It is a sad situation when a contractor uses their knowledge in a certain field to lure a real estate investor into spending more or buying more than they really need. Sometimes it is the LACK of information they provide that ends up costing you hundreds or even thousands of dollars. This is often the case with electrical repairs in a home you have whether it is your personal residence or an investment property.
I just had a conversation with a new investor who had some questions on how to know if a contractor may be taking advantage of them when it comes to electrical repairs.
Let me say that first, I am not an electrical engineer, contractor, or in anyway a licensed and bonded electrician. I suggest strongly that you do not rely solely on the information in this article to attempt electrical repairs yourself unless you have the proper credentials to perform work in this field.
What I do offer to you are years of experience in dealing with electrical repairs, performing many of my own, and much of my knowledge working with it over the years in the aircraft, computer, and home environments.
Books are written on the complexities of electricity but the concept itself should not cause the new investor to run for cover if the light does not illuminate when you flip the switch. As humans we are naturally afraid of the unknown and I hope this article takes away a bit of the unknown and makes you less afraid to deal with a power source that is essential to our lives.
I am not afraid of electricity, I give it the healthy respect I would any other type of power source whether it is natural gas, fire, a hot stove, or even a spinning fan. Any one of these sources of power or applications of power can hurt you if you are not careful and it always helps to be somewhat knowledgeable to ensure that you are careful.
We learn at a young age not to touch a stove, bite into a hot pizza with cheese, or dive into water without first checking certain things. We take these for granted as we get older, but some things like electricity still seem mysterious and magical because we do not fully understand how they work.
A full understanding of any of these things is not necessary. We simply have to know enough to keep our environment safe whether for us, a tenant in a rental home, or a home we wish to sell. I will try my best to keep this short, simple, and understandable.
Electricity like natural gas is generally invisible to the naked eye. There are some exceptions, but for the most part this is true. You cannot tell by looking at a wire if it has electricity running too it or not. You would be foolish to grab the wire to see if it was energized (power running to it) or if it was not energized or dead in a steady state and harmless.
Here is a brief overview of how electrical power arrives at your house for use.
Electricity is generated by the power company by spinning a loop of wire in between two or more magnets in many different configurations. The machine is called a turbine and is turned by many things from powerful water behind a dam to steam generated from coal or a nuclear reactor. Other less conventional ways involve windmills, solar cells, or batteries all of which use motion or a chemical reaction to produce electricity. Electricity is energy in the form of tiny molecules called electrons which travel across wires or other surfaces.
OK, good to know, but how do I know if the contractor is cheating me?
We will get to that in a minute.
Electricity is generally transmitted over long distances by high tension lines between cities. We have all seen them.
Electricity has several components but the most important terms are volts and amps. The two multiplied together give us a definition of power. We could include resistance, ohms, and a bunch of other terms but we will keep it as simple as we can.
From the main high tension lines on the very high towers, the electricity is "stepped down" to a more manageable level. You have probably passed these places with boxes and fans on them with wires coming in and out surrounded by a fence with warning signs on it. This is the first step-down to occur. From here, the electricity is transmitted over lines usually at the top of the electrical poles in the city to various neighborhoods and business.
The voltage is still very high and powerful on these lines. Do you notice that the birds on these lines can land there without a problem? Even squirrels can run across them and not be hurt even though there may be more than 7,000 volts moving through the lines. Could you touch them and not be hurt? Sure, but only with certain conditions.
There are a couple of simple laws that electricity follows. First is that it will always seek the ground or the earth. You are in danger if you are in the path of electricity trying to reach the ground or the earth. In short, if you touch the wire while hovering magically in the air nothing would happen to you just like the bird or the squirrel. However if you are in contact with the ground and touch it your body becomes the conductor and you will receive a shock or burn. That is about as simple as it gets. You can only be hurt if electricity passes through you on its way to the place it seeks.
OK, back to the power lines or "primary lines" as they are called at the top of the poles. These lines are connected to those boxes you see attached to the power poles and are called transformers. They simply are used to reduce the voltage and power in the lines to the current or power we use in our homes. In the U.S. that is about 117 volts (115-120) that is delivered to our house. The electricity passes through a meter usually in a glass dome that shows how much power is being used. A spinning disk is used in most to increase the dials above it to reflect how much we use. The electrical company compares the last amount with the new amount and charges us based on the amount of power we use. You can look at your bill and see how many kilowatt hours you used in a given month.
