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Robert Lamoureux: Electricity is tricky business, so call a professional

Your Home Improvements

Posted: January 8, 2010 9:49 p.m.
Updated: January 9, 2010 4:55 a.m.
We have designed a custom, full color The Signal/Your Home Improvements T-shirt that we will send to you, with our compliments, if we answer your question in our column. Thank you, Robert Lamoureux

Hi Robert,
I enjoy your columns, especially the one on space heater safety. I had forgotten that they can be dangerous and would personally leave mine running overnight when I slept. Thank you for the information. Regarding my heater, when I unplug it, the plug is almost too hot to touch, but this is my newest heater and everything else is working perfectly. I was just wondering if this is something I should be alarmed about. Thank you very much again,
Jen J.

Hi Jen,
If your plug is getting that hot, there is something wrong with the breaker. It should be tripping and you need to have that checked. If the plug gets that hot, that means the wire is getting that hot. Breakers are the safeguards in place to prevent overheating and once they stop working, you should call an electrician immediately.

In the meantime, stop using that heater and that receptacle and the other receptacles on the same circuit.

Changing out a breaker out may sound easy, but there may be more to it than that. In any event, I would recommend calling an electrician.

Inside your electrical panel may be the most dangerous place in the home. Let a professional take care of it. They can provide an inspection and make sure everything is right. That way, you know for sure the problem is fixed correctly.

Something we see all of the time is a homeowner puts in a 30 amp breaker on a #12 wire instead of a 20 amp. Maybe they don't notice or don't think it's that big of a deal, but the wiring overheats. This is one of the main causes of house fires.

Whenever electrical current gets above a safe level, your breaker or fuse will shut that circuit down. A fuse is simply a casing with a wire inside. The circuit flows through the fuse wire and if the current gets too high, if the fuse gets too hot, the wire disintegrates which stops the current and prevents damages.

Breakers have either a bimetallic strip or an electromagnet which, when overheated, will operate a linkage, connected to a switch, that opens the switch and shuts down the flow of electricity. Although fuses can be used only once, these types of breakers are designed to operate over and over again. Another type is a high-speed breaker that uses a small explosive charge that drives a piston to open the switch.

When it comes to your home and the safety of you family, do not delay when you suspect electrical problems.

It's not a bad idea to run thermal scan on the panel. An infrared gun is used that measures temperatures to a fraction of a degree and can immediately spot breakers that are running hot. If they're hot, that means they're not tripping and need to be replaced. It could be they're the wrong size or sometimes they do go bad. With high-rises, it is mandatory that these tests be performed annually.

Several years ago, we were on vacation and upon returning learned that a pipe had burst and had flooded our home. The clean up and expense were terrible. I'm still not happy because where the drywall was replaced and repainted, you can see a difference in the paint color. Ever since that time, I turn the water off going into our house whenever we leave for an extended time. We left over the holidays and turned off the valve, but noticed it is leaking. Do I need to turn the water off at the street to change the valve?

Thank you,
Rich B.

Hi Rich,
We work with the aftermath of flooding on a regular basis so I know exactly what you're talking about. As far as the paint not matching, they shouldn't have spot painted the new drywall because of that reason - the repair will be visible. The only way to avoid that and to make it look as if there never was a repair is to paint the entire wall - from floor to ceiling, corner to corner. It's more expensive and sometimes it becomes a fight with the insurance company, but that's the right way and the only way we'll do it.

Concerning your shut off valve, you either have a gate valve - the round handle type, or a ball valve, which uses a lever type closure. I would recommend the ball valve.

Every six months, you should exercise the valve meaning to turn it off and on a couple of times. That way, if there is any sediment or build up inside the valve, it will be worked loose and the valve will work when you need it. This also applies to the angle stops in your bathroom. If you don't keep them exercised, it's possible that when the time comes to valve down in an emergency, the handle won't move or it could break off in your hands. This is a very common source of flooding.

To replace, you will need to turn the water off at the meter. Be careful working around the meter. If you break it, you own it. In a residential setting, you might be able to valve down yourself with a crescent wrench or you might need a meter key. If it's too tight, call the water company and have them come out and shut it off.

You didn't mention if you have copper, galvanized or PVC, but after you've replaced the valve, put it in the closed position and valve back up at the meter. Then, open the ball valve very slowly - it's called cracking it. Slowly let the water in until the house pressurizes, then open it up fully. If you open it up too quickly, there's a surge of water traveling through those pipes that acts like a hammer. When it hits that valve or angle stop that's already a little questionable, or a supply line, it will blow them right out. This sort of thing is not that common with a residential, like a single family home, but it can happen. The real problems are with condos and commercial buildings.

So, if you do this job yourself, take your time and turn it back on very slowly. If you hire someone, hire a licensed plumber that knows what they are doing.

Robert Lamoureux has 25 years of experience as a general contractor, with separate licenses in electrical and plumbing contracting. He owns IMS Construction Inc. in Valencia. His opinions are his own, and not necessarily those of The Signal. Opinions expressed in this column are not meant to replace the recommendations of a qualified contractor, after that contractor has made a thorough visual inspection. Send your questions to


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