductors for General Wiring

Article 334 – Nonmetallic Sheathed Cable

Article 404 – Switches

Article 410 – Luminaires (Lighting Fixtures), Lampholders, and Lamps

Compound this with the facts the NEC is changed and updated every three years, as well as containing information not pertinent to residential wiring, and it becomes readily evident it isn’t a good resource for DIYers. Besides, since it’s so technical it’s boring as heck!

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I have a GFI that keeps tripping. What causes this?

Ground-fault Interrupters (GFI’s) have been installed in houses for many years now, and have proven themselves to be a great aid in increasing electrical safety. By sensing dangerous situations in your homes’ electrical wiring, they shut off the power and can prevent shocks.

GFI’s are so common in today’s homes that they have become overly familiar. You will find them in the bathrooms, kitchen, garage, basement, and outside. Yet many homeowners are unaware of what they can do. And one thing they can do is protect not only the receptacle where they are located, but also other receptacles as well.

In a modern kitchen, for example, there may be a dozen receptacles, but only two GFIs. This is because most GFIs are built to ‘feed-through’ and protect other devices. In this instance, you may have a cord or appliance with a problem plugged into another outlet that is protected by a GFI. The electronic circuitry in the GFI will detect the fault in the cord or appliance, and turn off the power.

So if you have a GFI that won’t reset, check for other outlets that may not have power and see if anything is plugged into them. If there is, unplug them and try to reset the GFI again. You may have to do some hunting around the house to find all the outlets that are protected by the GFI. It is very common to have one GFI in the basement or garage that protects several outlets on the exterior of the house. You may even find one bathroom with a normal outlet that is protected by a GFI in another bathroom.

If this doesn’t work, you may have a bad GFI, and it should be replaced. Now it is time to contact Code Electric to bring your home’s safety net back up to par.

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My lights dim when the AC comes on. Should I be concerned?

This is a common problem, especially in older homes. Air conditioners, refrigerators, freezers, furnaces, etc. that have large motors require enormous amounts of power when the motor first starts to spin up to speed. Once the motor is spinning, the energy requirement drops way down. This instantaneous need for motor shaft speed is what causes that momentary dimming of your lights.

The most common cause of dimming lights is too small a wire feeding the unit. Look outside on the condenser unit itself, and there will be a label showing the required wiring and breaker size.

Check your main electrical service first and see if the breaker or fuse size matches the label. If they aren’t close, say within 5 or 10 amps, the size of the wire taking power to the unit may be too small.

Another problem may be the length of the wire. If your main panel is on one side of the house, and the AC unit on the other, there may be too much wire between the two to provide adequate power to start up the unit.

AC units also come equipped with start-up capacitors. Think of these capacitors as storage batteries. These give the motor a boost when it first starts up. But over time, these capacitors can get weak and become ineffective. Eventually the power draw can become so enormous, the circuit breakers or fuses protecting the wiring to the units can open from the current.

Your air conditioning system may also be overcharged with too much refrigerant. When this happens it puts lots of stress on the compressor and in turn the motor when it tries to get the compressor engine moving.

You may ask your AC service man to look to see if your AC unit is overcharged or if it needs new start-up capacitors.

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I have fixtures that have light bulbs that keep burning out. Is there anything I can do?

Light bulbs burning out too often and too soon is a common headache for homeowners. You had light fixtures installed in your home for safety and convenience, yet the bulbs just don’t seem to last.

The first thing to check is the wattage limitations of the fixture itself. Installing a 200 watt bulb in a fixture rated for 60 watts not only will cause the 200 watt bulb to burn out too quickly, but it also becomes a fire hazard. This is due to the excessive heat that will build up in the fixture and surrounding area.

If the bulbs installed are of the correct, or lower, wattage required by the fixture, the next step is to make sure you are using quality bulbs. Light bulbs have two exterior components, the metal base and the glass bulb. In order to keep the filament inside from burning out, manufacturers remove the normal air from inside a bulb and replace it with an inert gas. In order to keep this gas in, and air out, a seal must be made between the metal base and the glass.

