Don't risk blown circuits or worse!
How to Avoid an Overloaded Electrical System This Christmas
by Benjamin Roussey
Many households will be putting up decorations and lighting at Christmas time. While it looks beautiful and exudes holiday charm, this could lead to an overload of electrical systems which can cause fires. About 5,300 fires are reported every year caused by overloads and about half of these fires occur during the holiday season.
The wiring in most homes is not equipped to manage increased electrical usage during Christmas. More than fifty percent of homes in the country are over thirty years old. Wiring in such homes is designed to handle only half of modern electrical demands. In older homes, connections and wires can be corroded or loose, which makes matters worse.
What Causes an Overload?
Overloading of an electrical circuit or wire happens when more amperage passes through than it can handle. This happens when you try to draw power for too many lights or appliances from a single outlet. Even if you use separate outlets, you need to consider the overall capacity of your electrical system. The system should be able to handle the total load of all the lights and appliances that are working at the same time.
In some homes, the builder might have used smaller sized wiring to cut costs, while still staying within the local electric code. Do not assume that all power outlets are the same, even though they might appear the same in looks. For instance, a #14 wire will safely handle 15 amps, but if it's connected to an outlet where you use appliances and lighting that needs more amperes, you are creating an overload.
Secondly, the wires should be connected to an appropriate circuit breaker. For instance, the #14 wire of the previous example should be connected to a 15-ampere breaker. If it is mistakenly connected to a breaker of higher amperes, say 20 amps, it will allow more amps to flow through the wire, which will create a dangerous situation.
An overloaded electrical system will not necessarily cause a power outage or blow a fuse. If such things happen, then it is a clear sign of overloaded circuits and you can take preventive measures. Unfortunately, such drastic signs do not always occur, and the overload might not be noticed until it is too late. It's important to watch for these warning signs:
- Frequent flickering or blinking, or momentary dimming of lights
- You hear buzzing, sizzling, or crackling sounds from outlets
- You see sparks flying when an outlet is being used
- Wall plates or electric cords are discolored or feel warm to touch
- Circuit breakers tripping often
- Many electrical appliances in your home are malfunctioning
It is much safer to take preventive steps first, rather than wait until you notice these warning signs. Before the holiday season, call an experienced electrician and have your home checked for hidden hazards. If the wiring is faulty or old, have it repaired or upgraded.
Since overloads happen due to excessive amperes flowing in the wires, you need to first know how many amperes you will be using. For this, you need to know a simple formula.
When you divide wattage by volts, you get amperes. In almost all American homes, the voltage is 120, so the only thing to find out is the wattage of the lights or appliance, which is usually given in the product specifications or printed on the product itself.
For instance, if your Christmas decoration lights are using 2,000 watts, then dividing this by 120 you get 16.6 amperes. Hence, when you plug these lights in a 20 amp outlet, you would be using more than 75% of the available current on the circuit. However, you need to see also what other appliances or lights are connected to the particular circuit. If, for example, you are using a giant Santa Claus, a small flat screen TV or a computer system of 1,000 watts on the same circuit, you are sure to blow the fuse, trip the circuit, or start a fire.
If you have simply tripped the circuit, just remember what you had recently plugged into the electric outlet. Unplugging the device should set the problem right. However, if the circuit breaker is faulty or does not match the amperes of the wire, it may trip again. Any electrician can offer you advice on how to handle this problem and to prevent this from becoming a problem.
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Making Christmas Safe
It is wise to have your electrical system checked by an expert, and then correctly calculate the amperes before you start plugging in your Christmas lights. The risk of fires is very high when you have overloaded your electrical system. Play it safe this Christmas!
Reviewed November 2017
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Benjamin Roussey is from Sacramento, CA, and grew up doing all varieties of home improvement projects around the home since his parents did not hire contractors or outside help to maintain their home or vehicles. As a result, he has acquired a multitude of home handyman skills in plumbing, carpentry, electrical and everything in between. He also has two Masters degrees and he served four years in the U.S. Navy.
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