Electrical work around the home is perfectly safe if you take the proper precautions. The first rule to prevent an electric shock is to shut off the power to anything you're working on. But it's not always so simple. Some things around the house hold an electric charge even when they're powered off. Other projects require the use of electricity, so there's some risk of shock at all times. And it's important to know how to shut down electrical appliances and equipment, to... prevent shock that can occur even when you're not touching any wiring. The following six rules will help protect you from most -- not all -- electrical hazards around the home.
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Turn Off the Power
Always shut off the power to a circuit or device that you will be working on. This usually means turning off the appropriate breaker in your home's service panel (breaker box). If you're working on an appliance with a cord, unplug the cord to shut off the power, but be sure to follow rules #3 and #6 below.
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Test for Power
Always test for power at the device or equipment after turning off the circuit breaker. Use a noncontact voltage tester (or another type of electrical tester) to check the circuit wiring and any electrical contacts before touching anything that could carry electricity. For example, if you need to work on a light switch, shut off the power to the switch's circuit, then carefully remove the switch coverplate. Touch the probe of a noncontact voltage tester to each switch terminal and to every... electrical wire in the box to make sure no voltage is present.
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Beware of Capacitors
Capacitors are like batteries in that they hold an electric charge on their own. They are often found in appliances and equipment that use motors, such as air conditioners, refrigerators, freezers and garage door openers, as well as microwave ovens. Capacitors store electricity and help motors start up by giving them a boost at high voltage. Capacitors can deliver a deadly shock even when the circuit power is off or the appliance is unplugged. Do not work on appliances or equipment that contain... capacitors unless you know how to discharge them safely.
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Protect Yourself With GFCIs
If you're doing work that uses electricity -- that is, with the power on -- plug your extension cord, tool or other equipment into a GFCI (ground-fault circuit interrupter) outlet, or use a GFCI-protected extension cord. GFCIs detect electrical faults and shut off the power to prevent shock. Faults can be caused by things like water getting on cord contacts or by shorts inside tools, cords or appliances. GFCI protection is especially important when working outdoors or near any moisture, but... it's always a worthwhile safety precaution.Continue to 5 of 6 below.
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Use Insulated Tools
It always makes sense to use insulated tools for electrical work. Since you've shut off the circuit and tested for power before touching any wires, using insulated tools may seem like overkill, but consider it an easy -- and potentially lifesaving -- backup precaution. You never know when a tool might slip or drop and make an accidental electrical connection. Insulated tools have a minimal amount of exposed metal to prevent such catastrophes. If you're working on or near electrical... wiring or equipment from a ladder, use a nonconductive fiberglass ladder instead of a metal ladder.
Warning: Always use insulated tools around batteries, such as car batteries. Touching both battery terminals with a metal tool can actually cause the tool to melt in your hand, or worse.
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Never Connect or Disconnect Under Load
When an appliance or other device is wired or plugged into a circuit and is running, the circuit is "under load." That means the device is drawing power and electricity is flowing from the circuit into the appliance and back onto the circuit wiring in a continuous loop. If you unplug the device while it's on, the flow of electricity might create an arc, which is the electricity literally jumping across the gap from the outlet to the plug. This is normally safe to do with lamps and... small appliances that don't have ON/OFF switches, but large appliances like dryers, ranges and AC units can create dangerous arcs when disconnected or connected under load. The rule: Always turn off the device before unplugging it or plugging it in or switching on its circuit breaker.