Electrical FAQ

These are the most common electrical questions asked by our clients in the Kirkland area. Contact us today at (425) 827-6777 so that we can discuss your electrical needs, since each electrical configuration and design is different we will study your situation individually and provide an array of options.
When is it time to call an electrician?
There are many common danger signals that your electrical system needs attention. Some of the more common warning signs are when you are resetting circuit breakers or changing fuses too often; when you turn on your air conditioner and the lights dim in the room. When your lights flicker or go on and off. When you notice a “hot” or “burning”  smell with no apparent cause. When you have six electronic devices going into one outlet in back of your electronics center. When you have receptacle outlets overburdened by multi-plug strips. When a three-prong plug needs a two-prong adapter. If you have to run extension cords to plug in electrical devices. Can you hear your bathroom ventilation fan from the front door? (Maybe its time for a new, quiet fan).
What size service do I install in my home?
Most states call for 100 amps minimum, but with all the new electronic devices, gourmet cooking equipment, hot tubs, air conditioning and the new chargers for electric cars, we would recommend a 200 amp service, especially in new homes. This also gives you some space for future additions.
This is not a job for an unlicensed person to attempt. In most cases it involves replacing everything from the service loop (this is the wire that extends from the top of your meter to the utility tie in ) up to and including the main panel.
Resist the urge to have a “friend that’s an electrician” do this work. For one it is illegal. Only a licensed contractor or the homeowner can do this type of work in Washington. A “moonlighting” electrician may not. Secondly, having the work done illegally may create problems if you sell your home and could cause an insurance company to reject your claim should a problem relating to the illegally installed work cause a fire or other problem.

Where do you put G.F.I.’s?
Any bathroom or garage outlet within 6′ of a sink must be GFCI protected. The code also requires all kitchen outlets for countertop receptacles to be GFCI protected. GFCI outlets must be installed in any area where electricity and water may come into contact, including basements, pools, spas, utility rooms, attached garages and outdoors. At least one GFCI outlet is required in an unfinished basement and for most outdoor outlets.
There are two types of GFCIs in homes, the GFCI outlet and the GFCI circuit breaker. Both do the same job, but each has different applications and limitations.
The GFCI outlet is actually a replacement for a standard electrical outlet. A GFCI is not dependent of a ground to function. It is important to remember that no GFCI outlet provides overload protection.  That is the job of the circuit breaker. It does not measure shorts to the ground, it measures the current difference between the hot and neutral wires. A sudden difference of 5 ma. or more, indicating that there is another path for the electricity to flow through will trip this device. The only downside to this is there may be some nuisance tripping in highly inductive loads like large motors or even fluorescent lamps or fixtures on the same circuit. But the newer models seemed to have corrected this somewhat.
It protects any appliance plugged into it, and can also be wired to protect other outlets that are connected to it. The GFCI circuit breaker controls an entire circuit, and is installed as a replacement for a circuit breaker on your home’s main circuit board. Rather than install multiple GFCI outlets, one GFCI circuit breaker can protect the entire circuit. There is a test button and a reset button on these units. If you press the test button the reset should pop out. To reset just push the reset button in.
It is not a good idea to put lights on the same GFCI outlet circuit that the rest of the room is on. This is so you aren’t left in the dark if the circuit trips. Generally, equipment such as refrigerators, freezers and sump pumps that cannot go without electrical power for an extended period of time without causing costly losses or property damage should not be placed on a GFCI protected circuit. GFCIs are very sensitive and are subject to nuisance tripping. GFCI receptacles don’t last outdoors even under the best of conditions. Be sure to test the device using the “test” button before you use one.  Recent studies now recommend that you replace your GFI receptacles every five years or so. Statistics have shown that sensitivity over time degrades. Replacement of older GFCI’s is a necessary safety step.

What is an AFCI?

The past few code revisions have required the installation of AFCI circuit breakers on select circuits supplying power to certain areas of your home. At first restricted only to circuits supplying bedrooms, AFCIs are now required on most every circuit in a new home that is not required to be protected by a GFCI.

Are they the same?  NO!  A GFCI detects minute difference in hot and neutral current. An AFCI detects the unique signature of an electrical arc. This signature is common to such things as old extension cords that have worn out and are sparking enough to cause a fire but not enough to trip the circuit breaker. In other words, it is a safety measure that will reduce the chance of an electrical fire in your home.

How much should I attempt on my own?
At the present time Washington law allows a homeowner to do whatever you want in your own home. It does not allow the owner of a rental property or commercial structure to do their own work if they are not a qualified and licensed electrician.
Having said that, doing electrical work yourself is a gamble. How much are you willing to risk to save money? There is a reason why it takes so much training to become an electrician. Do not make a mistake by taking electricity lightly, even the smallest job could be a safety hazard. Why take a chance? Get a professional to do this work.
In Washington the homeowner can pull his own Electrical permit for work in his single family home. If he pulls his own work it is with the understanding that he or an immediate family member will be doing the work. A homeowner may never pull an electrical permit with the idea of having a “moonlighting” electrician do the work. Another thing to consider: There have been cases of damage or fire caused by a homeowners work and the insurance company would not honor the claim. Some will pay only if the work is done by a licensed Electrical Contractor. You should check with your homeowners Insurance Co., and they should sign a document or something to this effect to acknowledge this when they pull a permit.

