Being inspired by all the Christmas lighting going up and fond memories of one of my favorite movies as a kid, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, I thought it might be appropriate to talk a bit about electrical safety.
As an overall handy guy who likes to get my hands dirty and do a lot of work myself, I can tell you that if there’s anything which should be left to the professionals in a home renovation, it’s probably wiring. After tackling some projects involving electrical work, I’ve experienced more than a few buzzes and short circuiting (“short circuiting” is a nice way of saying mini-explosion). There’s nothing more nerve wracking than wiring a circuit, and then flipping the circuit breaker with fingers crossed, hoping nothing goes boom!
In one particular incident, thinking that the circuit was shut off and working on a receptacle, I grabbed onto a hot wire in one hand and neutral wire in the other simultaneously, experienced an unexplainable surge through my body, and managed to release before I was literal toast.
In theory, that amount of amperage with me being the conductor would have been more than enough to kill me. On the bright side, all my work passed inspection! However, please hire a pro.
Who is qualified to do electrical work?
If you are a homeowner, you are allowed to do your own electrical work as long as it complies with the Ontario Electrical Safety Code, you obtain permits, and have it inspected by the ESA (Electrical Safety Authority). Unless you really know what you’re doing (I’m a good example of someone who thought so, but clearly don’t), I strongly recommend all electrical work done by a Licensed Electrical Contractor. They should have a valid ECRA/ESA license #, which ensure that they:
· Have the correct insurance
· Will obtain permits on your behalf
· Are qualified to perform the work
· Can offer a certificate of inspection
More importantly, their work will be inspected or subject to an audit from the ESA, and must pass before they can take on any additional work. This reduces your liability and risk from potential electrical fires and shock hazards. This is especially important if you’re not the one living there. Tenants can get very creative with their electrical needs.
General contractors who are not Licensed Electrical Contractors are also not allowed to do electrical work, nor are they allowed to do the work on behalf of the homeowners in cases where the homeowners decides to obtain permits and do the work themselves. They need to subcontract the work to an Electrician.
With safety in mind, now let’s segue into a new requirement that will soon be implemented for all new electrical installations: Arc Fault Protection.
Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters (AFCIs) and Protection
In the 2015 Canadian Electrical Code, all circuits are required to have arc fault protection. This will likely be adopted by fall of 2016. This will apply to all new installations including new builds, basement suites, new additions, or anything where a new circuit is installed (the exception is bathrooms and garages). If you have to replace knob-and-tube wiring in an old house, all the new circuits will need arc fault protection. In the past, it was only required in bedroom circuits, since that was logically where most fatal fires would occur.
What’s an Arc Fault anyway?
An arc fault is an electric current flowing through an unintended path. Ever pull out an l cord quickly and see a spark? That’s an example of an arc fault. Circumstances where it can be dangerous include wires that are punctured by nails, damaged by vermin, or stapled too tightly to wall studs. This can potentially ignite surrounding materials and cause a fire.
Arc fault protection can break the circuit and avoid a hazardous fire. They come in the form of Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters (AFCIs). They are similar to Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters (GFCIs) used to prevent shock hazards in areas close to a water source (i.e., bathroom, kitchens, laundry, exterior), except they are used to prevent fires, not to protect against shock hazards. They are also different from standard circuit breakers, which are meant to disconnect the circuit in case amperage exceeds the limit of the wire size.
There are two ways to install AFCIs:
1. As a receptacle on the very first outlet immediately downstream of the service panel.
2. As a circuit breaker in the main panel.
The less expensive option would be the first one, using a receptacle. However, that method would require a metal or plastic conduit from the panel to the first outlet. Therefore, unless the walls are unfinished, it might make more sense to have it as a circuit breaker in the panel. The circuit breaker also provides full protection against series and parallel arcing situations.
So expect this coming down the pike next year, along with existing requirements for tamper resistance outlets and ground fault circuit interrupters.
My favorite line from National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation:
Aunt Bethany: “Is your house on fire, Clark?”
Clark: "No, Aunt Bethany, those are the Christmas lights"