And some makers save a little money by using a lesser-quality sealant than others. Over a short period of time, this cheap sealant can become hard and brittle, allowing air to seep into the bulb and burn out the filament. Using a better quality bulb avoids this problem.

If you’ve made sure you’ve got the correct wattage of quality bulbs installed and you still are replacing them too often, it may be due to excessive vibration.  Some bulbs are subject to shaking simply due to their location.  Fixtures near a door are a prime example.  Another source of vibration may be the occupants of the building, such as a child's bedroom, or equipment such as an exercise room.  The constant movement of these items shakes the walls, floors & ceilings, and that vibration is transferred to the bulb's filament.  If the fixture can be outfitted with 'rough-service' bulbs, that would be one option to try.  Rough service bulbs may also be called garage-door operator bulbs, appliance bulbs, or ceiling fan bulbs.  They are designed with additional support for the filament than a standard bulb.  Another option to look at is Compact Fluorescent (CF) bulbs, which have no filament.  And with todays' advancing technology, you may want to look into Light-Emitting-Diode (LED) lights as well.

If none of the above suggestions seem to help, there’s one more thing to try.

And it comes as a surprise to many that there actually are right and wrong ways to proverbially, ‘screw in a light bulb'. You may be twisting them into the socket too tightly.

By ‘cranking down’ on a bulb during installation you may be causing the most damage to the bulb and socket. Premature bulb failure is often caused by bulbs that have been installed too tightly into light fixtures.

Look into the base of a light fixture socket and you will see a brass tab. This tab is bent at an angle when the fixtures are new and will spring back and forth if depressed slightly. Now take several new light bulbs and inspect the base of each one. You will quickly notice that the bottom of most light bulbs has a small dot of solder in the center of the base. More importantly the size of this drop of solder is not exactly consistent. It is close in size, but not always the same size or height.

If the brass tab at the base of the socket does not make firm contact with the bottom of the light bulb, two things may happen. If there is a poor connection between the brass tab and the base of the bulb, the connection may heat up, and this heat cause the filament to burn out too soon.

If the connection is extremely poor, a small electrical arc can occur that starts to melt the solder and eventually burn a tiny hole through the bottom of the bulb. This hole breaks the vacuum inside the light bulb. When this happens, the gas inside the bulb is replaced by the air in your house and the bulb filament rapidly burns out.

To prevent this arcing you must be sure the brass tab is always at about a 30 degree angle inside the bottom of the socket. People who twist bulbs in tightly will depress and flatten the tab so it does not spring back when a bulb is replaced.

If you discover the tab is flattened, then you must turn off the power to the lights at the switch. As an additional safety measure, turn off the circuit breaker to the lights. Use a needle-nose pliers and carefully grasp the sides of the brass tab and slowly pull it up so the end of the tab is about one quarter inch off the base of the socket.

When you install a bulb always do so with the power off and the light switch on. Screw the bulb in enough for the thread to hold the bulb in place. Turn on the power, and continue turning the bulb. As soon as the bulb comes on, turn the bulb one-eighth of a turn. If you screw the bulb in too tightly, you will once again flatten the brass tab.

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I got shocked working on some wiring. Why didn’t the circuit breaker trip?

If you are not qualified to work with high voltage systems before, you should not proceed any further. Standard residential electricity (120/240 volt) is dangerous. You must treat it with the utmost respect. People are killed on a daily basis by electrocution and fires which result from improperly installed wiring and electrical devices. All wiring should be inspected by the local authority.

Conventional circuit breakers are wonderful devices. They are basically automatic switches that disrupt the flow of electrical current in the event of an overload. The sole function of circuit breakers, believe it or not, is to protect the wiring that runs from the circuit breaker panel to the various switches, outlets and fixtures. Conventional circuit breakers will not protect you from electrocution nor will they protect equipment from voltage surges.

The electrical wiring in your house can be easily damaged by having too much electrical current flowing through it. As electricity flows through a wire it generates friction. This friction, in turn, generates heat. It is possible to generate enough heat to melt the insulation on the wires. Wires without insulation, when short-circuited, have a tendency to generate sparks. And these sparks can cause fires.