From here, the electricity is passed into the electrical box in our house. A main breaker determines how much electrical power we are allowed to use at the standard volts mentioned above. The standard may be 200 amps or more if you look in your box or less if you live in a manufactured home or a travel trailer. Amps are the amount of power we use at a standard voltage.
The box distributes power to the outlets, stove, pool, hot tub, AC/Heat, light sockets and dryer plugs in the home. Only two voltages are used: 230volts and 115 give or take a few.
Electrical plugs run on 115 volts and heavier powered items run on 230 volts like the stove, clothes dryer, A/C/Heater, and maybe a pool or hot tub. The breakers in the electrical box tell us the story. A 115 breaker is used for most standard outlets and light fixtures. A 220 breaker is used for the higher use items. When one or more appliances or devices "pull too many amps above the breaker's rating" the breaker will shut off as a protection mechanism. You all have probably "popped" a breaker at one time or another.
The numbers vary. You may see voltage from 110-120 on a standard "leg" of power. A "leg" is a line of current coming in from the power pole. Most homes have two separate "legs" of power or two lines each with 110-120 volts. When we combine the two legs we have enough power to drive the A/C, pool, or clothes dryer at 220-240 volts, we simply double the voltage.
A third line is provided called the "neutral" line and is normally colored white in the box. When one or two of the "hot" legs of power are combined with the neutral line...anything in between making contact with these wires is "energized or powered".
The Standard Outlet in the Home: Most outlets these days look the same. One of the vertical slots is slightly smaller than the other. On plugs without the third prong it prevents us from plugging the cord in to the outlet in reverse. This is called a "polarized" outlet and makes sure the hot and neutral lines on the plug fit in only one way. With a three pronged plug you do not have a choice...there is only one way it can go in the outlet. The third prong is a "ground" and protects us and the device by providing a path for the electricity to follow should a wire break and touch the outside of the appliance.
The "hot" line or leg should always be the smaller or shorter of the two inserts on the outlet. The larger insert is connected to the neutral line and the nearly circular hole is the ground insert.
Standard wiring practices use the following colors of wires:
- Black is a hot or energized wire.
- Red is a secondary energized wire or used between two switches that can be shut on or off from either location.
- White is the neutral line. It is not powered but is the preferred path for the electricity to follow on its way out of the device.
- Green is the ground line connected directly to the earth.
Note: the hot wire does not care if the neutral or the ground is its mate in the circuit--either one will complete the circuit. BUT, it should use the correct one regardless which in most cases is the neutral wire.
Note: not all homes follow the standard wiring colors!! Very important!
Shoddy installation, cutting corners, using left-over wire or miss-wiring a device is not uncommon. Knowing this will prevent a lazy contractor from not following conventional methods if you can recognize the problem. You can bet the inspector will if he has visual access to the wires!
Electrical work is often done by individuals who have limited knowledge of power and how it should be wired. If you stay in the real estate business long enough you will be amazed at what these contractors think they can get away with.
Arm yourself with this basic knowledge. It is better to learn a few basics and check the work yourself before it is hidden by the wall. The inspector will plug devices into the outlet and tell immediately if it is wired correctly. Rule: always have a licensed inspector examine work and sign off on it.
Let your contractor know up front that you will be checking the wiring and it had better be in accordance with the standards and laws. They will be less likely to cut corners and create a safety issue down the road. You do not want to face a lawsuit or a fire, injury or death because this article puts you into "mental overload".
Lastly, Ground Fault Interrupts (GFI) plugs or circuit breakers are mandated near areas with water like the kitchen and bathrooms. You may not always SEE the GFI plug, but it should be wired in so that it control all outlets. Check by pushing the test button to pop the outlet's interrupt and then check all outlets near water. Some homes use a GFI breaker in the box. Test it by pushing the button.
Keep your contractors on their toes and your homes safe with these simple instructions and always turn for help to a licensed electrician with any questions. Always practice safety in all projects and use education to overcome any fear of any subject.