Last October, the Colorado Springs Fire Department responded to reports of smoke wafting out of a wood-framed home. The antiquated knob-and-tube wiring — installed when the home was built in 1909 — had made contact with insulation in the attic, overheated and ignited. Everyone made it out by the time firefighters arrived, and they extinguished the flames within minutes. But fires of this nature can be especially dangerous because archaic wiring is often out of sight, out of mind — until it’s too late.
Even if your home or apartment was built after knob-and-tube was phased out in the 1940s, other outdated or failing electrical components can be a major nuisance. Dead outlets with worn or loose connections are useless, two-prong outlets are incompatible with many modern appliances, and flickering lights are distracting. Some quick fixes like adapters, power strips and extension cords are fine to use in the short term but come with safety hazards of their own.
Steve Wilch, battalion chief for the Colorado Springs Fire Department, said that regardless of the state of your home’s electrical system, smoke alarms are still one of the best ways to protect yourself. He recommends replacing smoke alarms every five years or so and changing out the batteries every six months to a year.
Whether you’re a renter or homeowner, there are some electrical wiring red flags you can keep an eye out for — and a few key pitfalls to avoid.
Too Few Outlets
Unless your home was built in the past 20 years, there probably aren’t nearly enough outlets to accommodate your growing list of gadgets. Power strips — or better yet, surge protectors, which absorb common power surges that can damage electronics — are an inexpensive and safe way to add extra outlets in most circumstances. Never use an extension cord as a permanent solution when there’s no outlet nearby.
In 2016, Sarah Calvert, 23, and her four roommates lived in a rented home in Madison, Wisconsin, that was built in the 19th century. Despite updates, the house had many fewer outlets than they needed.
“There are so many things that have to be plugged in to work,” Calvert said. “You can’t just plug in the TV — there’s the TV and the receiver and the Roku and whatever else.” The group resorted to plugging power strips and extension cords into virtually every outlet.
A power strip is fine to use under a desk or home entertainment system as long as it has built-in surge protection and is certified by UL (formerly known as Underwriters Laboratories), the electrical-safety company. But you should never use an extension cord to plug in a device across the room, because the cord can wear down when snaked around corners and furniture. It could also partially pull out of the wall, creating conditions that could start a fire. Even though surge protectors are well-suited for adding outlets in a concentrated area like behind a media center, you should never daisy-chain multiple power strips or use them to power high-output devices like space heaters, air-conditioners or hair dryers.
“If you need more outlets you should call a qualified professional, rather than taking the easy way out,” said Robert Diamond, head of the Electrical Development Unit at the New York City Department of Buildings.
Depending on where you live, and the age of your home, a licensed electrician could charge as little as $100 to install an additional outlet — a small price for something that should make your home safer for years to come.
Outdated Two-Prong Outlets
If your home has two-prong outlets, there’s no safe way to update them to modern three-prong outlets, short of calling a licensed electrician. If you’re a renter, you might have a case to get your landlord to replace them.
Calvert’s 19th-century house had some two-prong outlets, so she and her roommates reserved them for lamps and other appliances with two-prong plugs. These outlets, common in buildings constructed before the 1960s, don’t just limit what you can plug in. They also provide less protection against sparks and shocks than modern, three-prong plugs, which keep electricity grounded.
You can buy an inexpensive adapter as a workaround, but because these protrude from the wall they can get bumped and disconnected, causing electricity to arc and spark. “We don’t recommend any kind of adapter as a permanent solution,” Diamond said.
If you’re a renter with two-prong outlets, and your home or apartment was built or retrofitted after grounding became required in the 1960s, your landlord may be required to update the outlets at his or her own expense.
You might be tempted to ignore a dead outlet and cover it up with a piece of furniture, but a nonworking outlet could signal a frayed or loose wire somewhere in the circuit, behind the wall.
A hand-held voltage tester or a three-prong outlet testing device from your local hardware store should cost less than $20 and give you more information to pass along to an electrician when you call one to replace the outlet.
Replacing an outlet is a quick job for a licensed electrician, so it’s worth having one do it right. If you’re a renter, ask your landlord to have the outlet repaired. Because a dead outlet is a safety and habitability issue — as well a potential code violation — it’s a landlord’s responsibility to get it fixed.
Frequent Blown Fuses or Circuit-Breaker Trips
If the breakers in your older home trip often, it could mean that your modern appliances are too powerful for the electrical system or that there’s faulty wiring. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of troubleshooting you can do on your own before calling in a professional. It’s normal for a fuse to blow or a breaker to trip every once in a while, but frequent occurrences indicate a deeper issue.
Joshua Peterson, a master electrician in Loveland, Colorado, often gets called to root out these issues after a home has been “fixed and flipped” by an unlicensed contractor. On a recent project, he recalled, his client “had about two circuits feeding the whole downstairs kitchenette, and most kitchens today have to have eight to 10 circuits serving them. She had beautiful granite and walls and ceilings and tile and drywall. But when she’d plug one thing in here, it would trip on another thing there. It’s what we call at our company putting lipstick on a pig.”
Never swap a breaker or fuse for one with a higher amperage — say, replacing a 15-amp breaker with a 20-amp version — to correct frequent failures. It may be tempting, but this is dangerous because instead of addressing the root problem, you are preventing the fuse — which is, after all, a safety device — from working as intended. This could cause the wiring to overload and overheat, potentially starting a fire.
Every jurisdiction in the country has its own set of standards and policies regarding electrical work. The New York City Department of Buildings is an exemplar, said Diamond. You can go to the department’s website to find out if an electrician has a current license, is properly insured and has any disciplinary reports on file.
Tracking down and hiring qualified professionals takes time and money. But putting in that extra bit of legwork to replace outdated electrical wiring in your home is well worth it in the long run — reducing your risk of electric shock, damage to your gadgets or even a fire.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.