Virtually all residential circuit breakers have two independent methods which allow them to automatically switch off or trip. The heat mentioned before can ‘trip’ a breaker. When too much heat is generated, a small piece of bimetal inside the breaker begins to bend. This bending force causes the breaker to switch off. This property works well to protect the wiring when electrical demand slowly builds.

However, wiring some times short circuits. These short circuits occur when two wires touch each other and generate sparks. Short circuits like this allow massive amounts of electricity to flow through wiring very quickly. Small electromagnets within the breakers sense this flow and instantaneously switch the breaker off before the insulation covering the wires begins to melt.

Electrical wiring, extension cords, and breakers are manufactured to withstand certain amounts of electrical current without damage. The standard by which they are measured is amperes or amps. For example, an extension cord may be rated to withstand 10 amps. Electrical currents passing through this wire in excess of 10 amps can cause catastrophic failure to the wire.

For example, imagine this scenario. You install a 15 amp breaker and the proper wire rated for this current to an electrical outlet. However, you plug an extension cord into this outlet that is only rated for 10 amps. This cord is feeding current to a motor or other device which is drawing 14 amps. The breaker will not necessarily trip before the extension cord melts and causes a fire.

As you can see, electricity can be dangerous. Be sure to observe, respect, and follow the amperage ratings and installation guidelines on all breakers, wires, and extension cords.

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I can’t reset a circuit breaker. What can I do?

There are four positions on most household circuit breakers. Reset, Off, Tripped, and On. If a breaker is in the Tripped position, you cannot simply turn the breaker to the On position. You must first move it to the Reset position, then to the On position. You may see instructions about this on the inside cover of your main electrical panel. Some breakers are push-on and push-off, and will protrude out when tripped. These breakers need only to be pushed back in to reset.

Generally, tripped breakers are due to overloaded circuits, short circuits, and weak or defective breakers. In the case of overloads or short circuits, the breaker will not reset unless the problem causing it is fixed first. You should first unplug all appliances and turn off all the lights on the circuit affected.

A circuit breaker is rated to protect a defined capacity, and exceeding this capacity will cause "tripping" of breakers. Breakers with a continuous heavy load or a load close to the circuit breaker rated value, can stress the internal workings of the breaker and weaken the trip mechanism. This is a common cause of nuisance tripping, circuit breaker replacement and/or re-circuiting is recommended.

Circuit breakers are not magical, but mechanical, and can fail.

Circuit Breaker Tripping Off

A circuit breaker is designed to trip off when it detects too much power running through the wire it's protecting. There are three main reasons circuit breakers trip off:

1. There is a short circuit.

2. There is an overloaded circuit.

3. The circuit breaker is broken.

Short Circuits
Short circuits occur when two electrical wires accidentally touch each other. A short circuit will immediately cause one of your circuit breakers to trip off or one of your fuses to blow.

To fix a short circuit, ask yourself this question: "What was happening right before the short circuit?" If you had just plugged something into a receptacle (outlet) or turned on a light or an appliance, then this gives you a clue as to what just caused the short. If you just plugged in a hair dryer, for instance, you can simply unplug the dryer and then re-set the circuit breaker or replace the fuse. If everything is now OK, then your electrical system is fine — and it's time to get a new hair dryer!

If, however, you can't find anything plugged in which is causing the problem, then it's time to call Code Electric to locate and repair your short circuit.

Overloaded Circuit
Overloaded circuits occur when too much power is running through an electrical wire. To protect the wire, the circuit breaker does its job by detecting the overload and tripping off. The solution to this problem is to remove some of the things that are connected to the overloaded circuit and plug it into another circuit. If the problem persists, you will need to add more circuits, and Code Electric can help you with this.

Broken Circuit Breaker
Sometimes circuit breakers just wear out and need to be replaced. If you suspect this is the case, give Code Electric a call immediately at (515) 208-2415.

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I have older, ungrounded outlets in my home. Can I simply install newer, grounded outlets in their place?

