Be Proactive with Electrical Circuits instead of Reactive
The most common safety issue in an older house (one that is likely to have a panel with a lower ampacity) is circuit overloads. We live in an age where there is much more demand for electricity than say, 40 years ago. Simply put, there are more and more things in our homes that need to be ‘plugged in.’ A related problem is loose electrical connections which, if left unattended often become worse over time until intermittent power loss is experienced on one or more circuits.
Be aware of Heat. A build-up of heat is the red flag.
The tell tale ‘early warning’ for electrical wiring problems such as circuit overload or loose electrical connections is heat. When the amount of current flow in a conductor increases, the heat produced also increases. As the upper limit of its ability to conduct current is approached, the heat produced is significant. If you place the back of your fingers against a circuit breaker and it is cool or even slightly warm to touch, you can figure the breaker (and circuit) is within its design parameters. However, if you find a breaker is very warm or hot -you have found something that warrants further scrutiny.
It could be the circuit breaker itself. A circuit breaker is a mechanical device and subject to mechanical failure. If an internal contact has degraded, it would begin to heat up, becoming worse (hotter) over time. It could be an overloaded circuit. As a breaker is subjected to a load that is at or near its design capacity (15 or 20 amps, for example) it will be warm to touch. If operating properly, it will ‘trip’ (or, open) as the design capacity (current rating) is exceeded. It is the (internal) build-up of heat that causes the breaker to open.
It could be a loose connection of the branch conductor at the circuit breaker. A load on a bad connection will cause it to heat up -which will further exacerbate the problem. The thermal cycling (heat up, cool down) will cause it to become even looser, creating even more heat. If left unattended it will gradually become even looser until it is loose enough to arc (create sparks). The arcing corrodes and degrades the copper or aluminum conductor -which creates even more heat.
As you can see, a loose electrical connection is lost in a downward spiral of doom if it goes undetected and unresolved. This doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time measured in years.
How to Detect Potential Electrical Wiring Problems
It’s a good preventive maintenance idea to check for heat build-up once in a while by placing the back of your fingers against extension cords, receptacles, meter enclosures, circuit breakers. A build-up of heat in a circuit is not your friend. If you find anything more than slightly warm, pay attention. It is trying to tell you something.
IR (Infrared) Thermal Imaging (aka Thermography, Elecrical Infrared, Thermal Heat Imaging)
Thermography is a technology that enables detection of heat build-up in electrical connections, motors, and processes usually used in an industrial setting. The same principals apply to residential settings, as well. The accompanying video discusses the preventive maintenance aspect of thermography and the value of early detection. Electrical Infrared is now an integral part of any facility manager’s preventative/predictive maintenance (P/PM) program.
Likely inspection points where you might expect to find heat build-up or ‘hot spots’ include conductors, electrical distribution panels, fuse boxes, switch gear, and connections. Hot spots may indicate unbalanced or excessive loads or show loose connections.
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