Electrical work is notoriously tricky, and even the handiest homeowners usually take a hands-off approach to wiring repairs. Unlike swapping out air filters, patching drywall or repainting the bathroom, minor wiring repairs carry the risk of electrocution. But that doesn’t mean you should ignore what’s hiding behind your walls. Because wiring is such a crucial part of your home’s functionality and safety, we’ve identified three signs you might have a wiring problem:
Sign No. 1: Your home was built before the Reagan Revolution
There’s no magic age at which an electrical system switches from safe to unsafe. But the general rule of thumb is that wiring that’s more than 40 years old presents a heightened risk of fire and electrocution, says Brett Brenner, president of the Electrical Safety Foundation International in Rosslyn, Virginia.
Here’s the tough part for a homeowner: Electrical wiring can age quite gracefully, and minor flaws tend to go unnoticed.
“The wiring can be 70 or 80 years old, and there won’t be a problem with it,” Brenner says.
But just because you aren’t experiencing obvious electrical problems, that doesn’t mean your system doesn’t need an upgrade. New wiring systems have built-in safety features to prevent fires and reduce the risk of electrocution. Older systems don’t.
If you have an especially old home, one built before the 1960s, it’s possible that the system isn’t grounded. That was standard practice back in the days of two-prong electrical outlets.
Modern three-prong outlets are designed for homes that are grounded, a safety feature that uses a third wire, or “grounding wire,” that is connected to the earth through a metal grounding rod or a cold-water pipe. In case of a short circuit or other malfunction, the extra electricity is directed back to the earth rather than into your body.
But a typical home inspection doesn’t delve deeply into the inner wiring of the house, so it’s possible that you don’t know the intricacies of your 1950s-era home’s electrical system.
“The problem comes down the road, when you don’t realize the home isn’t grounded,” Brenner says.
A common misstep occurs when a homeowner replaces old-fashioned two-prong outlets with modern three-prong receivers.
If the house is grounded, you have built-in protection against electrocution. If the house isn’t grounded, you might be the one acting as the ground and are more likely to get electrocuted, says Brenner.
If your home isn’t grounded, keep in mind grounding an old system isn’t cheap – the price tag can run to $5,000 or more for a full wiring job, according to Brenner.
Sign No. 2: You’ve renovated everything but the electrical system
Homes built in the 1950s and 1960s are smaller than today’s new homes and were designed when the typical home had just one television and no dishwasher or air conditioner.
Plop today’s typical quiver of televisions, surround-sound speakers, computers, smartphone chargers and wine refrigerators onto an old electrical scheme, and it’s easy to see how the system can be overwhelmed.
Adding more and more demands to your electrical system without updating the underlying wiring can cause problems. In the worst-case scenario, an electrocution or a fire can be the result.
“You can’t see it, smell it or hear it, but when things go wrong, they really go wrong,” Brenner says.
Electricity itself is invisible, but Brenner says you should keep a keen eye (and ear) out for visible and audible signs of problems. These include discolored outlets, flickering lights and outlets that spark, crackle or feel hot to the touch.
“These are telltale signs that you have something fairly serious going on,” Brenner says.
While older homes are more susceptible to shorts, even newer homes can have electrical problems. Perhaps a rodent has gnawed through a wire. Maybe spider webs are clogging an outlet.
If you’re feeling bold enough to explore the malfunction yourself, Brenner suggests killing power to the outlet, then unscrewing the outlet cover to see if there’s an obvious problem. However, you should hire a licensed electrician to make the repair – not only for safety reasons, but because your home insurance policy may not cover you if a fire occurs as a result of your work.
In one bit of good news, Brenner says not every flicker is a sign of a problem. It’s typical for homes to undergo “internal surges” when the AC or refrigerator kick on.
Sign No. 3: Your home has survived a hurricane, flood or other natural disaster
Maybe your basement filled with water during a deluge, but everything seems fine now.
Don’t get too comfortable, Brenner warns. Water is the enemy of electrical systems, and even if your home seems dry, the residual damage can cause electrical systems to fail months or years after a water event.
If a disaster involved saltwater, Brenner raises the urgency of his warning. Homeowners affected by Hurricane Sandy found their wiring decimated by the intrusion of ocean water.
If a natural disaster has struck your home, ask an electrician to inspect your system, even if your wires seem to have weathered the storm. Your electrical system could have sustained hidden damage.
Jeff Ostrowski is a veteran journalist who has covered real estate and personal finance for more than 20 years, and contributes articles about homebuying and insurance at MoneyGeek.com.