Electrical Wiring Basics for do it yourselfers

Electrical power enters through either overhead or underground electrical wiring.  Improving and repairing an electrical system is a fairly easy project.  There is little to no heavy lifting, and no expensive tools or materials are required.  It is potentially dangerous and must be approached with care.  Even professional electricians consult others on most projects.  But once you know what you are doing, the work itself is rather easy.  

Electricity passes through a meter and enters the home at the fuse box or circuit breaker panel.  At the panel, the power is divided into branch circuits that are protected by a fuse or circuit breaker.  It then travels in a closed loop through wires to outlets or fixtures, and then returns to the panel unless interrupted by an open switch or short circuit.  The breakers protect the circuits from overloading.

The most basic safety step when working on an electrical system is to shut off the electrical power at the control panel by flipping the breaker with one hand, keeping the other hand behind your back or in your pocket.  Using a voltage tester, you can check the circuit to make sure it has no power.  Do not attempt to add new circuits.  That needs to be done by a professional. 

Protective tools and clothing are also recommended. Always use tools that have rubber grips, and never grab the tool by a metal shaft or touch metal while working. Rubber gloves and rubber soled shoes are also recommended.  Don't work while standing on a wet surface, and don't wear jewelry.  Aluminum ladders are electrical conductors, so only use fiberglass or wood.

Testing tools can tell you if electrical wiring is safe to work on.  Touching the probes of a wire tester to a hot circuit will cause an indicator light to turn on.  A continuity tester can tell if an electrical path is uninterrupted when the circuit is turned off.  A multi - tester can do both functions.  It is essential when measuring low voltages.

Electrical work is regulated by local building codes.  These codes might prohibit the use of certain types of cables, or require a certain size of wiring.  You also might need a permit before starting your project, so contact a municipal building inspector before starting.  If your work needs to be inspected, do not cover it with drywall or anything else before the inspection.  If the inspector does not approve the job, doing it over again can be expensive.

Electrical wires are identified by several factors.  Wires are either insulated to carry electricity or bare for grounding purposes.  Most home wiring is contained inside cables, flexible metal, or plastic insulation.  Wires are assigned standardized gauge numbers according to their diameter.  Smaller numbers equal larger diameters and can carry more power.  Most house wiring must be at a minimum of No. 14 which is 0.0064 inches in diameter.  Wires are also color coded.  Hot wires, which carry current at full voltage, are typically black, red, or white with black markings.  Neutral wires with no voltage are either gray or white.  Ground wires are either green or bare copper. 

Working with electrical wiring is intimidating, but not difficult.  Do not be afraid to ask questions and seek advice before proceeding.  Before embarking on such a project, make sure you have an easy to follow plan.  Part of that plan should be getting necessary permits and scheduling inspections.  Make sure to gather all your tools and necessary materials before getting started.  Electrical repairs are inexpensive to do on your own, and can save you a lot of money compared to hiring a professional electrician.

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