These days, there are a lot of jobs do-it-yourselfers can take on when making repairs and home improvements. With the availability of in-depth information online and the proliferation of home improvement stores, even the least-experienced homeowner can expect to find success when attempting a project. However, when working with electricity, the stakes are raised high; there are few other things that can be as deadly or destructive as do-it-yourself electrical mistakes. Below are few common pitfalls that homeowners can fall into while working on electrical projects, and what you can do to avoid them:
Failing to understand the differences between hot, neutral and ground wires
All do-it-yourself homeowners should understand the differences between hot, neutral and ground wires before handling any electrical projects. An inability to properly discern among wiring types can prove to be a dangerous form of ignorance and may cause a fire or even electrical shock.
All electrical wiring has at least two separate strands; most modern wiring contains a third. Here are the three types you find bundled together:
Hot – as its name suggests, the hot wire is the active carrier of the electrical alternating current (AC). In North America, the hot wire's insulation is colored black.
Neutral – the neutral wire returns any remaining current to the main panel where it is dispersed into the earth. Under normal conditions, the amount of current carried by the neutral wire should be at relatively low voltages. In North America, the neutral wire's insulation is colored white.
Ground – the ground wire serves as a safety measure to prevent a short circuit from causing electrical shock. It passes any unexpected current flow to the earth, similar to the neutral. In some situations, the neutral also serves as ground in a dual role, but this is no longer an accepted best practice. In North America, the ground wire is either uninsulated bare copper wire or is encased in green insulation.
Improperly wiring an electrical receptacle
Electrical outlets have three openings that correspond to the three wire types discussed earlier. Outlets have hot and neutral connections in the vertical slots; the hole is the ground connection.
Inside the receptacle itself, the hot, neutral and ground wire leads connect to their appropriate terminals. The hot terminal connection is usually gold colored or may be stained a dark color. The neutral terminal is silver or lighter in color than the hot terminal. The ground terminal is often colored green, though that does not hold true in every situation. However, you should be able to differentiate between the ground and other terminals due to its offset location on the receptacle.
With AC electricity, most devices will work normally even if the hot wire and neutral wires are crossed. However, this creates a hazardous situation that could result in an electrical shock for unwary individuals. If you are unsure about an electrical outlet you previously wired, you can easily and safely check it by using an outlet tester. These inexpensive plug-in devices utilize a series of lights to show you if an outlet is properly wired or not. You can purchase outlet testers from any home improvement or hardware store.
Poorly-connected wires and terminals
Another common mistake made by do-it-yourselfers is failing to properly join wires together and connect wires to terminals. Electrical connections must be made tightly; if there is any space between them, or the possibility they can be pulled apart, sparks could be generated and a fire might be the result.
Accordingly, wires should be firmly joined to one another with a wire nut, a cone-shaped, threaded enclosure. Simply insert the ends of the wire into the wire nut, hold them firmly together and twist the wire nut to lock together the wire connections. Wire nuts create a secure, safe bond that will not easily pull apart; they are inexpensive and can be purchased from hardware stores and home improvement centers.
For terminals that use a screw, you will also want to ensure a tight connection is in-place. To do so, form a small "C-shaped" loop in the end of the wire to be attached. Place the "C" around the screw post, hold it in place and tighten the screw by turning to the right. Be sure to apply firm force so the screw is secure, and it grasps the wire snugly. If the end of the wire pushes itself out as you tighten the screw, unscrew it and try again until it remains in place.
Not knowing when to get professional help
Perhaps the worst mistake made by do-it-yourselfers when it concerns electrical work is not seeking assistance from a qualified electrician when necessary. Some projects require you to use the services of a fully-licensed electrician so you are able to safely and legally complete them.
For example, never attempt to access the electrical wiring behind your breaker or fuse panels. It is likely a violation of electrical codes as well as extremely dangerous. In addition, if you are in doubt about your ability to safely complete a project, contact an electrician for assistance. It is simply not worth your life or your home to attempt a project that is beyond your ability.
For more information, contact the experienced electricians in your area.