The Dos and Don'ts of Electrical Safety

A man holding an electrical cord with smoke around his head.

Most of us know that electricity and water don't mix, therefore, things like relaxing in a bathtub with a space heater sitting on the ledge is something we are smart enough to never do. But there are some things that may not seem so common sense when it comes to electrical safety at home, such as what to do if an outlet or light switch feels warm to the touch, or if it's okay to be using a light bulb that is a higher wattage than suggested for a light fixture. Either of these things can actually be a potential fire hazard even though they may seem like nothing to be overly concerned about. This list below of both what to do and what not to do will help keep you and your home safe from preventable electrical mishaps.

Home Safety Electricity Do's

A bulb being screwed into a ceiling light.

The number one thing you can do to keep your home safe when it comes to electrical issues is to conduct an inspection of your home's electrical components. Once a year, perhaps while doing your regular home inspection, follow through this checklist below:

Electrical Cords: Check every electrical cord in a room for any damage and looseness. If it's damaged, replace or repair the cord. For loose plugins, it may be the outlet. Once plugged back in, if it still won't hold tightly you may need to repair the outlet or hire an electrician to do so.

Extension Cords: If you're using an extension cord, make sure that it is not running along an area where it may cause a trip hazard, such as a doorway. Also, it should not be placed under a carpet as it may become a fire hazard should something go wrong with it. If you have multiple extension cords being used, consider adding more outlets and / or circuits instead of using extension cords.

Outlets and Switches: As you do your home inspection, touch the outlets and switches to see if they feel warm. Warm outlets are a sign of an issues, such as an overly large electrical load or loose wiring. Dimmer switches are an exception since they naturally may feel warm, but if they feel hot, they too should be investigated. Contact an electrician to help you troubleshoot any issues. Also, when checking outlets, make sure they have one high-wattage appliance plugged into it and are not overloaded.

Kitchen and Bathroom: Make sure that there is no standing water near any outlets or cords and check any ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) outlets. To see if it is working properly, there is a test button. Instructions are here.

Lamps and Light Fixtures: Check each light fixture and verify that it has the proper wattage light bulb installed. Do not go over a manufacturer's recommendation on wattage as this can cause an electrical safety hazard. Lamps should also be on a level surface and kept away from anything that they may burn.

Space Heaters: Many electrical home fires are caused by portable or stationary space heaters. The biggest issue is the dust and dirt that accumulates inside them. They need to be cleaned and checked regularly—make sure they are unplugged before doing any cleanup. The next highest reason they are so dangerous is because they are too close to things that will burn, such as furniture, bedding, and clothing.

If you encounter anything that needs your attention as you do your walk-through, remember to unplug and / or shut off the power to it via the circuit breaker before looking into it any further.

Electricity Don'ts: Knowing What Not to Do

A breaker panel.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of injuries and even deaths that are caused by things that may seem like common sense when it comes to electricity (and actually may be common sense, but are ignored). Whether you think it's a known thing or not, it's wise to tell others in the home about these precautions below so that everyone can remain safe.

Do not clean or repair any appliance or electrical item before unplugging it.

Do not attempt to dislodge food from a toaster or other electrical appliance while it's still plugged in.

Do not use extension cords for large appliances such as refrigerators, washing machines, or anything else that pulls a lot of power. Make sure the extension cord being used is the proper type, such as indoor or outdoor rated, or two-prong vs. three-prong.

Do not pull on a cord to unplug it. Instead, pull it out by holding the plastic housing that holds the plug.

Do not ever use an electrical device or appliance that has any damage to a cord or sends a spark when connected to electricity. Have the cord replaced or repaired before using it.

Do not use anything electronic such as radios, hair dryers, or heaters near a sink or bathtub full of water.

Do not keep resetting a breaker that trips. If it trips immediately after you reset it, there's a potential electrical problem that needs to be further investigated before you use it again. If you continue to keep resetting the breaker each time it trips, be aware that it can cause a fire.

Do not ever throw water on an electrical fire. Instead, use your chemical fire extinguisher.

Electricity and Children

A boy sitting on the floor playing with an electrical outlet and a cord.

There are more electrical safety precautions you should take when children are in the home. These include making sure that each outlet is protected with a tamper-resistant (TR) receptacle, checking space heaters more routinely, and not leaving out anything that electricity will conduct with in a negative way, such as water or metal.

Space heaters are one of the largest causes of electrical fires involving death and injury to children, which is why it's especially necessary to verify that while in use they are kept away from bedding or clothing that may catch fire. Also, consider purchasing one that has an alarm that sounds when knocked over. (These are also good to have if you own pets.)

One of the last and best things you can do to keep your children safe around electricity in the home is to teach them about the dangers of electricity. There are many good videos and sites, such as the NFPA's (National Fire Protection Association) electrical safety PSA video, that can help with this, but you can also teach them by taking them on your yearly walk-through.

With over 500 deaths a year and more than 1500 injuries attributed to electrical fires alone, common sense about electrical safety is obviously not enough to prevent a tragedy. Instead, it takes a proactive approach to learning and informing yourself about what can cause electrical malfunctions or failures and then being sure to follow these do's and don'ts to ensure that your family and your home is safe from electrical mishaps.