If there’s one thing Dan Bawden tries to avoid, it’s electrical work.
“It’s just too risky in terms of fires, shocks and burns,” says Bawden, an experienced contractor who runs Legal Eagle Contractors in Houston, and is chairman of the National Association of Home Builders’ Remodelers Division.
When it comes to rewiring your house, replacing outlets, or tackling other electrical projects, there’s no shame in hiring an electrician. Even veteran contractors – guys whose pickup trucks are filled with ladders and power tools – are likely to respond to any mention of electrical work with shifty feet and awkward jokes about being allergic to wires.
Bawden himself worries that a simple project like replacing an outlet cover will turn him into “Mr. Sparky.” Indeed, electricity is tricky enough that safety organizations constantly remind licensed contractors and do-it-yourselfers of its dangers.
The Shocking Truth
Thousands of workers every year are hurt or killed by circuits they thought were safe, and a significant number of house fires are the result of shoddy electrical work, the Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI) says. The nonprofit organization urges homeowners to hire a licensed electrician rather than going it alone.
So why would anyone even consider electrical work a DIY project?
Median pay for electricians in 2016 was $25.35 an hour, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Electricians make more in pricey cities such as New York, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles.
Figuring an electrician might charge hundreds of dollars for his labor, homeowners can feel compelled to tackle do-it-yourself projects as a way to save money.
That’s not a smart move, according to the ESFI.
“Never attempt a project that is beyond your skill level,” the group advises. “Knowing when to call a professional may help prevent electrical fires, injuries, and fatalities.”
That may sound like a self-serving industry line, but the reality is that working with electricity requires a solid grounding in the basics, plus a high level of attention to detail.
Electricity falls into a hazardous category, one with health and safety risks, so a bit of cost-benefit calculus is in order. Other DIY tasks, such as painting walls or installing floors, pose little risk to your home’s structure or your health.
Bawden warns that even a wiring task that you think you’ve completed successfully can go awry much later. That’s because a less-than-perfect job can cause small sparks to flare inside your walls.
The damage might not be immediate and you won’t see, hear or smell the short. But over time – possibly weeks, months or years later, Bawden says – the cumulative effect could be an electrical fire.
The hazards of poor electrical work help explain why apprenticeship programs for electricians last five years and require hundreds of hours of classroom time. These requirements are among the most demanding in the construction trade.
Are you sure you want to touch that circuit?
Now that you’ve heard all the caveats, do you still feel confident enough to take on a simple task like replacing an outlet cover? That sort of chore is within the grasp of a novice – but only if you’re careful.
The ESFI’s motto is “Test before you touch: treat all circuits as live until tested.” It’s all too common for a worker or homeowner to get a bad shock by sticking a screwdriver in an outlet he mistakenly thought was cold.
When Bawden has no choice but to tackle a task involving electricity, he’s exceedingly cautious. He starts by turning off the power to the area where he’ll be working.
If you’re like most homeowners, however, your electrical panel is a mess of mislabeled or unlabeled circuit breakers. If your circuit panel is labeled with faded masking tape left by the previous owner, there’s a chance that breaker marked “family room” won’t really cut the power to the family room.
Don’t rely on the competency of the last person to scrawl a note on your electrical panel. Instead, invest a few dollars in a voltage detector, Bawden says. These devices cost as little as $11, and other versions are priced at $20 to $30, according to HomeDepot.com.
The concept is simple: if it’s a “non-contact” detector, hold the device near an outlet or an extension cord, and it will alert you if electricity is flowing.
One caveat: Always test the voltage detector on an outlet you know is hot first. The devices can malfunction, most commonly because of a dead battery.
Voltage detectors and turning off the power before working are two common-sense ways to reduce the risk of electrical projects, and if you’re only changing an outlet, carry on. However, know that when it comes to more complicated wiring work, its homeowner beware.
“Electrical work,” Bawden says, “is the most likely to get a novice injured or killed.”