Last week, house fires in Hall County claimed the lives of several residents, including a child. A common culprit during heating season is faulty electrical wiring. Older homes, and mobile housing, characteristically don’t have many breaker-protected circuits. When there are only a few outlets available, circuits can get overloaded quite easily.
A standard household breaker of the flip-switch type supplies 15 Amps. That’s the total “power” available to do work. The power draw of appliances is measured in Watts, which is Volts multiplied by Amps. At 110 Volts, we therefore get 1,650 Watts maximum. Plug a household heater into the outlet, and 1,500 Watts are being consumed. It would be a severe mistake to add a second heater to this. Even though the voltage drops during high demand, there would still be a massive overdraft of power from that circuit. Standard breakers trip slowly. Chances are that the wall receptacle will overheat, begin to melt down, and a short circuit develops when insulation melts away from the hot wires. That’s the beginning of a fire.
It’s especially dangerous when a fire starts at the bottom of a structure, because fires work their way upward. A fire in the basement or underneath a porch can engage the entire house quickly. If the family dog lives in such a space, and a space heater serves to supply some heat, it’s important to know which circuit is active. If that same circuit is also powering some of the upstairs, there again we have a fire hazard. Woodwork in basements is typically raw and exposed, providing ready fuel for a blaze.
Having a licensed electrician modernize the wiring system is the best fire insurance. I like the big breaker panels with 40 individual breakers. For some more money, you can get the latest AFCI (arc fault circuit interrupter) breakers, which detect when electrical power jumps across wires, and cut the connection immediately. If a house has really old wiring with textile insulation and porcelain fuses, it’s long overdue for an upgrade. Where a builder has been stingy, the house may be equipped with just 14-gauge wiring (ask the electrician) that also has very limited capacity. It’s acceptable when a circuit serves only some lights. But for wall outlets, so-called 12/3 wiring is standard. If not, a professional re-wiring job can prevent a devastating fire.
Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor at Brenau University, teaching physical and health sciences on Brenau’s Georgia campuses and in China. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.