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Home Electrical Systems Don’t Have to Show Their Age

National Electrical Safety Month is a good time to upgrade older homes to combat the safety hazards that can occur with neglect.

It’s a fact that about half of today’s homes were built before 1970.

It’s also true that many of the appliances and electronics used in those homes today did not exist when they were constructed.

It is a combination that can compromise safety. Hairdryers, computers and video games can stress and overwhelm aging home electrical systems, creating the potential for fires, shocks and electrocutions. During National Electrical Safety Month and beyond, it is a good time to be aware of the potential hazards.

Each year, home electrical problems lead to an estimated 53,600 fires, 500 deaths, 1,400 injuries and $1.4 billion in property damages. Many of those fires start in older homes unequipped to handle today’s technology overload, according to the Electrical Safety Foundation International.

Rick Flores, an inspector with the LA County Fire Department, says overloaded older electrical systems and overused extension cords are the leading causes of electrical fires for his department.

“It’s all education mostly that people need to understand and if they don’t, a qualified electrician will explain it,” he said. “If you have an older-style home, it’s probably just a good idea to get an upgrade to the newer style of breakers.”

One of those upgrades includes more power outlets. Older homes generally have fewer outlets than newer homes, which can lead to an overuse of extension cords.

“Overusing extension cords is probably the No. 1 fire threat,” said Flores. “The first step is not to use them long-term. If you need more outlets, have a professional come and add them.”

Another important upgrade to older homes is the installation of Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters that immediately shut off power and prevent fires when they detect arc faults. These advanced circuit breakers protect against the unintentional release of electricity from aging, damaged or improperly installed home wiring, cords or appliances.

“Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters are very effective in recognizing and eliminating dangerous arcing conditions,” said Don Neal, director of Corporate Environmental, Health and Safety at Southern California Edison. “However, they should only be installed by a qualified electrician, and they should be tested regularly to make sure they’re working correctly and protecting the circuit.”

Meanwhile, Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter outlets — also often lacking in older homes — are proven life savers in areas where water may come into contact with electrical items. Many experts believe that if they were present in most older homes, 70 percent of the estimated 400 home electrocutions annually could be prevented.

“From aging wiring to deteriorating connections, your home may be showing warning signs,” said Neal. “A qualified professional who understands all of the electrical codes and wiring can help older homes achieve a new level of protection.”