Mike Holmes on Electrical Dangers
BY MIKE HOLMES
I’m not a big fan of homeowners taking on reno projects on their own. In some cases, more damage is done than good. I would rather they learn everything they can about the reno to help them hire a pro who will do it right the first time. There’s nothing wrong with homeowners trying small projects, like repairing drywall or maybe even a backsplash. But electrical wiring is never DIY. Period.
A lot of bad things can come out of doing the electrical work in your home yourself. For example, it can prevent you from getting insurance on your home, especially if there’s knob and tube wiring. Also, using the wrong gauge of wiring to support heavy current demands, such as air conditioning, can lead to a fire hazard.
But unfortunately, too many homeowners think they can do their own rewiring. In Ontario, it’s about 75 percent–that’s alarming. If you mess up a tiling job, the worst that can happen is water damage and potentially mould. But if you mess up electrical wiring, you can cause short circuits, electrical fires—heck, you can kill yourself! Is that really worth saving a couple hundred dollars? I’ll tell you, nothing is worth that.
20 percent of all fires in Canada are due to electrical fires. In 2010, U.S. fire departments responded to about 46,500 home fires that involved electrical failure or malfunction. That’s a lot – too much. In my world there wouldn’t be any electrical fires, because they’re preventable if the right pros are brought in at the right time.
Faulty wiring is the number one cause of electrical fires. Sometimes it’s due to poor workmanship, other times its just wear and tear. But in any case, you need to know the warning signs. That includes:
-Breakers that always trip
-Fuses that always blow
-A burning smell coming from appliances or in rooms
-Discolored wall outlets
-Outlets that spark
-Outlets and switches that are hot to the touch
These are all signs that tell you something’s wrong with the electrical in your home. The longer you wait to get it fixed the greater the risk. Get a licensed electrical contractor to come in to do an audit of the entire house. They’ll make sure all the electrical work is up to code and that all the connections are tight. Not to mention they’ll get all the proper electrical permits for any work.
If your home is older than 15 years you need to bring in a licensed electrical contractor to check out the wiring. Especially if the home has a finished basement.
Many homeowners finish their own basements, including the electrical work. A disaster could be waiting in the walls or in the ceiling. How do you know if everything is up to code? If there’s knob and tube wiring? Or aluminum wiring mixed with copper? How do you know if the previous owners hired someone who knew what they were doing? The truth is you don’t. And the only way to know for is by bringing in the right pro—a licensed electrical contractor with plenty of experience.
I am the anti-DIY guy. Even though I talk about empowering you to take charge of your renovation, and as much as I think you need to be educated about every aspect of your home, I don’t believe you can do as good a job as a professional.
When it comes to most home improvements, I don’t think you can do it yourself.
Now don’t send me cranky emails about your friend or your father who did fantastic home renovations and did a better job than most professionals. That’s rare, and there are always exceptions. There are far more people who think they can do a renovation and end up screwing it up. (Not to mention that there are lots of “professionals” who do bad work.)
Do-it-yourself books or magazines teach you how to do it, but not why to do it. They don’t teach the principal behind why something is happening, or what it means in the bigger picture.
For example, let’s say you have water staining on your ceiling or wall in the house you’ve just moved into. You read the DIY books or go on the Internet, and you figure out how to cut out the damaged drywall, how to cut a new piece to size, how to fit the patch, mud and tape and sand and prime it. You do the job and it looks great.
Until the next winter when you get an ice dam (again), that causes snowmelt to back up under your shingles and into your attic. And the wall and ceiling are water damaged again. See what I mean? You’ve learned how to do it, and not why it needs doing. Understanding why is more important than knowing how.
It’s like the doctor who treats the symptom but doesn’t realize there is a disease. You’ve got to get to the reason for the problem, or you’ll just keep replacing Band-Aid solutions.
What about doing DIY that is dangerous, such as home wiring? The DIY books make that look easy, it’s a few different colored wires, connect black and white, don’t forget the ground and you’re done. Not quite, and let’s be very clear: Improper electrical work can kill you. Recently there were some DIY books recalled in North America because they actually had incorrect instructions regarding installation and wiring repair. The instructions in the books could have led to fire or electrical shock.
Just goes to show you that you can’t believe everything you read. That may seem a bit strange coming from a guy who’s written a couple of home improvement books and who writes a newspaper column every week. In my defense, I never recommend in my books that people do-it themselves. Always hire a pro.
No matter how much reading you do, how much you surf the net or even how many chats you have with the nice helpful people at the hardware store, you will not be able to match the knowledge and experience of a professional. Especially ones who are good at what they do. It takes years to become good at anything and it takes commitment and a lot of hard work.
That’s true even for work that doesn’t seem like brain surgery (which I also don’t recommend you do yourself). Ever try putting up trim? Crown molding? Hanging a door? How hard can it be, right? Aren’t there instructions to follow or a weekend workshop you can attend?
Hanging a ceiling fan? What about shingling a roof? Installing pot lights? Moving a dryer vent? They all sound like DIY projects a homeowner could handle, right? Wrong.
Connect your ceiling fan just to the junction box or without enough additional structural support and it will come down when it’s operating at high speed.
Not flashing your chimney or roof valleys and have your new roof leak like a sieve.
Improperly sealing your pot lights creates heat loss and condensation that saturates your attic insulation and leads to mold and rot. Using the wrong kind of pot lights close to insulation can cause a fire.
Cutting out structure to run new ducting for the dryer — it wasn’t load-bearing, was it? — can lead to disaster. Using the wrong vent hose, running it too long a distance or having too many bends or venting it into an interior space, can lead to poor indoor air issues, condensation and even fire.
That’s what I thought. And that’s why no DIY.
Mike Holmes Q & A
Q: What’s going on in the home building industry?
A: You’ll never be out of work if you’re skilled at building. The man who performs brain surgery needs a house and needs a deck built. I believe there should be equality with being a doctor and being a skilled builder/tradesman. In the past 30 years, generations didn’t want their children to grow up to be contractors. And these kids are playing video games and don’t know enough, or care enough, to be good builders. Soon, 50 percent of the contractors will be retiring. Who’s going to build and remodel then? I think we’ve become too focused on just the interior of a house, building from the inside out. We should be building from the outside in.