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12 Frequently Asked Electrical Questions from New Homeowners

Electrical wires

When you are in the market to buy a new house, so many questions can arise. Even when you do your best to understand how a home operates, there are all kinds of issues that can lurk under the surface. It’s important to ask the right electrical questions about your new home or potential new home during the process. One of the most vital parts of a home is the electrical system. Make sure that you ask the right questions to understand if it’s up to code, how it works, and frequent solutions to problems. Here are some common electrical questions asked about systems and the answers that will lead you to understand this aspect of a home’s inner workings.

1. What is a GFCI outlet?

 One of the most common electrical questions is about the exact purpose of a GFCI outlet. A GFCI outlet is a “Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter.” That doesn’t mean much to someone not familiar with electrical work. For a new homeowner, it’s an outlet that will protect you from electrical shocks because it has a safety in place that shuts off the electrical current if it encounters something it’s not supposed to, such as water or a person’s finger. It can also help to prevent outlet fires. Keep in mind GFCI’s are usually required by law in most places to be installed near water sources in kitchens and bathrooms and anywhere else that water may be present, such as basements or garages.

2. What do I do if an appliance is plugged into a GFCI and stops working, but the circuit breaker is not tripped?

There is a reset button on the outlet that allows you to restart it. All you have to do is unplug your appliance and hit the button. Then plug your appliance back in. It should work after that if nothing is wrong with the circuits.  

3. What is a short circuit?

This can occur in your electrical wiring when there is a low current connection between your fuse box and the device you want to power on. For example, if there is something wrong with the wires that are connecting everything, they might “short” out. The coating on the wire could be worn away, or broken from the breaker to the outlet. Even small animals in the rodent family sometimes chew through electrical wires in your walls. This is usually a problem that needs to be looked at by an electrician because sparks or fire can occur. 

4. Why would the motion sensor light installed outside continuously stay on throughout the night, or constantly turn on and off?

 For the first part of the question with a motion sensor light staying on, it might just be that your sensor is dirty, so it’s triggering it to stay on. That has nothing to do with electricity, but for the second part of the question it might be an electrical issue. The bulb might not be resting securely in the fitting. Try to replace the bulb and see if that solves the issue.

5. Why would a dimmer/light switch plate be warm/hot to the touch?

 If nothing is plugged into the outlet or there aren’t too many items stressing the electrical supply, it’s perfectly normal for it to be a tad warm. The lights tend to do that in a house. In general if it’s too hot to touch, that’s a serious problem. Damaged wires can cause excessive heat on regular switch plates.

For dimmer switches they have a maximum load measured in watts that they are allowed to safely handle. When they are overloaded you should add up the wattage of lighting units and reduce the load or upgrade the dimmer switch.

6. Why are some of the light switches in my house not connected to anything? When they’re flipped on and off, nothing happens. 

 When you move to a new place it can be hard to figure out which switch plate goes to what outlet. To test an outlet, plug something in that makes noise, such as a radio, then turn on the switch to see if it powers up the outlet. When you encounter a mystery light switch with no matching outlet that does anything, you can remove the outlet plate to see if there are any wires inside even connected to it. If there aren’t problems with the wiring being in the right place, you’ll need to trace the circuit, which you’ll probably want an electrician to do.  

7. Why can’t I turn a tripped circuit breaker in my electrical panel back on?

 If you trip a circuit breaker in your new home, give it a few minutes before you try to go down to the fuse box and let it cool down. Then if you press the switch in the circuit breaker and it still doesn’t come on, something could be overloading it. It’s usually a big appliance, like a washer/dryer, refrigerator, other large item, or too many running at the same time. It might be a broken appliance causing it. If not, the circuit breaker might be faulty or broken, needing replacement.

 8. What is an AFCI breaker?

 An AFCI or “Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter” is a specific type of breaker that helps to prevent electrical fires. It achieves this by sensing hazardous electrical arcs. Most arcs are normal and don’t malfunction unless a problem occurs, so having these types of breakers in place can make your new home much safer. 

9. What is a whole house surge protector?

 A whole house surge protector is a good idea since it tames dangerous power surges that can short out your appliances, or computers. Having one in place is ideally suited to areas that experience intense thunderstorms, where lightning might strike utility poles or lines near your home. Often without it these power surges can fry even GFCI plugs in your home.

10. What is the most energy efficient lighting for my house?

Another incredibly of the common electrical questions. The most energy efficient lighting for your new home, according to is light bulbs that hold the “ENERGY STAR” rating on the box. That includes CFL, halogen incandescent, and LED light bulbs. You might pay a little more upfront for these bulbs, but in the long run you’ll save on energy costs.

11. What is the difference between low voltage fixtures and standard fixtures?

Low voltage fixtures in your home are the ones that sit in the background. That includes chandelier lights, recessed lighting, desk lights, and task lighting. Outside it might be landscape lighting that comes on at night with a timer. Standard fixtures are your larger lamps, main kitchen lights, and bathrooms lights. Brighter light that requires a higher wattage is usually considered standard.  

12. Why does my cabinet-mounted microwave occasionally trip my circuit breaker?

Your microwave might trip your circuit breaker if you have too many appliances on at the same time on the same circuit. The solution here is to not run so many things at once, or move other appliances to different locations in the kitchen that don’t work on the same fuse. Or you can have a GFCI switch for the microwave outlet, which will hopefully trip the outlet and not the entire fuse to the kitchen.