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GardenSMART :: Is Your Home's Electricity Safe? 5 Things to Check

Is Your Home's Electricity Safe? 5 Things to Check

By The Weather Channel/
Photograph courtesy of

Between the loud claps of thunder, spring storms can also light up the sky with electricity. That lightning might be exciting to watch, but it can also cause real damage to your home's electric system if you're not prepared. 

"When lightning hits a house, it's looking for the easiest way to get to the ground," Joel Worthington, president of Mr. Electric, told If lightning makes connection with a home or a power line, the current is going to travel through wiring and anything it's connected to on its way from the sky to the ground.

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"You're going to have massive watts going through [the lines] and that's why everything is going to blow up," he said. "Unfortunately nothing is going to help you with that." Save for one thing: unplugging all of your appliances. According to Worthington, that's the only thing that can guarantee your home is 100 percent protected from a lightning strike. 

That may sound futile, but there are a number of things you can do to protect your home from surges and other possible damage to your electrical system. Continue reading to find out what you should be checking for throughout your home.

Make Sure Your Home Is Surge-Protected

While few things can prepare your home for a direct lightning strike, there is more you can do to keep your system safe from a strike down the line. 

"You want whole-house surge protection at the panel," Worthington said of the best way to prepare for an indirect strike. "Let's say lightning hits down the road, that power is still going somewhere. It gets in the power lines, it's finding that ground. It's going through that line and bringing that surge into your home."

This panel-level surge protection will keep your phone, cable and electrical safe from strikes down the line. According to Worthington, a good surge protector at the panel will absorb the surge. These models also protect homes from more normal surges that aren't linked to a storm. 

When evaluating surge protectors at the outlet level, check that you truly have a surge protector, rather than just a simple power strip. Worthington said to look for a UL rated model both in your home and in the store. 

"Anytime you turn on a vacuum cleaner or do anything electrically, it's sending little surges through the home," Worthington said. "Those surges are slowly damaging your electronics." 

In addition to the vacuum cleaner, appliances like hairdryers and space heaters can also cause normal surges within the home. 

Examine Your Electric Panel

Checking the safety of your home's electrical system should include the heart of the operation: the main panel. For this task, however, Worthington recommends enlisting the services of a professional. 

Evaluating the panel includes looking for water corrosion, cracks and any kinds of burn marks inside, which involves taking the cover of the panel off. "You don't want [an untrained person] sticking a screwdriver in there," he said. "They're going to have a shocking experience."

In addition to wear and tear, a professional should also check that the panel is up to code and that there are no double caps. "Some electricians will cut corners and if you're out of room on the box, they'll say it won't hurt to add another circuit on here, and they'll double up two circuits on one," Worthington said. "That's not a good thing."

A homeowner can cycle their breakers without calling in an electrician. "Just turn them on and off," Worthington said. "They're just sitting there on all the time and they can get a little stiff. You want them to move freely; their job is to automatically turn off [if something is wrong]."

Check Your Outlets

As the electrical entrance point for many of your home's appliances, outlets need to be checked out from time to time to keep the entire system safe.

"The easiest thing is any kind of burn marks," Worthington said. "If there's a loose connection in there and when you plug in you hear popping, with that sound you'll see a little bit of black. That would be concerning and you probably have a loose connection on your outlet."

Another thing to look for are GFCIs (ground fault circuit interrupters). "They're the ones that help with electrical shock due to water," Worthington said. "They should be in your kitchen, laundry room, restroom, and on all of your outdoor outlets. First you want to make sure you have them -- they're the ones with the little red button that you test. And then you just want to test those every now and then."

An electrician should be able to test your GFCI outlets to make sure they're working. According to Worthington, a small percentage of these outlets can get past quality control inspection and won't work out of the box. Others will get power, but the safety aspect of the outlet won't work. Having an electrician check these for you is the best way to find out if yours work or not. 

Follow Basic Safety

Beyond looking at the big things in your home -- the outlets, panel and surge protectors -- there are some basic electric safety practices you and your family can follow in order to keep the entire home safe. Worthington calls out two in particular: using outlet covers and avoiding "nests" of wires.

Using outlet covers as protection for childproofing can go far to keep all members of the family safe. "Make sure the kids don't get shocked," he said. "It's simple, but you find a lot of parents that don't bother using them."  

The second piece of advice is one many people are guilty of -- especially near the television or workspace. "Limit your use of extension cords," Worthington said. "Don't have a bird's nest of things plugged in together with power strips on top of power strips." In the case of a surge, a mess of cords near outlets can be a disaster waiting to happen. 

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