Fix-It Friday: Do-It-Yourself Electrical… The Shocking Truths Revealed

Young girl with messy hair being shocked by electric cable.
Fix-It FridayHome Improvement 16 Comments

By far, the number one DIY project that terrifies folks is electrical wiring. I always say, “It’s good to have a fear of something that can, um, KILL YOU – or at least give you a hair-raising jolt you won’t soon forget!” But while a healthy fear is good, a paralyzing one isn’t. So let me start our electric edification with one basic principle:

You cannot get an electrical shock if no electricity is present. So, the golden rule for any electric project is to check, then re-check, that the power is OFF.

Simple, right? To follow this rule you first need to locate your service panel. Wait a minute – WHAT is your service panel? Think of a service panel as a switchboard, where electricity comes into your home from the power company, then gets branched through the panel to all of the various plugs, switches, and dedicated power lines.

The thing about the service panel is this – more than distributing power around your home, it protects it by disrupting the flow of power when safe electric levels are exceeded.

So whether your panel has fuses or circuit breakers, it will instantly cut-off the electricity (“break the circuit”) the moment an overload or short occurs, protecting your wiring and preventing a fire hazard. Each breaker or fuse also acts as a big ON-OFF switch, shutting down power to any particular circuit at the flip of a breaker or spin of a fuse. This “OFF” function, is precisely what makes it safe to do electric projects in your home – power OFF, means protection ON – allowing you to expose wires with no risk of shock.

Here’s a good place to answer WYSK reader Jean B’s question: “I recently moved and went from a fuse system to a circuit breaker system for electricity in the house. Can you tell me what the difference is between these two systems, and what does each one do?”

circuit breakerWhile a fuse and breaker’s purpose is exactly the same, to disrupt the flow of electricity, the old school fuse “blows” when overloaded, where as the newer breaker “trips.” What actually blows in a fuse is a thin strip of metal that melts when overloaded, halting the flow of electricity.

A breaker has this same function, but only as a back-up… a breaker first trips (shuts off) when overloaded, and in the event it doesn’t trip, it will melt that same type of wire used in a fuse, offering double protection.

Once a fuse blows, it needs to be replaced. When a breaker trips, it simply gets reset to the “ON” position, which means flipping the lever from the central (tripped) position, to the fully “OFF” position, then flipping it back “ON.” Remember, from a tripped position, a breaker must go to the true OFF position first, or it won’t reset.

GFCINote: If the breaker refuses to move to the “ON” position, it has either blown, or the electric overload in the circuit is still present. In the latter case, make sure all appliances that were on when the breaker first tripped have been turned off, and if a GFCI* (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter) is present, press its reset button that may have tripped as well.

If the breaker STILL won’t turn on, it’s time to call in a pro.

* A GFCI is a special outlet (pictured at right) with its own built-in kind of breaker that’s used near areas of electrical hazard, like a sink.


Know that 100% protection from electrical shock comes entirely from following safety precautions.

Here’s a list of electrical safety steps YOU should ALWAYS follow:

  1. Do not touch your service panel with both hands – you could receive a shock since your body would be creating a closed circuit if both hands touch the panel at the same time. So always keep one hand at your side.
  2. Before starting any electric project, turn off the electric from the service panel. (Knowing which breaker you need to switch off will be easy if you’ve mapped your service panel – more on mapping later).
  3. Pen tester screen shotPut a piece of tape over the breaker/fuse to be sure no one accidentally puts it back on while you’re working.
  4. Even with the breaker/fuse “OFF”, when starting an electric project, handle the wires as if they were hot until you re-check the power is off with a non-contact electric tester*.
  5. Always recap wires while working, even though you know the power is off.
  6. Water and electricity don’t mix! Be aware of your surroundings!

* A non-contact pen-style electric tester is my favorite tool to determine if electricity is present or not. With the tester turned “ON,” touch any wire, appliance, outlet or switch and it will start ringing and flashing light if electricity is flowing. No need to expose any bare wires to test for power! Some testers only give a visual warning, but I prefer the ones that ring as well.


