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Identifying electrical problems in your home is rarely an easy task. Sure, if a single lamp in your bedroom stops working, you have a nice, isolated thing to investigate. But even with the faulty lamp, it could be a bulb, a fuse, a severed wire, a fault in the lamp itself.
Knowing that something as simple as a bedside lamp still has several ways in which it can develop electrical faults should give you an idea of how hard it would be to find an electrical fault in an entire house. Especially when these faults might affect entire parts of your home, or even kill the power entirely.
Further adding to the complications is the fact that you need to be aware of the signs of electrical faults beyond things simply not working. Going back to our example of a faulty bedside lamp; if the lamp won’t turn on that is a fairly clear sign of a problem, but there can be other signs. Is the lamp making strange noises? Is the light flickering? Is there a burning smell coming from the lamp?
These are all signs that there could be an electrical fault, and you should always be alert and on the lookout for them to some degree, because leaving an electrical fault unattended will almost always result in more serious problems.
Of course, the main problem with electricity is that it is invisible to our simple human eyes. While we can easily spot sparks and hear the crackle of earthing electricity, a live exposed electrical wire can sit perfectly still and silent and give no signs that touching it would be a severely unpleasant experience, if not fatal.
It is for this reason that safety is of the utmost importance when attempting to identify electrical faults, so let’s take a closer look at how you might go about that.
Checking your electrics without the proper tools poses a bit of a catch-22 problem. On the one hand, you should always turn off the power before you start prodding and poking at potentially faulty electrics. But, on the other hand, if you don’t have the right equipment, it is almost impossible to detect electrical problems that don’t have physical symptoms, such as a broken wire, or scorch marks.
To that end, your checking will be limited to certain things, like testing an appliance you know works in sockets you suspect are faulty. If the potential culprit is an appliance itself, cut the power to that appliance and disconnect.
If you are looking for the source of a noise or smell that you suspect to be because of an electrical problem, you will need to leave the power on to follow the trail, but you should avoid touching anything electrical—especially appliances or electrical outlets with metal components on the outside. Consider wearing rubber gloves as an extra precaution.
Before you call in an expert—or tackle it yourself if you are absolutely sure you can—you should make certain preparations to ensure a safe working environment. Firstly, if you haven’t already, cut the power. It may be possible to cut the power to the specific area where there is a problem. For example, if the issue is with an electrical outlet, you should be able to flip the breaker that handles electrical outlets, leaving things like your lighting and larger appliances unaffected. That being said, if you are not sure what breaker you need to trip to do that, just cut all the power. It is not worth the risk.
After that, the best course of action depends on the problem. If your electrical fault is a fixture, like an electrical outlet, light switch, or something that can’t be moved, clear the surrounding area, so there is plenty of space to work in. However, if the problem is an appliance, disconnect said appliance from its outlet.
If you have a faulty appliance, the next course of action will depend on the value of the item and how important it is to you. For example, it is usually worth having a large appliance—like a fridge or washing machine—repaired, so you might want to arrange for a technician to come out and take care of it. On the other hand, something like an inexpensive desk lamp may not be worth the hassle of having it repaired when you can replace it for less than the hourly rate of a typical electrician.
The most common type of electrical problem you are likely to encounter in your home is a light no longer working, which, for the most part, will be down to a faulty bulb. Bulbs may not be particularly complex, but they do have a life span and will break eventually. When this happens, simply cut the power to the light and swap the bulb. You can cut the power to the light by simply switching the light switch to the off position, however, it may be worth cutting the power to the lighting circuit to avoid the possibility of it accidentally being switched on while you are changing the bulb.
Another common cause of electrical problems is a fuse blowing in the plug of the appliance itself. You can usually test this by moving the appliance to an electrical outlet that you are sure works and seeing if the appliance still doesn’t work. If it does not, try changing the fuse. If that works, the fuse was the problem, if not, you have a problem with your appliance.
On a similar note, the breakers and RCDs in your fuse box are also a common cause of power going off to some or all areas of your home. While this can often be remedied by flipping the affected breaker or RCD back on, it is crucial to note that these things don’t just happen. It is possible that some minor blip could have tripped a breaker, and it’s nothing to worry about, but if you find your breakers tripping regularly, you have a problem that needs immediate attention.
Finally, if you notice any strange noises—such as humming or clicking—coming from the fuse board, it also will need immediate attention. All the power going into your home goes through that fuse board, and any issues in there will cause problems for your whole house.
When troubleshooting electrical problems, your first port of call should be your fuse board. If anything has happened that has tripped a breaker or RCD, that will have cut power to some or all parts of your home. If everything there looks fine, however, you can move on to finding more subtle problems.
If you have a faulty appliance, your first action when troubleshooting the problem should be to find an outlet that is working, so you can try your faulty appliance in that. Should the appliance work in the other outlet, you have an issue with the original outlet or the circuit it is on. If the appliance doesn’t work, you have an issue with the appliance. As mentioned above, you should try changing the appliance’s fuse first, but if that doesn’t fix the problem the appliance will need repairing or replacing.
If the problem is with your electrical circuits themselves, your next step should be to establish if it is an isolated problem by trying appliances that you know to work in different outlets. You may find that only that individual outlet is at fault, in which case the problem could be with the outlet itself. You may also find that the outlets in a specific part of the house don’t work, but other outlets do, which would indicate a problem with an individual circuit.
There are, of course, more substantial signs of a problem. Any hints of burning or electrical noises should be treated as an emergency, as they could be the start of an electrical fire. If you smell burning or see smoke, cut the power immediately.
As much as we all like to be self-sufficient, it is important to know our limits. There are some minor electrical tasks that the average homeowner can undertake, but most electrical repairs are best left to a professional, purely because of the danger to life and property that faulty electrical appliances and circuits pose.
Indeed, it is illegal to undertake certain electrical repair work without the proper qualifications and certifications. But, beyond the legality of it, there is the matter of safety. Both to you and anyone you live with. In the case of electrical fires, that safety concern extends beyond the walls of your own home and to your neighbours.
If you are not experienced and knowledgeable in repairing the electrical problems you are having, it is best to hire someone who is. And, with the certifications they should have, you will be able to rest easy knowing that the repair work has been carried out to a legally sufficient standard.