Signs of Home Electrical Problems

From flickering lights to hot ceiling fixtures, a wide range of issues signal potential electrical problems. (Photo by Frank Espich)

Knowing the symptoms of an electrical problem can help you make repairs to prevent a dangerous situation that might lead to electrocution or property damage. Although many problems should be diagnosed and repaired by a professional electrician, you may be able to troubleshoot some issues yourself.

Here are some common warning signs of home electrical problems, what they mean and what you can do about them. Always be cautious working with electricity, and always shut off the power before touching any wiring.

How to approach circuit breaker problems
Circuit breakers trip when a circuit is overloaded. By shutting off the electrical supply, the breaker prevents wires from overheating and potentially starting a fire.

Breakers can also trip when they become old. Occasional tripping can indicate simple overloads. Try plugging the appliance into a different circuit. If, however, a breaker keeps tripping, you should consult an electrician.

Working inside an electrical panel requires skill. Even with the main breaker shut off, electrical power is still entering the panel. Leave this type of work to an experienced professional. Improperly replacing a breaker or fuse can cause overheating and fire.

Also, if your home dates between the 1950s to 1990, check the electrical panel to see if it or its breakers were manufactured by Federal Pacific. The company’s Stab-Lok brand breakers are not considered safe and should be inspected by an electrician.

What about electrical shocks?
If you feel a mild shock or tingle when touching an appliance, a ground fault improper wiring is a likely cause.

If you notice a shock after crossing a carpeted surface, it may be from static, which is common in the winter and not cause for concern.

You should, however, take other types of electrical shocks seriously to prevent the situation from becoming worse.

Are hot ceiling fixtures a concern?
You should occasionally check the area around your ceiling light fixtures for warmth. Some are not well insulated, which poses a fire hazard. In addition, if a bulb exceeds the maximum recommended wattage, the fixture can overheat.

Switching to compact fluorescent light (CFL) or light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs provides one solution. They produce much less heat than incandescent bulbs.

What do flickering lights mean?
Flickering lights may indicate a defective or loose bulb. If replacing the bulb doesn’t solve the problem, call a licensed electrician. The fault may be in the light fixture.

Also, either the connections to the fixture or your home’s wiring in the breaker box may be loose – a problem only a professional should diagnose and repair.

Light switches or electrical outlets not working?
Switches or receptacles that work intermittently reveal another home electrical problem. Wiring may be loose, or the device may be cracked internally. If a plug is loose, that can pose a problem as well. If it partially falls out, an unsuspecting individual could receive a shock when unplugging the cord.

This is another issue a pro should at least inspect.

Smell a burning odor, see or sparks?
If you detect a burning odor coming from any outlets or switches, turn the power off at the electrical panel and contact an electrician. The problem may be a faulty device, but it might also be a wiring or overload problem.

A burning smell is a serious. It could indicate the start of an electrical fire. Receptacles or plugged-in cords that are warm to the touch also signal an electrical problem. Do not use the receptacle until the situation has been repaired.

Occasional sparks when you first plug something in are not unusual. Sparks that are large or happen frequently will indicate a problem with your outlet or the circuit. If you hear a popping sound, it may signal that a wire may be loose.

By Paul Pogue, Angie’s List (TNS). Paul Pogue is a reporter for Angie’s List, a trusted provider of local consumer reviews and an online marketplace of services from top-rated providers. Visit AngiesList.com.