Many older homes have ungrounded, or 2-slot, receptacles instead of the regular grounded, or 3-slot outlets. Some homes do not have ground wires at switch and outlet locations. It is very tempting for a homeowner to install a grounded outlet receptacle in place of the old fashioned two-prong outlet. Doing so will only create a false sense of security, and can create shock and fire hazards.

In the case of an electrical fault, there will be no ground wire for the fault current to travel in order to trip the breaker or fuse. This could cause a person to receive a painful or even fatal shock, or may cause the wire to overheat and cause a fire.

The National Electrical Code recognizes the danger of ungrounded wiring, and has a few options available to address the needs of homeowners with old wiring. But only a qualified electrician can properly assess your wiring and determine the best course of action in this instance.

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My dimmers get hot. Should I be concerned?

You may notice a dimmer seems warm when you touch it. The good news is a certain amount of heat is normal. Dimmers naturally get warm when they are in use, especially if there is more than one dimmer in the same location.

However, if a dimmer is really warm or hot to the touch, this indicates a problem. If the wattage of the lights controlled by the dimmer exceeds the dimmers rating, you have a serious problem. You should not use that dimmer and contact us immediately.

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My ceiling fan hums when it runs. I want to use the fan at night, but I can’t sleep! What causes that annoying sound?

There are several things to check. One is the age of the fan itself. Fans are mechanical, and wear out over time. Cheap fans wear out faster than quality ones, but eventually all fans will start to wear out.

Another source may be the balance of the fan. Ceiling fans need to be balanced, just like the tires on your car. An out-of-balance fan not only wobbles, it can cause stress on the bearings, and that will reduce the life of the fan.

A third cause of fans humming is the use of a dimmer instead of a fan controller. Although they look similar on the outside, they are quite different inside.

In any case, replacement of the fan or controller is best left to the qualified electricians at Code Electric.

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I have some outlets that don’t have any power. What would cause that?

In some homes and offices, instead of lights on the ceiling, there are receptacles (outlets) on the wall that are controlled by a light switch near the entrance to the room. The idea is that floor or desk lamps are plugged into the receptacle, and the receptacle can be turned on or off with the light switch by the door.

So if a device that is plugged into a receptacle has no power, the first thing to do is simply turn on all the light switches in the room. Sometimes the device will immediately come on, which means that it is controlled by the switch on the wall.

Hint—A receptacle usually has two places to plug things into it. Sometimes one is permanently energized and the other is controlled by a switch by the door. This is known as a 'half-hot' or ‘split’ receptacle.

If you have tried turning on the switch, and checking the fuses or breakers and you still can’t get any power at the outlet, it’s time to call Code Electric.

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Why do my recessed lights cycle on and off?

Modern recessed lights are rated for a maximum wattage bulb and are equipped with a thermal device that does not allow a bulb larger than that rating. This is a safety device to protect your home against fire. The wattage rating is dependent on the fixture, trim style and type of bulb. If an incorrect bulb is used, excess heat builds up and the thermal device will shut the light off until it cools. Once it has cooled down, the light will come back on, and the cycle will start over.

If you still experience this ‘thermal cycling’ after installing the correct bulb, you should give Code Electric a call right away.

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Why do my GFI outlets/breakers have a ‘TEST" button?

Ground-Fault Interrupters (GFI’s) are wonderful safety devices, and have proven themselves very reliable in preventing electric shocks. However, with all things mechanical, they can wear out and malfunction. The purpose of the test button is so you can periodically check the function of the electronics and mechanism for proper function.

By pressing the test button, you can make sure the safety feature of the GFI outlet is working properly. You should check all your GFI outlets on a regular basis, once a month is the recommended time frame.

If a GFI does not trip, or still has power when it does trip, it’s time to call Code Electric to rectify this dangerous situation.

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How often should I test my smoke detectors?

All smoke detectors should be tested once a month. If you have battery-operated units only, each one should be tested individually. If you have inter-connected units, you may only need to test one, and the other units will sound off as well.

Batteries for either type of units should be changed one a year regardless of the battery condition. Most fire departments suggest you do this in the month of October, which coincides with their Fire Prevention Month.

