Older Home Electrical Tips
Older homes have so much charm and character, but there can be surprises hidden in electrical panels, outlets, and other electrical wires you don’t see at first.
The electrical work behind your walls is responsible for lighting your home, powering your microwave and electric stove, running the air conditioning and so much more—in modern times. What was it originally wired to do though and can it handle all that is needed now with electronic devices, security systems, and so on?
While your electrical work might be out of sight and out of mind, you'll definitely notice if something goes wrong. That's why you should prevent electrical problems before they start by evaluating your wiring and planning upgrades if your system turns out to be damaged, out-of-date, dangerous or otherwise not up to the standard required for modern homes.
With electrical safety in mind, we’ve put together some suggestions for reviewing your older home’s electrical circuits, voltage, and wiring.
Update Outdated or Dangerous Wiring
There are a number of reasons why your electrical work could be in need of an update. One of the most important, and potentially most expensive, is if you have an outdated wiring system running through your home. Homes built in the 1970s or earlier could have aluminum wiring, or even worse, knob and tube wiring – neither of which was designed to carry the amount of electricity necessary for today's households. If you have one of these systems in your home, you might be able to increase your home’s electrical capacity and improve its safety by replacing that infrastructure with modern copper wiring.
Even if you have a modern wiring system, problems like corrosion or damaged wiring may be undetected and worsening. That's a serious hazard hidden in your walls that you might not know about until it's too late. There could also be other dangers in your electrical work, like shoddy connections in your circuit box, too many outlets on a circuit, or a lack of proper grounding.
Older homes also may have had some DIYers in the mix doing work that was not up to construction codes or electrical codes, with shortcuts taken and mistakes made to create modern electrical hazards.
Look for Expert Guidance
If your electrical work seems like it's performing fine for now, that doesn’t mean there’s no reason to check it out. First and foremost, old wiring puts you at increased risk of an electric fire, which is a risk to both your property and your life. Furthermore, many home insurance agencies won't issue you coverage, or will charge increased premiums, if there is outdated electrical work. It could be time to repair or replace outdated electrical equipment.
Old wiring also may not be up to your municipality's current local building code. Although existing homes are generally grandfathered into compliance if they don't meet new standards, you may be required to make updates to bring the system up to code if you perform any electrical work on your home in the future.
Properly evaluating the safety of a home electrical system is beyond the ability of most homeowners, let alone performing major upgrades like rewiring the home. If you have any doubts about the age or status of your home electrical work, don’t wait for a fire, electric shock, short circuit, or other emergency to call an electrician.
What Is Building Code?
If you are looking to remodel, expand or sell your home, there's a good chance you will have a close encounter with your local building code. These laws can be extensive, confusing and change frequently. The code is there for your safety, but it can still be frustrating to deal with. Older homes in particular are likely to have outdated technology that wouldn't pass a current inspection. Before embarking on a project, take time to understand what the laws are and how they can affect you.
Just about anything you want to do to your home beyond cosmetic changes probably has a corresponding law. Building code covers a number of standards mostly related to safety, including but not limited to HVAC, the electric system, plumbing, the structural integrity of the building and fire safety. If you own a rental unit, there are probably additional standards that you are required to meet before accepting tenants.
Of course, specific housing codes vary by municipality, although most are based on models like the International Residential Code and the National Electrical Code. Go to your city or town website or visit the building department for more information. You can also lookup many cities and municipality codes from around the country on a website called Municode.
Is My Old Electric Wiring Safe?
The electric code is one of the most important pieces of building code because failing to comply can endanger your home and property. Some common violations include improperly sized connections, overfilling outlet boxes, not properly grounding and not spacing outlets correctly.
Many code problems require only a simple fix, but others can be a much bigger undertaking. For example, old houses may conduct electricity on knob and tube wiring, which became obsolete in the 1940s. This type of wiring can put your home at risk and isn't equipped to handle high power loads typical in modern homes. If you still have knob and tube, you may discover an expensive upgrade is necessary when it's time to sell the house.
The laws governing electric systems are complex and confusing to many homeowners. The national code on which most cities base their own laws is 1,000 pages long -- far more than the average home DIY-er is able to digest. You could inadvertently run afoul of the law by doing something as simple as replacing a light fixture without upgrading the wiring to the most recent standards. It’s wise to consult a qualified electrician before undertaking a project so you don’t find yourself in over your head – and on the wrong side of the law.
What if I'm Out of Compliance?
If you have an older home that doesn't meet the current laws, don't panic. Usually, older buildings are grandfathered in when the codes are updated. However, if you want to modify or replace parts of the house, you might be required to do additional work to bring any outdated aspects into compliance.
Do your research so you understand when you need to pull a permit or bring in a city inspector. Talk to local officials upfront so they can help you understand how to proceed. When in doubt, hire a qualified professional experienced in local housing laws to let you know where you are up to code and in what areas you fall short.
Upgrading Your Voltage
What is the voltage capacity in your home? If it’s not 220 volts, you might need to upgrade. Many older homes only have the 110-volt capacity that was enough for older, smaller appliances but can’t handle the more modern washer, dryers, and refrigerators, on top of the many electronic devices people use today.
We explain how to upgrade to 220 volts in details here.
Your local Mister Sparky electricians are always here to help as they can advise you on bringing your home into compliance with local laws and do the work for you. For more information, call Mister Sparky today!