A hand-held voltage tester or a three-prong outlet testing device from your local hardware store should cost less than $20 and give you more information to pass along to an electrician when you call one to replace the outlet.
Replacing an outlet is a quick job for a licensed electrician, so it’s worth having one do it right. If you’re a renter, ask your landlord to have the outlet repaired. Because a dead outlet is a safety and habitability issue — as well a potential code violation — it’s a landlord’s responsibility to get it fixed.
Frequent Blown Fuses or Circuit-Breaker Trips
If the breakers in your older home trip often, it could mean that your modern appliances are too powerful for the electrical system, or there’s faulty wiring. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of troubleshooting you can do on your own before calling in a professional. It’s normal for a fuse to blow or a breaker to trip every once in a while, but frequent occurrences indicate a deeper issue.
Joshua Peterson, a master electrician in Loveland, Colo., often gets called to root out these issues after a home has been “fixed and flipped” by an unlicensed contractor. On a recent project, he recalled, his client “had about two circuits feeding the whole downstairs kitchenette, and most kitchens today have to have eight to 10 circuits serving them. She had beautiful granite and walls and ceilings and tile and drywall. But when she’d plug one thing in here, it would trip on another thing there. It’s what we call at our company putting lipstick on a pig.”
Never swap a breaker or fuse for one with a higher amperage — say, replacing a 15-amp breaker with a 20-amp version — in an effort to correct frequent failures. It may be tempting, but this is dangerous because instead of addressing the root problem, you are preventing the fuse — which is, after all, a safety device — from working as intended. This could cause the wiring to overload and overheat, potentially starting a fire.
Every jurisdiction in the country has its own set of standards and policies regarding electrical work. The New York City Department of Buildings is an exemplar, said Mr. Diamond. You can go to the department’s website to find out if an electrician has a current license, is properly insured, and has any disciplinary reports on file.
Tracking down and hiring qualified professionals takes time and money. But putting in that extra bit of legwork to replace outdated electrical wiring in your home is well worth it in the long run — reducing your risk of electric shock, damage to your gadgets or even a fire.
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A version of this article appears at Wirecutter.com.