Answers to Common Electrical Questions

1. Why do I need to change my light box to a fan-rated box when installing a ceiling fan?
2. What does a GFCI plug and/or breaker do?
3. How many GFCI plugs do I need to have in my house?
4. What is an arc fault circuit interrupter (AFCI) breaker and why do I need to have one?
5. How many arc fault breakers do I need to have in my electrical panel?
6. Why should I replace my Federal Pacific or Zinsco electrical panel?
7. Do I need an electrical permit for the work I am having done by a licensed electrician?
8. Do I need an electrician to install my floor heat?
9. What are tamper-resistant plugs?
10. What is the benefit of whole house surge suppression, if any?
11. How many smoke detectors do I need in my house?
12. How many carbon monoxide detectors do I need in my house?
13. What is the most energy-efficient lighting for my house?
14. How do I properly dispose of fluorescent lights?
15. What do I do if I break a compact fluorescent light (CFL) or other fluorescent light?
16. How do I know if the electrician I hire is knowledgeable about the work he is doing?
17. Why do some people run their ceiling fan in the winter?
18. Why do electricians have such a high hourly rate?
19. What is the difference between low voltage fixtures and standard fixtures?
20. What type of exhaust fan should I install in my bathroom?
21. To save on costs, should I buy the parts and hire an electrician to install them?

 1. Why do I need to change my light box to a fan-rated box when installing a ceiling fan?

 The main difference between a light box and a fan-rated box is the size of the screws that are used to mount the fixture.  Because a ceiling fan moves and vibrates while operating, you must use a fan-rated box with larger screws than a standard light box.  The boxes may look the same, but if you are going to install a ceiling fan in a room, the box must be labeled as rated to hold a ceiling fan.  While this may seem like an unnecessary extra step, this will protect you and your family because you do not want a ceiling fan vibrating out of a light box and potentially falling on someone or something.  Also, it’s important to remember that this is required by the National Electrical Code.

 2. What does a GFCI plug and/or breaker do?

 GFCI stands for ground fault circuit interrupter.  An electrical circuit must have the same amount of power coming back as what goes out.  A GFCI detects when there is a very small variance in the amount of power coming back within 6 milliamps.  Once this difference is detected, it will shut down the circuit to protect you, the person, not the equipment.

 3. How many GFCI plugs do I need to have in my house?

 You must have GFCI protected plugs in the garage (with some exceptions), in the bathroom, on the kitchen countertop, within 6 feet of a sink and for any outdoor plugs.

 4. What is an arc fault circuit interrupter (AFCI) breaker and why do I need to have one?

 An AFCI breaker looks like a GFCI breaker, but its function is different.  GFCIs were designed to protect persons and AFCIs are to protect the structure/building.  An AFCI will trip due to arcing on an electrical circuit.  Arcing can occur when something has pierced a wire or when there is a loose connection anywhere along a circuit.  This is the main cause of electrical fires and the AFCI breakers were designed to better protect homes from fire.  If arcing is detected, the breaker will trip and shut down the entire circuit.  At this point, we would recommend having a licensed electrician inspect your home and that particular circuit because the issue can be anywhere along a circuit.

 5. How many arc fault breakers do I need to have in my electrical panel?

 Per current code, except in certain circumstances, you must install AFCI breakers for all living areas in a home.  Click Here  to listen to Thomas talk to Handyman Bob on KXL 101.1 FM about the new 2013 AFCI codes in Oregon.

 6. Why should I replace my Federal Pacific or Zinsco electrical panel?

 Federal Pacific panels have lost their UL listings and are no longer considered safe electrical panels to have in homes.  The main problem is that if the breaker needs to trip, it will keep running and likely cause a fire.  You may have a Federal Pacific or Zinsco panel and it has been working fine for years, but you can never be too cautious when dealing with your home and family – it is best to replace your Federal Pacific or Zinsco panel with a safe, reliable and updated electrical panel as soon as possible.

