If you don’t know anything about electricity, you probably shouldn’t take on anything more complicated than changing your light bulbs and replacing switch plates or outlet covers. Anything more complex than that and you could easily get electrocuted if you don’t know what you’re doing. However, when there’s a tutorial online for everything under the sun, you might think to yourself, “Hey, I can probably pull that off,” and then you get in over your head because the person explaining the project skips over key steps, assuming that you know the basics when you don’t. No one intentionally makes electrical mistakes, but lack of knowledge and taking shortcuts can be far more dangerous when you’re working with electricity than, say, when you’re doing your landscaping.
In the same way that using a computer is much different than writing computer code, just because you use electricity safely all the time doesn’t translate to that you’ll have an easy or safe experience doing an installation or wiring project. Electricity is basically lightning, harnessed for human use. That’s intrinsically unsafe. The only reason you can use it safely on a daily basis is because your wiring was (hopefully) installed according to certain minimum safety standards.
Warning: we’re not just talking to the homeowner who doesn’t know the green wire from the white wire. This is also an alert to the jack-of-all-trades handyman who has been pulling apart wires since you’re 11 — although you have more than enough skill to do many of the home-improvement projects listed below, not involving an electrician could still come back to bite you. No matter what your skill level, if you don’t take the proper safety precautions, you increase your risk of an electrical accident. And no matter how many proper precautions you take, if you don’t follow the electrical code and take out the proper permits, you may have to undo all your work if you go to sell your house later.
With that said, here are a few of the projects that we’d recommend you leave to a qualified electrician.
1. Installing a ceiling fan
If you have installed a ceiling fan yourself, only to have it come loose and come crashing to the ground days later, you’re not alone. This is one of the most common service requests that electricians get called for, and we’ve all seen our share of ceiling fans dangling by the wires or ones where the light fixture has been damaged or shattered by its unexpected fall—or worse, one of the family members or pets was hurt when the falling fan hit them. Considering that a ceiling fan can weigh 50 to 70 pounds, you definitely don’t want it falling down. Rather than put your brand-new ceiling fan at risk of falling and breaking, simply call an electrician from the beginning and give yourself the peace of mind of knowing that it was done right.
2. Installing extra outlets
In older homes, there often aren’t enough outlets in the room for all the gadgets you’d like to plug in. You probably already know that daisy-chaining extension cords to cross the space isn’t a good idea. Installing new outlets is the right way to go, but it takes knowledge and expertise in more than one area (electricity, drywall, etc) to do that correctly. If you inadvertently reverse the positions of the hot and the neutral wires, for instance, the plug will still work, but it puts anyone who uses it at risk of dying from electric shock. An electrician can run the right wires to the new outlet, make sure that the outlet is properly grounded, and ensure that using it won’t overload the circuit. (For that matter, we would recommend that you avoid installing new light switches, too. What you see as an innocent light switch, a licensed electrician might see as an electrical explosion waiting to happen.)
3. Rewiring or installing new wiring
Wiring in your home is an essential feature, but installing it or replacing it is a job that’s best left to the pros. If you have an old house with old-fashioned knob and tube wiring or aluminum wiring, you will want it to be upgraded to modern standards for safety. However, the potential for making a mistake abounds in doing a job like this, from code violations to putting yourself in danger of getting electrocuted or having a house fire down the road.
4. Creating your own junction boxes
Splicing two wires together and installing a junction box requires you to do a multi-step process of various tasks, all of which are extremely specific and require skill and finesse to complete them. You need to correctly strip the wires from both sides, link the wires correctly with the proper equipment, use the right size junction box, pull just the right amount of wire into the box, and mount the box correctly. What is a super simple, no-brainer task for an electrician might take you forever and end up with a finished result that’s not quite right.
5. Creating a “bonus room”
If you have a cozy little attic space or other nook or cranny in your home, it might occur to you to create a fun little “bonus room” for your kids by drywalling it off and adding some fun lighting, paint, and carpet. Someone with mad skills could probably create a veritable fairyland or epic secret hideaway that would be every child’s dream. However, this can get you in big trouble when you go to sell your house, as it probably won’t pass inspection. You’ll likely have to call an electrician then if you didn’t at the beginning, and if the work was completed without taking out a permit, the city may require you to undo your work completely or undergo costly repairs before you can sell.
6. Installing an outdoor outlet
An extra outdoor outlet (or several) can be an awesome addition to your outside space, giving you the ability to power everything from Christmas lights to equipment in an outdoor kitchen area.
However, going outside with an outlet comes with inherent dangers. It’s a well-known fact that electricity and water don’t play well together, but many people don’t translate this knowledge into taking the proper precautions for installing an outdoor outlet. One of the biggest requirements for all outdoor outlets is a Ground-Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) protector, or you could experience a house fire due to rain or other precipitation that gets into the outlet. You’ll also need a weatherproof cover that provides protection from water even when cords are plugged in.
If the outdoor outlet will be installed at a distance from your home (such as in a backyard gazebo), you’ll probably also have to bury the cable, and this must be done in accordance with safety standards.
The best person to install your outdoor outlet in the safest way is your qualified local electrician. Even if it seems to you like the area would be protected from the elements (such as an outdoor outlet that’s under an overhanging porch or awning, this is still considered a “damp” location and must comply with the rules for outdoor outlets.
7. Replacing the main electrical panel or circuit breaker box
Your electrical panel is one of the most complex parts of your home’s electrical system, and with so many wires going in and out, it shouldn’t be a surprise that an amateur shouldn’t attempt it. This circuit breaker box is the central hub where you’ll manage your home’s electricity, and it needs to be safe. The stakes are high if you get it wrong, so if your main electrical panel needs work, please call an electrician.
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