Homeowners Electrical Exam

Can You Get Legally Permitted--Without Spending Money on an Electrician?

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My initial motivation for taking the homeowners and the electrical exam was not so much that I wanted to save money but because there were no electricians available.

This was at a time when home equity interest rates had reached an all-time low, banks were handing out money like candy, and everybody was renovating their home. Consequently, all of the specialized trades--electricians, plumbers, HVAC--were stretched thin. It was nearly impossible to get an electrician even show up to look at the job, much less take on the job.

Then a neighbor told me that it was possible to do the electrical work myself (yes, even major projects like installing a sub-panel or completely rewiring a kitchen) and get legally permitted in the process. To me at the time, this did not seem possible. I thought that you had to have an electrician to both do major work and to secure the permits from the county.

The more I thought about it, the more attractive this option seemed. Of course, disregard the fact that I knew practically nothing about electrical work. Perhaps I could change out an outlet, but not much more than that.

So I sat down and began boning up on the electrical trade--or a least, a very much dumbed-down and ultra "lite" version of the trade for a novice homeowner. My intent was both to learn the basics of electrical work and to study for the exam that the homeowner's electrical exam would require. Here are a few basics about it:

What Is a Homeowners Electrical Exam?

It is a short exam offered by some localities that permit you, an unlicensed homeowner-electrician, to perform electrical work on your own residence and to get fully permitted in the process.

Where Is This Exam Offered?

By the permitting office in charge of building an electrical. This is usually at the county level, but it could also be at the city level. It is not offered in every locality. I have found that mostly the building permit offices of populous metro areas offer this examination.

Is It Hard to Pass the Exam?

Even though the exam has very few questions--usually between 10 and 30 questions--there is definitely a risk that you will not be able to pass the test. It is not unusual for homeowners to fail the test on the first go-around. I failed the test on my first try, likely due to my hubris. For the next exam, I studied much harder and passed it.

Why Do Counties and Cities Offer a Homeowners Electrical Exam? Wouldn't They Want Homeowners to Hire Qualified Electricians?

Reasons vary. Certainly, the safest route is to hire a qualified, licensed electrician. My guess is that the localities are trying to be practical about the matter. They know that homeowners may sometimes try to do their own wiring, often with disastrous results. By offering this option, the localities are adopting a middle-ground approach. It's not as good as a licensed electrician, not as bad as no-nothing DIY electricians wiring their homes and starting fires. The homeowner's electrical exam allows for the municipalities to set some kind of standard for the would-be electricians.

Are Their Limitations on the Type of Work You Can Perform after You Pass the Electrical Exam?

Yes. For one thing, you are limited only to specified projects within your own residence. Also, in most cases, the work is limited only to single-family detached houses. So, if you own a condominium, you cannot take this test.these examinations and temporary licenses to perform electrical work are only in conjunction with applying for a permit for a specific electrical project. So, it is not a blanket license to do anything, at any time. And since permits have an expiration date, your homeowner's license to perform this work also has an expiration date.

What Is the Examination Based On?

It is based on the current National Electrical Code (NEC). Because localities are free to adopt changes to the NEC, you may need to be aware of these changes. The NEC provides a basis--but not a prescription--for individual municipalities' own electrical codes.

Is It an Open Book Exam?

This varies, but in most instances that I've seen, it is an open book exam. While a copy of the NEC may be supplied to you by the permitting office, you will not be allowed to bring in outside materials.

Are There Different Kinds of Examinations for Different Kinds of Work?

Sometimes. I have seen these separate exams, one of which you can take at your option according to the type of project: a heavy-op exam, kitchen remodeling exam, general lighting and outlets exam, and a new-construction home exam. In other places, there may be a one-size-fits-all exam.