The listings featured on this site are from companies from which this site receives compensation. This influences where, how and in what order such listings appear on this site.
Advertising Disclosure

10 Ways to Spot Electrical Problems in Your Home

Katy Ward
10 Ways to Spot Electrical Problems in Your Home
If the electrical systems in your home are not correctly maintained, the consequences could be unthinkable.

According to research from the Electrical Safety Foundation International, home electrical fires account for an estimated 51,000 fires each year, which result in almost 500 deaths and $1.3 billion in property damage.

Although you can’t totally eliminate risk, there are simple steps you can take to spot electrical problems before they develop into more serious issues. Likewise, having a home warranty plan is one of the most effective ways of minimizing the financial cost of electrical issues on your property and avoid a potential fire hazard.

In this article, we look at 10 warning signs that you may have an electrical problem in your home.

1. Buzzing Noises

When your electrical switches and outlets are operating normally, they shouldn’t make any audible noise. If you hear buzzing or crackling noises when plugging in an appliance or turning on a switch, it could indicate an overloaded, loose, or improperly grounded wire.

If the noise is originating from a specific appliance, unplug it immediately and do not plug anything else into the outlet until an electrician has verified it is safe to do so.

Hearing a buzzing sound from an electrical panel is a particular cause for concern and requires the immediate attention of an expert, especially if the noise is audible from more than a few feet away. This could suggest a major problem with one of your circuit breakers (a safety switch that will stop the flow of electricity in an emergency). 

If you have a home warranty plan, check your policy to see if you’re protected in this situation. Many companies such as Select Home Warranty include coverage for electrical panels as part of their plans.

2. Unpleasant Smells

An unusual or fishy smell is one of the first warning signs of faulty electrical appliances and could mean some components within the device are overheating. This is because most electrical wires are made from heat-resistant chemicals that begin to smell of fish when they burn.

If you detect an odd smell coming from an electrical outlet, you should immediately unplug everything in the outlet. Don’t use it again until it has been properly inspected by an electrician.

3. Flickering Lights

Although you may think that a flickering light is caused by a defective bulb, it could also indicate a more serious electrical issue, such as faulty wiring or a defective circuit breaker.

When you notice a light flickering, the location of the problem can provide a clue as to the cause. Here are some things to watch out for:

  • More than one bulb flickering in a single room: this suggests a problem with the circuit breaker in that part of the property
  • Lights flickering throughout your home: this suggests an issue such as loose conductors in your central electrical panel
  • Lights blinking as you turn on a large appliance: this suggests that the device is placing excessive pressure on your central circuit breaker

In each of these cases, you should call an electrician who can assess the problem and address any potential safety concerns. If you’re interested in purchasing a home warranty policy, look for companies such as Cinch Home Services that cover lighting fixtures as part of their protection.

4. Electrical Arcs

If you can see electricity jumping from one connection to another, this is an emergency situation known as arcing that requires urgent attention. Arcing occurs when a strong and luminous current leaps across the gap between electrodes. With the temperature of these flashes reaching 35,000°F, these arcs present an extremely high fire risk.

As well as burns to the skin, electrical arcs can lead to injuries such as cardiac arrest and nerve damage. They can also release poisonous gasses that can cause lung damage.

Devices known as arc fault circuit interrupters (AFCIs) can act as a defense against arcing and will shut off electrical power in as little as 1/40th of a second should they detect danger. Modern electrical code now requires AFCIs in all 120-volt single phase 15- and 20-ampere branch circuits in residential properties. If you’re not certain whether your home is properly equipped, you should speak to an electrician.

5. Warm Power Outlets

When an outlet is warm to the touch, it normally means there is an excessive amount of current flowing into it. All outlets are designed to run a predetermined amount of voltage and will become hot if this limit is exceeded. In addition to this sensation of heat, you may notice a brief spark when you plug a device into the outlet.

Having a hot outlet is especially dangerous if it is located near flammable materials such as curtains or wooden furniture as the heat from the outlet can ignite these objects and start a fire.

6. Loose Outlets

Having a loose outlet or receptacle in your home can put you at risk for several potentially life-threatening electrical problems. In fact, research has shown that electrical receptacles are involved in 5,300 fires every year, causing 45 deaths and more than 100 injuries.

Because loose outlets disrupt the flow of electricity, they can also cause arcing, which presents a serious risk of electrocution and is also a fire hazard.

As with all the signs identified in this article, having a loose power outlet is a serious situation. You should call an electrician immediately if you are not comfortable dealing with this issue yourself.

7. Aluminum Wiring

If your home was built during the late 1960s or early 1970s, there is a good chance that your electrical system runs using single-strand aluminum wiring. This material was far cheaper than copper at the time.

While evidence from the period suggested this material was safe to use, it later became apparent that the substance was a fire hazard. Research from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has found that homes with aluminum wiring are up to 55 times more likely to suffer fire damage.

The simplest way to check for aluminum wiring is to inspect your electrical panel and the cables in your attic or basement. If the wiring is made from aluminum, it will have a label marked aluminum, Al, or alum.

Should you discover aluminum wiring, contact an electrician who can perform an assessment and discuss your options.

8. Plugs Fall out of Their Outlets

If you attempt to plug in an appliance and the device falls out of the outlet, the connectors within the outlet may have worn out. With many outlets being used to power several appliances throughout the day, the cause of this damage is likely to be simple wear and tear. 

In most cases, the safest solution is to replace the defective outlet. Although you may be tempted to carry out this work yourself, remember that performing do-it-yourself (DIY) repairs on your electrical systems may invalidate your homeowners insurance if you are not properly qualified. 

9. Rodent Droppings

Although hygiene is likely to be your first concern if you spot rodent droppings in your home, evidence of mice or rats is also a sign that your property is at risk of electrical problems. Rodents tend to chew on electrical wires when they enter your home and will often use them to grind their teeth.

Should you spot any evidence of an infestation, you should immediately check your wires for signs of rodent damage. Consider putting devices such as sonic rodent deterrents around your wiring to prevent these creatures from entering the area.

If you have rodents in your home, you should also speak to a pest control expert who can help you address the problem and prevent any future infestations.

10. You Don’t Have a Smoke Alarm

Whether a fire originates from an electrical problem or has another cause, not having a smoke alarm is one of the most serious safety problems in any home.

According to data from the National Fire Prevention Association, almost 3 out of 5 home deaths in fires occur in properties without a smoke alarm. The risk of dying in a fire is 55% lower if the property has a working smoke alarm.

If you already have a smoke alarm, you should replace it at least every 10 years (or 7 years if you have combination carbon monoxide/smoke alarms) based on the manufacture date shown on the back label.

Conclusion

The consequences of an electrical fire can be devastating. It’s essential that you take all the steps you can to ensure your home’s electrical systems are in good working order and to address any potential issues before they escalate. 

If you have home warranty coverage, check the terms and conditions to see if you’re covered for electrical problems. If you’re buying a new plan, choose a policy that covers these issues.

Finally, you should always call an electrician if you suspect a serious electrical issue in your home. Even if the problem turns out to be nothing, you’ll have peace of mind knowing you and your loved ones are safe.

Katy Ward
Oxford graduate Katy Ward is a seasoned journalist and editor covering personal finance and software topics for Eleven Writing and Top10. Over a 15-year career, Katy has worked with several finance titans, including Barclays, Tandem Bank, and Yahoo! Finance.