We take our home’s electricity — and the outlets that transfer the power — for granted. But what happens when you turn on you turn on your microwave one day only to realize the wall outlet isn’t working? Or worse: what happens if you wake up in the middle of the night to a deadly electrical fire? Whether a small nuisance or a deadly catastrophe, these moments can be avoided with one simple practice: electrical outlet inspections.
The lights we use to do the dishes late at night. The climate control we use to keep our family comfortable year round. The TV we watch each night after a long day at work. And the oven we use to cook meals for our loved ones. These regular habits all have something in common: the electricity that powers them. That means regular electrical inspections must be performed to keep them running appropriately.
Don’t know the first thing about inspecting electrical outlets? That’s what we’re here for. Walk with us as we explore common electrical issues, how to inspect your home’s outlets and how often you should schedule an electrical inspection.
Common electrical outlet issues
You may be asking yourself: Why do I need to inspect my electrical outlets? Well, there can be a lot of issues causing your system to malfunction. Here are a few common electrical outlet issues to be on the lookout for, and signs of electrical problems at home.
You can be using the wrong extension cords. Some homeowners make up for lack of outlets by using extension cords. If you’re not using the proper cords, you could run the risk of overheating and igniting a fire. In general, extension cords should be heavy duty (14-gauge or thicker). If your home isn’t meeting your family’s electrical needs, the safest option is to have a licensed professional install more outlets.
You could have a circuit problem. The occasionally blown circuit isn’t a big deal. Constant failures, though, are problematic and often a sign of a much larger issue — such as circuit overload, a short circuit or ground fault. These three causes all have one thing in common: overheating. If your family is blowing circuit even when you’re using a healthy amount of energy, it’s time to contact an electrician.
Your outlets are dead. It’s not uncommon for outlets to stop working in an older home. In many cases, wires will come loose and the entire unit may need replacement. This type of electrical work can be dangerous, though. When you need an outlet repaired or a new unit installed, be sure to contact an experienced professional.
Your outlet contacts are worn down. Ever try to plug something into an outlet, only for it to fall out? If your outlet won’t grip your device’s prongs, it’s likely because your outlet contacts have worn down. Not only is this annoying, it can cause a major house fire. Never mess with a questionable outlet. An experienced professional can detect the issue and identify if there’s any structural damage underneath.
Your outlets are sparking. Burning, sparks or visible fire are never okay. If you detect these signs coming from any electrical source, call an electrician immediately. Similarly, avoid coming in contact with cords or receptacles that are hot to the touch, as they could also be a sign of a serious electrical problem.
You have knob-and-tube wiring. Knob-and-tube wiring was popular from the late 1800s to the 1940s. With this method, electricians used porcelain knobs to anchor wires to studs and floor joists and insulated tubes in order to pass wires through walls. The issue? It doesn't include a ground wire — which means using it with appliances that require a three-prong outlet could result in a fire. If you have this type of electrical outlet, you may need to rethink your home’s wiring.
How to inspect electrical outlets
Here are some things you can do to when inspecting electrical outlets:
Measure voltage. When it comes to measuring voltage, you’ll want to use a multimeter. Once you set your device, insert a probe into each clot to measure the line voltage. In general, a proper outlet should read 110 to 120 volts.
Check proper grounding. To test grounding, insert one probe of the detector into the small outlet slot and the other in the center screw. If the device fails to light, the outlet is not grounded properly. What happens if an electrical outlet is not grounded? You’re putting your home at risk of an electrical fire.
Conduct a polarity test. A good way to conduct a polarity test is to insert one probe of the multimeter into the large slot of the outlet and the other against the middle screw. If the device’s light doesn’t ignite, you should call someone to check the wiring further.
Test an outlet. If you want to test an outlet, start by turning off the power. Then, disconnect the outlet from the wiring. Once you set your multimeter to ohms, put a probe into one of the outlet slots and the other probe on the nearest terminal screw. If the meter doesn’t indicate continuity, it’s not working properly.
Note: If you choose to perform these tests, please be sure to hold both meter probes in one hand so a shock won’t pass through your body. Not comfortable testing your own outlets? Don’t worry — the professionals at John C. Flood are trained to check electrical work safely.
How often should electrical outlets be inspected?
Most electricians recommend getting your electrical system checked every 3-5 years depending on the age of your home. If you want to ensure your home’s outlets and entire electric system are working at peak capacity, saving you money, and protecting your family, the best thing to do is schedule an annual inspection with a licensed electrician.
The Electrical Safety Foundation International, a non-profit organization dedicated exclusively to promoting electrical safety at home and in the workplace, recommends that you have an electrical inspection conducted if:
- Your home is 40 years old or older
- You purchase a previously-owned home
- Your home has undergone a significant renovation
- You have added major new appliances in the last 10 years
Don’t ignore your electrical outlets.
If you’ve been experiencing electrical issues, or haven’t had your home inspected in quite some time, schedule an appointment.