An Elementary Guide to Electricity

Men laying new hardwood flooring

While some homeowners shy away from anything mechanical in their homes, many fancy themselves the next Ty Pennington or Bob Vila. But when it comes to the residential electrical system and its components, every homeowner should have a basic understanding of what that system is and how it works. Not only will this knowledge come in handy when youre working with electricity, but it also could help keep the homeowner and the house safe.


CIRCUIT BREAKERS Photos courtesy of Meer Electric

The circuit breaker is designed to open and close a circuit by nonautomatic means, says Michael J. Palka, senior Enhanced Power Quality representative for Georgia Power. If an over-current, or power overload, travels through the circuit, it will trip, or shut off the power for that circuit. Fuses, which were in use before circuit breakers, also protect against over-current. A fusible part is heated and severed if an over-current passes through it, Palka says.


CONTROL PANEL: Usually located somewhere within the home, the control panel is the central location of the homes circuit breakers or fuses. It should contain the individual circuit breakers or fuses, as well as the main breaker switch for the home.

METER BASE: Located outside the home, the meter base contains the usage meter installed by your utility company.


GROUND: A ground, or grounding electrode, is a rod, pipe or other device that provides a termination point to the earth, Palka says. Equipment grounding conductors connect the non-current- carrying metal parts of equipment, raceways and other enclosures to the system grounded conductor, the grounding electrode conductor, or both, at the control panel.



GFCI: The ground fault circuit interrupter, or GFCI, is an electronic device that monitors the flow of electricity in a circuit. This helps protect against electric shock and electrocution. Most homeowners will recognize GFCI outletsthose outlets with test and reset buttons. Lightning arresters, also called surge suppressors, limit the amount of surge coming into the home, says Guy Roberts, CEO of Pat Murphy Electric Inc. in Atlanta. These are especially crucial in bathrooms, kitchens, garages, crawlspaces and any other area that is exposed to water.

AFCI: The arch-fault circuit interrupter, or AFCI, is a device that monitors the flow of electricity in a circuit. When it recognizes the unique current and/or voltage signatures associated with arcing faults, it interrupts the circuit. New homes are required to have AFCI protection on all bedroom circuits; AFCI circuit breakers located in the control panel are the most common form of protection.

SWITCH: Most familiar to homeowners, the switch is used to turn on and off lighting and other electrical equipment. Receptacles in outlets are the point at which we plug in items requiring electricity. And an uninterrupted power supply is a device that utilizes a battery to keep the power going if the electricity is cut off.


Armed with some of the basic terminology, homeowners next should learn the basics about their homes electrical system. There are three basic components that make up any electrical system: power supply, circuit wiring and protection, and the load, Palka says.

The power supply is the electricity that runs through the system. The circuit wiring is the wiring that connects all the components of the system. No. 12 gauge copper wire is the most common for residential wiring, Palka says. This conductor can carry up to 20 amps of current safely. Circuit breakers or fuses work to protect the system.

The load is anything that uses electricity. This can range from a small night light in the hallway to larger loads such as central heating and air conditioning systems, electric water heaters, electric ovens, air compressors and others, Palka says.


Understanding whats involved in your homes electrical system is the first step in protecting your home from potential electrical problems. But there are other steps homeowners can take to further ensure the safety of their families and homes. For example, never put a higher-watt bulb in your lighting fixtures than is recommended by the manufacturer. This can burn up the fixtures wiring, leading to a fire hazard.

Also, never cover up extension cords with furniture, floor coverings or window treatments. They will overheat and catch on fire, Roberts says. Thats very bad business, putting covers over extension cords. Avoid overloading extension cords. Just because there are six receptacles doesnt mean you should plug something into every one. Extension cords are rated for a specific number of watts. Make sure the items plugged into the cord do not exceed this rating. A last note on extension cords: They are meant to be a temporarynot permanentsolution for wiring. Do not use them on a continual basis.

Flickering lights, outlets that work sporadically, circuit breakers that frequently trip, loose wall outlets, bulbs that blow out frequentlyall of these are indications of minor electrical problems. If these problems are not monitored and rectified, they can lead to bigger dangers. They also may be indications of more serious electrical mishaps, such as improper wiring or poor grounding. If one or more of these events occur, call a professional electrician to check out the situation.

In addition to these visual signs, be alert for the smell of burning rubber or plastic, the feel of heat coming from electrical components, or the sound of sizzling or humming coming from electrical components. These, too, are indications that something is amiss with your electrical system.

Know the location of the control panel and the main shut-off to the electrical system. Labeling in the control panel should identify each circuit breakers circuit. The main shut-off may be located outside at the meter. If something is amiss with the system, everything can be shut down here. Panels need to be accessible.


Before enlisting the aid of a professional, there may be one or two things homeowners can do themselves. For example, they can check to see if an outlet is working correctly. Terry Thomas, vice president of Highland Electric Inc. in Lawrenceville, recommends purchasing a plug-in tester. They are low-cost and can be found at local hardware and department stores. They come with simple instructions for use and utilize two lights to indicate correct or incorrect wiring. A certain pattern indicates problems, Thomas says. Its very simple, and you get great results.

When it comes to changing a light fixture, light switch or receptacle, many homeowners could complete this task as well. It all depends on the homeowners, Roberts says. There are some books out there on wiring. If [the homeowners] feel mechanically inclined, [the books] will allow them to do that. Thanks to todays technology, working with electrical wiring can be easy to follow. If they change it out wire for wire, its hard to make a mistake, says Richard Meer, president of Meer Electric in Roswell. However, he cautions, always remember to turn off the power before working on any type of wiring.

For ceiling fans, Meer recommends calling in professionals. The reason for this is simple. Most homeowners dont change out the box to hold the weight of the fan, he says. While many light fixtures include an installation box in the ceiling, the box is not designed to hold the added weight of a ceiling fan, and, therefore, should be replaceda step most homeowners dont know about or decide to forego.


When the time comes to hire a professional electrician, there are several avenues for finding a reputable contractor. The Georgia Secretary of States office can provide a list of licensed electrical contractors or inspectors for your area. Also, check with your local Chamber of Commerce and the Better Business Bureau. Another good source is the Independent Electrical Contractors Association.

There are two things to remember when hiring a professional electrician. First, ask for references and call to check them out. Second, make sure the company has workers compensation insurance. This will protect you in the event that an electrician is injured on your property.

Now that you know the basics, youll be better equipped to keep your home wired and working well.

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