 For more information, you can visit: http://www.ismypanelsafe.com/fpe.aspx

 7. Do I need an electrical permit for the work I am having done by a licensed electrician?

 Yes!  When any product (plug, switch, light fixture) is being altered or replaced by a licensed electrician, they must have an electrical permit to do the work.  The cost of the permit varies by jurisdiction and in some instances the electrician can use a minor label permit when the work is small enough to fulfill the minor label requirements.  Therefore, a permit can cost anywhere between $30 and $300 depending on where you live and how much work you are having done.  If you have a long list of electrical items to be done in your home, it is generally best to do as much as possible at one time so you can avoid having to buy multiple permits.  It costs less to add to an existing permit than to close one and then open another one a few months later to do more work.

 Here is a link to Permits Protect with more detailed information on permits and building related information: http://www.permitsprotect.info///aboutus/index.htm.

 8. Do I need an electrician to install my floor heat?

 The only person in the State of Oregon allowed to install floor heat is a licensed electrician.  The installer must perform 3 electrical tests when installing the floor heat, and this can only be done by a licensed electrician.  Installing floor heat also requires a separate permit and inspection by your local city or county.  If someone other than an electrician installs your floor heat, it is possible an inspector can have it removed.

 9. What are tamper-resistant plugs?

 Tamper-resistant plugs were introduced in the 2008 National Electrical Code changes.  Any plug that is changed in a home must be replaced with a tamper-resistant plug.  Tamper-resistant plugs look just like regular plugs except they have plastic guards in the straight openings that prevent you from being able to stick something in one or the other.  You must be plugging something into both openings at the same time, or you will not be able to get anything in the plug.  Of course, this was done to help prevent children from sticking bobby pins or other small metal objects into the “hot” openings of your plugs.

 10. What is the benefit of whole house surge suppression, if any?

 Whole house surge suppression will protect everything in your home instead of just one piece of equipment that is plugged into a surge suppressor.  The cost can be anywhere between $100 and $175 depending on the manufacturer of the electrical panel.

 11. How many smoke detectors do I need in my house?

 Per the National Electrical Code, you must have 1 smoke detector on every floor, 1 inside each bedroom and 1 outside each bedroom.

 12. How many carbon monoxide detectors do I need in my house?

 You only need to install carbon monoxide detectors in your home if you use natural gas.  If you do, you need to have one on every floor and within 15 feet of the bedroom doors.

 13. What is the most energy-efficient lighting for my house?

 By far the most energy efficient lighting available right now is LED.  Unfortunately, the cost of LED lights is still fairly high, although the pricing has been steadily decreasing as the years have gone by since their introduction.  Many people look to fluorescent lighting as the best energy efficient solution, but most people I talk to do not like the lighting output of fluorescent lights.  They have a very bright white light that reminds people of an office or hospital setting rather than a warm comfortable home.  Also, all fluorescent lights contain a small amount of mercury and require special handling for disposal and clean up in the event one breaks.  The standard incandescent bulb is not as energy efficient as LED or fluorescent, but you can reduce the energy used by installing dimmer switches on lights in common areas and bedrooms.  This allows you to change the feeling of the room simply by dimming down or lightening up a room with the switch.  There are many times you do not need to have the lights in your rooms turned up to fill capacity, so dim them down and you will have a nicer ambiance and will not be using as much energy at the same time!

 14. How do I properly dispose of fluorescent lights?

 The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a section on their website explaining how to recycle and dispose of fluorescent lights.  It is best to call your local garbage/recycling company and find out what facilities are available for disposing of fluorescent lights in your area.  http://www2.epa.gov/cfl/recycling-and-disposal-after-cfl-burns-out#whererecycle

 15. What do I do if I break a compact fluorescent light (CFL) or other fluorescent light?

 The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set out some clear and easy to follow instructions if you break a CFL.  Click here to read the instructions or to download a .pdf version.  http://www2.epa.gov/cfl/cleaning-broken-cfl

 16. How do I know if the electrician I hire is knowledgeable about the work he is doing?

 Unfortunately, it can sometimes be hard to tell if the electrician giving you an estimate is truly knowledgeable about the work he is doing.  Be sure to pay attention to how he answers your questions and the details he may or may not be giving you.  If he just wanders around your house, asks few questions and gives you an estimate on the spot, there is a good chance he missed something and then you will have to discuss more costs with him later as he runs into issues during the work on your project.

