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AROUND THE HOUSE: Time to upgrade your home's electrical system?


Each Sunday, as the newspaper is read, one will find an ad or two featuring a special price for an extension cord with six or more outlets. This single household item is a big clue as to why home power bills are at an all-time high. Americans are craving for more and more electrical appliances, toys and gadgets. And, in most older homes, there aren't enough power outlets for all the plugs. Thus, the demand for multi-outlet extension cords.

But, often, the problem is not the number of outlets, it is behind the walls in the home. Older homes, built before the advent of electric toothbrushes, VCRs and hot tubs, were constructed under electrical codes that are outdated for today's needs. These old systems have fuse boxes with up to 100 amp capacity. (To put this in perspective, a microwave or dishwasher should each have a 20 amp fuse.)

Each fuse has a rated capacity of 15 or 20 amps. When the power flow is increased above this level, the fuse blows. As more electrical appliances, games, gadgets, lights, etc., are added to a circuit, the more often a fuse will blow.

So, sometimes, a homeowner will replace an original fuse with a higher amperage fuse (say a 30 amp for a 20 amp) under the impression that the larger fuse is better because it doesn't blow out as often.

Nothing could be farther from the truth!

The original low amperage fuse is the "safety valve" that blows out before the wiring becomes so hot that it could set a home on fire. The higher amperage fuse allows overheating to take place in wires in the walls, becoming a potential cause of a serious fire.

If you live in an older home where fuses blow frequently, wall outlets are overloaded through three-way plugs, and electric lights dim as appliances turn on, then serious thought should be given to updating the electrical system.

This starts with the installation of a new 125 amp or larger electrical panel with circuit breakers. Then, the wall outlets will be wired for three-prong plugs, with new outlets added, as needed, for lamps and appliances. Microwave ovens, dishwashers, computer systems, furnaces, hot tubs, power tools and any other big energy user should be on separate "dedicated" circuits. Costs of updating a home's electrical system can be from $2,000 to $8,000, depending on the complexity of the project.

When selecting an electrician, it is comforting to know what Washington state licenses them only after they pass a competency test. These are the types of electrician's licenses issued: a low-voltage license (good for installing security systems, etc.); a residential license; a commercial license; and an elevator license.

An electrician with either a residential or a commercial license can rewire a home. However, it is recommended that one search around to find an electrical contractor that is experienced in working in older homes, so as to minimize the damage to existing walls, plumbing, floors, etc.

As might be guessed, a contractor who does the wiring in new homes, before the sheetrock is up, would probably be challenged by rewiring an existing structure. A good electrician will make sure that an electrical permit is secured (it's required!) from the local building authorities.