6 Things An Electrician Learned After Buying Her First House

A professional electrician shares what she's learned about electrical while living in and working on her own home.

I’m a professional electrician and a homeowner. I’ve worked in huge stadiums, modern hospitals and my own cramped basement, bringing power to people who need it.

Now on my fourth house, I’m confident I can spot electrical issues before I sign on the dotted line. But it wasn’t always that way. I’m here to talk shop about my first home: what worked, what didn’t and how you can learn from my mistakes.

It’s Never “Just Electrical”

Love the new place, but wish it had a receptacle behind the couch? Don’t forget: Getting electricity to new locations in your home likely means cutting into drywall or drilling through floors.

A receptacle addition at my first house turned into a weeklong drywall project because I didn’t plan ahead. Unless you’re adept at taping and sanding — I was not — and you have plenty of matching paint, you’re looking at added time and expense for your project.

Before committing to any electrical project, ask yourself how much work it will take to put electricity where you want it, and to clean up the mess afterward.

Outdoor Receptacles Are Worth Every Penny

Don’t overlook electricity outdoors, particularly if you’re buying an older home, which often doesn’t have it. (The National Electrical Code didn’t require it until the 1970s.) Holiday lights, garden tools and entertainment systems get more use and enjoyment, and are safer, when not tethered to extension cords.

If your house lacks outdoor receptacles or has only one, consider having some installed or doing it yourself. They’re a relatively inexpensive way to ramp up enjoyment of your outdoor spaces. I’ve never regretted installing them in any house I’ve owned.

If you’re using extension cords outdoors, even temporarily, buy the right one for the job. Don’t use an indoor cord outside, or buy an outdoor cord that’s undersized for your circuit. Outdoor cords come with thick insulation to protect them from sun, water and chemicals, and generally have higher amperage ratings than indoor cords.

Check the Other Bathroom

A friend called in a panic because her downstairs bathroom had lights but no power at the receptacles.

Here’s the thing: The National Electrical Code requires ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) protection for all bathroom receptacles. A GFCI receptacle, or a GFCI breaker at the electrical panel, can provide protection. You’re also allowed to use one GFCI receptacle to protect another, even if it’s in another room.

Luckily for her, I already learned this lesson the hard way, wandering around my first house for hours, flipping breakers and scratching my head.

Turned out her upstairs bathroom had a GFCI receptacle, which had tripped. She hit the reset button, and bingo! Her downstairs bathroom receptacles had power, and I was a hero.

So if your hair dryer stops working and the breaker didn’t trip, check the other bathroom’s GFCI. Monitor things, though. If the circuit keeps tripping, get it checked out by a pro. It could be a faulty appliance, loose wire or worn insulation. GFCIs protect against electric shock so don’t ignore the warnings.

Invest $20 in Your Safety

I’ve never met a professional electrician who didn’t carry a non-contact voltage tester, but it’s important to have one in your home tool box, too.

In my first house, I decided to replace a light with a ceiling fan. I turned off the breaker, verified the lights were off, and blindly set to disconnecting every wire in the ceiling box. Big mistake. One of the circuits was still energized!

When I cut the still-hot wire, I inadvertently caused a short circuit, which tripped the breaker and scared me half to death. Electricity will find the shortest path to ground, and I could have been that path. Even a small amount of current can be fatal. I was lucky.

A non-contact voltage tester is an inexpensive way to avoid my mistake. Never cut or disconnect any circuits before you verify they’re off.

Here’s how to use it: Hold the tester up to the hot wires in the outlet box. A light will go on, and it will beep. Turn off every circuit in the box, even if you’re not working on all of them, and check the wires again. If the tester beeps again, you know a circuit is still on.

Always check the tester, before and after use, on a known “live” circuit, like the cord of a plugged-in lamp or a receptacle you know works. If it doesn’t react, do not use it. Change the batteries or get a new tester.

Evaluate Your Electrical Panel

The electrical in today’s new construction is tailored for modern technology. Nice, big 150-amp and 200-amp electrical panels to power our many TVs, computers, gaming systems and kitchen gadgets are standard in many new homes. But what if you buy an older house?

I did, and promptly wished I’d been more curious about the electrical panel. Did you know a hard-wired bathroom heater needs a dedicated circuit? I didn’t, either. And I didn’t have room in the panel to add one.

Look closely at the panel. Is it 60 or 100 amps? Are most of the breaker slots full? Do you see any tandem breakers? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, consider the future costs of adding a subpanel or updating your service before buying.

Start Small

Electrical work can be intimidating. In my first home, the dishwasher broke right after I moved in. I had never installed a dishwasher, but I researched the project and jumped in.

You don’t have to start with a major appliance, though. Change out switch and receptacle covers to add style. Graduate to a light fixture upgrade. Soon you’ll have the confidence to tackle bigger projects.

One final note that, as a pro electrician, I cannot stress enough: Always turn off the circuit at the breaker before starting any electrical project, and make sure no one can turn it on while you’re working. And if you’re not completely comfortable with a project, call a licensed electrician. That’s why we’re here.

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Ally Childress
Ally Childress is a licensed electrician and freelance writer living in Dallas, Texas.