Map Your Service Panel

The smartest, safest, and most efficient thing you can do to prepare for anything electric related in your home is to map your service panel.

Mapping means labeling every circuit breaker or fuse with its corresponding outlet, switch, fixture, or appliance. Mapping is tedious and time consuming, but once it’s done, it’s DONE, and you never have to worry about it again. So whether it’s lights out from a circuit that went “POP,” or you want to install a new wall sconce, you can approach your service panel with confidence knowing what powers what.

Locate your service panel. Look for a small metal door, about eye height, that’s flush with the wall or on a metal raised box. They’re usually in the basement or garage, but can be just about anywhere… on the exterior of the house, in the laundry room, near the entry of your apartment, in a closet, etc.

Shut-off all fragile equipment. Any delicate electronics that may be damaged by a power-out, like a computer, should be turned off before you begin to map your service panel.

Residential Electricity Service PanelBegin by numbering each breaker or fuse with a label. Label by either putting a piece of tape directly on the breaker or on the plan provided on the panel door.

Now you can trace the general circuits in your home through a process of elimination. Turn on an overhead fixture or lamp in every room, trip a breaker or disconnect a fuse, and note which light shuts off. This will locate the circuit for a room.

Once you’ve identified the room for the first breaker, continue testing each outlet in that room. Use either a lamp or radio to see if each outlet is connected to the first breaker you’re testing or if some are connected to another breaker. (A radio is a great outlet tester, because if you’re alone you can hear it go off when you trip the right breaker.) On a separate sheet of paper write down the breaker or fuse number that corresponds with each fixture or outlet and keep this taped in the door panel for future reference. It should read something like this: Breaker #3, Kitchen, all outlets on south facing wall.

Done!


Now that you’re hip to all safety steps, ready to map your service panel, and add a non-contact tester to your toolbelt, you can step out of that fear factory in your head, and into an electric project with savvy and confidence!

Just think, FINALLY you can replace that hideous and unforgiving light fixture in your bathroom! And if you’re like me, unflattering bathroom light is the LAST thing you want as you glance at yourself in the mirror while stepping out of the shower.

Norma sig


Got A DIY Question? Ask-The-Expert!

If you have a DIY home repair, maintenance or improvement question for Norma, now is your chance to ask-the-expert and have her answer. Your burning question may just be the “star” of next week’s Fix-It Friday column.

Add your question to the comments section below or email it to Women You Should Know.

Fix-It Friday is an exclusive Women You Should Know® editorial series authored by seasoned veteran of home improvement, Norma Vally. The weekly column is designed to inspire women – weekend warriors, aspiring handywomen, and even seasoned DIYers – to take on home repairs and maintenance projects with confidence and gusto.

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  • Harry S.

    Way to go Norma!! Excellent Article for DIYers!

    • Norma

      Thanks, Harry! Cheers!

  • Jean B.

    Norma, Thank you so much. You’ve explained everything very clearly.

    • Norma

      You’re welcome, Jean B! Thanks for your question!

  • DC143

    I feel SO in the electrical know now! Speaking of “shocking”… can you tell me why outlets in my condo spark every time I got to plug something in? It has been happening for YEARS (over 8) and it freaks me out, but nothing happens beyond that initial spark and everything works just fine. Is this anything to worry about?

    • Norma

      Hi DC143! There could be something to worry about…
      I’m not one to insight panic, but sparks “every time” is questionable. If the power of whatever you plug in is in the “on” position, then a small spark can be normal. Put your hand over the outlet and the wall around the outlet. If you feel any heat, there’s a problem. If that’s the case, I would shut-off the breaker to that outlet immediately and call an electrician. Excessive sparking can indicate faulty wiring and eventually melt wire insulation…you can imagine what comes next…God forbid. For sure feel around the outlet for heat, and see if a spark occurs when you plug in an extension cord that’s not attached to anything (it should NOT spark). Keep us posted!