 Also, the electrical industry is quite vast and there are big differences between working in an industrial setting, on a commercial project or in a person’s home.  You want to make sure the electrician you hire to work on your home is a specialist in residential work and knows how to troubleshoot in order to make your remodel project flow as seamlessly as possible.  No one is perfect, but with a little research into the company you hire, you can save yourself a lot of headaches!

 17. Why do some people run their ceiling fan in the winter?

 If you look closely at your ceiling fan fixture, you will see a switch on the fixture that changes the direction the fan rotates.  When the fan rotates in one direction, it forces the air down to keep you cool in the warmer months.  When the fan rotates in the other direction, it forces the air up which pushes the warm air at the ceiling down into the room to better distribute the warmth during cooler months.

 18. Why do electricians have such a high hourly rate?

 We understand that it seems like electricians charge a high hourly rate and there is a reasonable explanation for this.  Electricians in the State of Oregon are required to complete a four-year electrical apprenticeship and pass an exam to become journeyman electricians.  The National Electrical Code is updated every three years therefore every journeyman electrician must complete many hours of continuing education and stay up-to-date with the local and national code changes.  Electricians carry a large amount of responsibility with the service they provide and it comes at a higher expense to have someone working in your home who is properly trained and educated to complete electrical work in your home.  Someone who is not properly licensed as an electrician does not have the same training and education and there is a good chance they will do work in your home that does not meet local and national codes.  Also, you want to make sure that the person who does your electrical work pulls an electrical permit because you could have issues in the future when you want to sell your home if work has been done without the proper permits.  The bottom line is that despite the seemingly high price for a licensed electrician, you will be better off in the end by having the work done by a professional.

 19. What is the difference between low voltage fixtures and standard fixtures?

 Low voltage fixtures include a transformer that transforms the voltage from 120 volts to 12 volts.  A lot of lighting manufacturers are offering low voltage options because the fixtures (i.e., pendant lights and under cabinet lights) have smaller cords.  The main downside to installing low voltage fixtures is that the transformers typically get warm while in use, they wear out, and are expensive to replace.  Also, low voltage fixtures cost twice as much to purchase than a standard fixture. 

 The main misconception of standard versus low voltage fixtures is that a low voltage fixture is more energy efficient.  This is false.  Voltage and watts are different measurements and wattage is what is used to calculate your electrical bill.  Standard and low voltage fixtures use the same amount of watts and will not change your electrical bill.

 20. What type of exhaust fan should I install in my bathroom?

 Current code requires that the exhaust fan you install be no less than 80 CFM and you must install a timer switch rather than a standard switch.

 21. To save on costs, should I buy the parts and hire an electrician to install them?

 While it may be tempting to go to your local hardware or home improvement store and buy all the parts you need instead of having the electrician purchase them, you are going to be missing a key element.  The electrician will not warranty the parts you buy yourself.  This means that if you buy the parts and have the electrician install them, then something goes wrong with the part within the first year, it will be your responsibility to buy a new part and hire the electrician to install the new part.  If you let the electrician purchase the parts from the outset of your project, they will warranty the parts so if something goes wrong in the first year they will come out and replace the part free of charge.


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PO Box 1335, Sherwood, OR 97140
Tel: (503) 259-0459 | Fax: (503) 345-0912
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Serving Oregon & Washington
Sherwood, McMinnville, Portland, Beaverton, Tigard.