It is also suggested that you take a vacuum cleaner with a soft brush to smoke detectors once a year to prevent dust build-up. This build-up can either lead to false alarms, or prevent the unit from detecting smoke at all.

Another important factor with smoke detectors that is not that well known is most existing units have a limited life span. The majority of smoke detectors in place today are past their expected life span, and should be replaced. You can contact Code Electric for further information.

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My house has aluminum wiring. Should I be concerned?

Although aluminum wire has caused problems and, in extreme cases fires, there are hundreds of thousands of homes operating with aluminum wire with no issues, so there is no reason to panic. Aluminum wiring, when installed properly, can be just as safe as copper.

If you truly feel the need to address this issue, the easy answer is to replace it all. However, this can be quite expensive, disrupting and time-consuming. And depending on your home, there may need to patch the walls and ceilings due to this process.

Another possibility is to replace your switches and outlets with devices rated for aluminum. This is the least expensive, but most people don’t like one problem with it. Because aluminum wiring is so rare, manufacturers haven’t produced a huge variety of devices made specifically for it. The colors and types of devices are severely limited.

The most popular choice is to have Code Electric install short, copper ‘pigtails’ at each device, thereby satisfying your need for watching the budget, yet maintaining the décor of the house with it’s existing devices.

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Why do some lights hum when they are dimmed? Can this be prevented?

This is caused by the lamp filament vibrating as the dimmer rapidly switches the lamp on and off. Lamp hum is generally noisiest at the mid-range [50%] dimming level. If this happens use rough service lamps [sometimes called garage door opener or appliance bulbs], physically smaller lamps, or lower wattage lamps.  If the problem persists, the qualified folks at Code Electric can consult with you on your options to solve the humming.

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I have an old, obsolete electrical panel.  Should I have it changed?

The electrical panel is the heart of the electrical system in your home. If the heart (panel) malfunctions or stops working, you have a big problem. All power coming from your utility company goes through this panel. If your home has a fuse panel or an obsolete circuit breaker panel or even worse still a panel that has lost its UL approval because it doesn't operate properly, it might be wise to consider a new circuit breaker panel.

One of the common things that people notice in their homes is dimming lights and outlets that operate intermittently. One of the reasons this happens is that the electrical panel is old and/or may have a bad connection point (splice) within it. This is not a good thing. Poor connections, no matter what the reason is, can lead to more damage and possibly a fire.

The other issue with some older panels may have been forced to stop production many years ago by listing authorities because they do not operate properly. These panels are very dangerous. All circuit breakers are designed to trip quickly and turn off the power within a fraction of a second when there is potential risk of fire or a risk of a person getting electrocuted. In most cases, these breakers inside these old, obsolete panels will take several seconds to trip and in some cases, will not shut off the power at all! There is a clear danger related to having these old panels and breakers in your home. Someone could be electrocuted or the panel could cause a fire in your home.

Installing a new electric panel will increase your safety and peace of mind as well as increase the resale value of your home. Code Electric can remove your old panel and install a new quality panel, usually within one day. We will do this with as little disruption to you as possible, and we will have your power back on before we leave your home.

When changing out your electrical panel, it is also a good time to determine if the main service (the main electrical power being supplied by your electrical company) coming to your home is large enough to handle all your electrical needs for today and for the future.

Changing out an electrical panel and/or your main service is a serious project. It's a job for the electrician who has the manpower, experience, training and equipment to do it right the first time. It's a job for the electrician who will guarantee that the project will be finished on time, and guarantee the workmanship.

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I have a 100 amp panel but there are no circuits left, what should I do?

There are a couple of options available, but neither should be undertaken by a homeowner or DIYer.

One option is to install ‘piggy-back’ breakers. These are the same size as a single breaker, but are actually two breakers in one, thus providing and extra circuit. For some panels, however, they are quite expensive if available at all.

The other option is to add a small panel which is fed from your original service panel. The size of this panel will determine the number of circuits added.

It is strongly suggested that only the qualified electricians at Code Electric perform such work.

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