  • Katieloe

    I’m going to be moving into a new apartment with semi old wiring. There is three walls each with several plug in outlets on the same breaker. Plug too much stuff in and it overloads the breaker. Is the easy fix just giving some of those outlets it’s own breaker or is it a larger issue?

  • Beth P.

    I’m not sure if this is a coincidence or a bigger problem but the other day I shut off a circuit to an area of my house to replace a light fixture. Once changed I turned the power back on and everything worked fine. Yesterday I went to close the circuit to another section of my house to change another fixture and now I cannot get any section of the house to close. For each breaker I clicked to the off position, the electricity in that area still stayed on. I tried this for several rooms and they are all labeled. Could I have done something wrong?

    • Norma

      Hi Beth! Your question is rather shocking (pardon the pun)! First, no, you did nothing wrong. That said, what your describing can NEVER happen, unless you THINK breakers are properly labeled, when if fact they aren’t. I mean, breakers can go bad, but all breakers not working at once? No. And if anything, they’d more likely stay in the off or neutral position. The only thing I can relate this to is a problem I ran into on a job…the breaker box was not labeled right and what I thought was shutting down power to a room did not. I discovered a SECOND breaker box in the garage that powered a room of the house. FREAKY but bizarre wiring happens more often then we’d like.

      Having a licensed electrician come in to check this out is a wise choice. Please let us know what you discover–we’ll all learn something! Good luck!

      • Beth P.

        What I did learn was my box is not properly labeled. The breaker for the hallway lights was actually named smokes which I assumed was for various smoke alarms only. Live and learn. Thank you for your help. I did also speak to 2 electricians that told me they were mislabeled. They were right, I was wrong!

        • Norma

          Thanks for following up, Beth! It’s a lesson for all of us to realize we need to be very thorough when it comes to labeling our breakers, and not to automatically trust someone else’s labeling. Good luck with the rest of your electric projects and bravo for getting to the bottom of this glitch!

  • pjsearch

    I turned off the circuit breaker(s) on 2 of the house circuits. I wasn’t sure which one I was working on, so turned off both. I worked on one circuit to add a thermostat. Threw the circuit breakers back on (both of them). The thermostat worked fine. The other circuit on which I didn’t work, stopped working though. The circuit breaker switch is in the ON position. I have tried to push it hard on the off side and the on side just in case I wasn’t getting it right, but to no avail. Everything on that circuit is off. It doesn’t matter how many times I throw it, nothing comes on even for a second. Any advice would be helpful. Thanks!

    • Norma

      Hi pjsearch! Sorry your circuit breaker is breaking your chops!
      Ok, for the fix…either you have a bad breaker (it’s possible it’s faulty) OR, and more likely, something is tripping the breaker and not allowing it to be flipped to the on position.
      Let me ask you, if you’re not sure which breaker the thermostat was on, how do you know that the “good” breaker is controlling the thermostat? A digital thermostat will give readings, but it’s the batteries that are powering what you see–meanwhile it’s not actually controlling the heater.
      That said, if the heater is indeed working, it’s proof you’re it’s on the “good” breaker.
      So what would could be overloading the other breaker? At this point, if you’ve changed nothing else on that circuit, and you’ve tried to properly reset the breaker (meaning flipping it all the way to the off position, then to the on, hearing a “click”) and it STILL won’t function or stay in the on position, I’d call in a pro.
      Let us know what happens! Good luck!

      • pjsearch

        I figured it out. I forgot to mention that these are line voltage, double pole thermostats. The issue was that I had connected the wrong wires to the load side. So, the current wasn’t being passed on to the next part of the circuit. It was stopping at the 1st heater. The rest of the heaters on the circuit didn’t have a live wire… 🙂

  • Marie

    Hi. I went to change the bulb in my external wall fixture and the bulb came out without the base. It sparked when that happened. I got the bulb base out, but when I put a new bulb in it didn’t work. I tried several bulbs. So I changed the fixture but it still doesn’t work. Might something have happened due to that spark? Or what might be the problem?

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