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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Shut off power before electrical work

Morris and James Carey For The Associated Press

This article is not about workers’ compensation insurance. But it’s a good jumping-off point for our opinions on electrical work.

Workers’ comp is based on the danger level of a given job: The more dangerous the job, the more expensive the insurance premium. Makes sense.

For example, an in-house salesperson or clerical worker is at low risk of being injured on the job compared to a carpenter or electrician. This is largely because their workplaces are so different; a construction site is usually far more dangerous than a business office.

We used to think electrical work was at the top of the list for expensive coverage. But what we discovered astounded us: Workers’ comp for electricians is relatively low among construction workers.

That got us thinking about what the danger in electrical work is: electrocution. But what is it that most electricians do before they work on your electrical system? Of course, they simply turn off the power.

No power, no electrocution. So that means the real danger is forgetting to turn off the power.

People often think it’s safe to turn off a single breaker to work on a given circuit in the home. Nothing could be more foolish. As often as not, electricians will use a single junction box to connect wires from two or more circuits.

In other words, you can turn off the breaker to a light or plug and still find an active hot lead in the electric box that you are working on.

When we decide to work on a circuit and don’t want to turn the entire house off, we typically open the junction box in question and test every single wire to absolutely ensure that the power is off before we reach in to touch anything.

By the way, turning the light off at the switch does not necessarily turn the power off to the wires in the light box in the ceiling. Yes, it may turn off power to the light, but that circuit still could be hot in the box.

Always, always, always turn off the power to a given fixture at the power panel.

Oh, and by the way, you are doing yourself a favor by turning off all the power in the house at the main breaker if you can do it and still perform your task. Nothing is safer.

There are several other precautions to take when working with electrical circuits:

•Let everyone in the family know that you are working and that they should not touch the electrical panel.

•Once you have turned off a breaker, lay a piece of tape across it saying “DO NOT TOUCH.”

•Close the power panel door and tape it closed. Tape a sign to the door that says you are working on an electrical circuit and that the panel should not be opened or disturbed.

Remember, when you disconnect a circuit in the living room, you also could be turning off the plug that operates your teenage daughter’s hair curler. Imagine your surprise and discomfort when she goes to the panel and reactivates the circuit while you’re holding onto the wires.

We do carpenter work, plumbing, electrical, tile, painting and more, and we love it all. But for us, electrical is the most fun.

All it amounts to in a home is running fancy extension cords inside the walls. But there are many important safety codes that must be followed that go far beyond getting shocked.

For example:

•The size of an electric junction box (in cubic inches) is determined by the number and size of the wires connected inside. Each wire in the box requires a certain number of cubic inches of heat dissipating space. One strand of 12-gauge wire requires 1 1/2 cubic inches of cooling area. Two 12-gauge wires would require a total of 3 inches, and so on. Smaller wires require less space, and larger ones more space.

•Any and every (Romex) wire coming out of a junction box must be snugly stapled within 6 inches of the box. These wires must then be securely stapled every 6 feet.

•Wires cannot be junctioned in a power panel. All junctions must be done in a separate junction box.

•No wire should be exposed. All wires should be covered with either a metal housing (electrical pipe) or in a wall cavity covered with wood or wall board. A wire in the ceiling of a garage can be a danger. Using wires in the ceiling to hang clothes to dry or as storage hooks is very dangerous.

Electrical work is one of the safest construction tasks because electricians know how to turn the power off and keep it off until their work is complete. You too can safely perform electrical tasks around the home if you remember that turning off the power is Step 1 and that if you’re going to work on the wiring, there is more to know than simply connecting wires.