How many convenience outlets in each room?
In every kitchen, family room, dining room, living room, parlor, library, den, bedroom, or similar room or area of dwelling units, receptacle outlets shall be installed so that no point along the floor line in any wall space there is more than six feet from the nearest outlet in that space. This is to prevent the use of extension cords. Outlets are usually placed about 16 inches above floor level. Switches usually go about 48 inches from floor level. For convenience outlets each single receptacle in a single branch circuit is usually figured for 1.5 amps, duplex outlets for 3 amps in estimating total amperage for that circuit. Air conditioners should be on a single dedicated circuit.

How should outlets be installed in a kitchen area?
In Washington, all 15 and 20 receptacles installed in a kitchen shall have G.F.C.I. protection. This code now applies to both residential AND commercial kitchens. Receptacles in a kitchen used to serve counter tops should be supplied with at least two 20 amp branch circuits, for small appliances. Each fixed appliance (refrigerator, stove, dish washer) shall have its own dedicated circuit. On counter tops 12 inches or wider a receptacle shall be installed so that there is no more than 24 inches between outlets. Receptacles outlets installed to serve island counter tops shall be installed above, or within 12 inches below the counter top. There shall be no more than 24 inches from center line of counter top. No receptacle shall be installed face up on a sink counter top.
Combination devices that include both AFCI and GFCI protection in one unit will become available soon. AFCIs can be installed in any 15 or 20 ampere branch circuit in homes today and are currently available as circuit breakers with built-in AFCI features. In the near future, other types of devices with AFCI protection will be available.
If a GFCI receptacle is installed on the load side of an AFCI it is possible for both the AFCI and the GFCI to trip on a fault if the current exceeds the limit for both devices. It is also possible for the AFCI to trip and the GFCI to not trip since the two devices could race each other. However, in no case is safety compromised.

Are Zinsco and FPE circuit breakers really that bad?
Each year we are called to come out and replace old circuit breaker panels made by Zinsco and FPE. The typical panel was installed in or prior to the mid-1970s. So what is the problem?
Time has shown that the safety benefit of these panels has degraded to dangerous levels. Circuit breakers don’t trip in many cases. In other cases, the mechanism for securing the circuit breaker to the bussing of the panel has deteriorated resulting in intermittent circuit flow, arcing and sometimes fires in the panel.
There are some insurance companies that will not insure a home with one of these panels installed in them.
At the very least you should have your Zinsco or FPE panel inspected for signs of failure and get it replaced immediately if there are signs of this happening.

Is knob-and-tube wiring dangerous?
To understand this answer please let me give you a very basic primer in Wiring 101!  The purpose of the circuit breaker is not to protect your vacuum cleaner, blender or computer. The purpose of a circuit breaker is to protect the wiring inside the walls and ceilings of your home. Take for instance the common #12 copper wire. This gauge wire is very common in homes, offices, and commercial spaces. This gauge wire is protected by a 20 amp circuit breaker. Now, the NEC requires that protection of a wire be at a point where it (the wire) does not exceed the temperature rating of the insulation that covers it.
So for most #12 wire, the insulation will not deteriorate  if the wire is restricted to handle only 20 amps or less. Remember, as a wire carries more current, it heats up.
Knob and tube wiring was in use at a time when energy was cheap. It was run in the attics and wall cavities of structures. It was held away from the wood by porcelain stand-offs call “knobs”.  When it had to pass through wood, it was protected by a porcelain “tube”, hence, “knob and tube”.  The insulation was essentially a cloth fire-resistant covering. Since there was air completely surrounding the wire, it was able to cool itself so it did not exceed its temperature rating.

Okay, so fast-forward 50 years. Energy is expensive. So, we upgrade and insulate our homes. The wire that once had free air around it now is covered and cannot cool itself as before. Also, when knob and tube was originally installed it was in different times. One switch, one receptacle and one light PER ROOM were considered adequate. There was not a lot of current flowing. Look at what we have now. Big screen televisions, hair dryers, window air conditioners. Countless gadgets. So you couple heavier current flow with a lack of cooling ability and what happens? The insulation on the wire drys out, cracks, falls off. Sometimes it gets so warm it ignites the wood it is next to. This is the danger.

Homes that still have knob and tube wiring need to be inspected and possibly re-wired. We have actually rewired homes for long-time policy holders of homeowner’s insurance who were told either they had to rewire their homes or the insurance company would not renew their policies.

If you live in an older home, you owe it to yourself to have your home’s wiring assessed and inspected.