(Sorta) Wired

Short of pathology textbooks and New York City cats, there are few things uglier than house wiring. Those of you who don't know what an electrical system is supposed to look like are blessed. If you were to look at your wiring with a critical eye, chances are good that it would take a tub full of Thorazine to get you to sleep at night.

I recently invited some electricians over to my house to check out some flickering lights. Here's what they found: 1. loose hot and neutral connections in several circuits; 2. an improperly wired 20-amp breaker; 3. three separate circuits connected to one 15-amp breaker; and 4. many junction boxes with no covers.

These are potential shock or fire hazards. Loose wires can kill a computer, a TV, a VCR, or any electrical device with expensive parts inside. Flickering lights are a sign of arcing, which starts electrical fires. All this ugly stuff was in my very own house, which had been completely rewired 10 years ago by a reputable electrical contractor. Since then, no one has touched the house wiring except for duly licensed, bonded and insured electricians, all with good references. My electrical mess was the work of pros. So, assuming you want to lose considerable sleep, spend a minute thinking about what amateurs can do. I'll get you started.

Some of our local electrical boys leave off little niceties like putting all the connections in junction boxes. Everybody knows you can just twist the loose ends of a couple of wires together, and the electricity will go right through. Never mind that old "loose wires start fires" stuff. Go right now and look at your garbage disposal wiring. There's a good chance it'll just be twisted together with wire nuts and maybe a little tape. No conduit, no junction box. This is the kind of stuff I'm talking about.

Often as not, local wire-pullers don't install covers on junction boxes, especially in attics and crawl spaces where they think nobody looks. Shoot, bubba, if there's a short, those box covers just keep the festive showers of sparks covered up where nobody can enjoy 'em.

Multiple wires hooked up to one breaker? We got 'em. Sure, the breaker manufacturers say it's dangerous, and code books and textbooks say don't do it, but it works, and that's the way we've always done it.

After 10 years of home inspecting, I've had plenty of time to think about this, and here are the top five unscientific conclusions of my informal electrical study:

1. People are lazy, especially when they think nobody's checking up on them. 2. Hardly anybody's checking up on them. 3. Electrical training seems to come mostly from word of mouth, passed down as folklore. 4. A whole lot of people learned to wire houses by practicing on farm outbuildings; they've never upgraded their skills to accommodate buildings where the occupants walk upright. 5. The wiring in many houses has been altered by at least one buckethead tradesman with no electrical training, a dysfunctional family member working full of beer on the weekend, a clever family pet, or an uninvited rodent or bird.

In my line of work, I have found that many pro and amateur electricians share this motto: "If the light comes on, the job is done." A few weeks ago, in a spanking-new house, I found a nonfunctioning ground-fault circuit interruptor (GFCI) receptacle. GFCIs are important safety devices, and faulty ones are common as unleashed dogs. But at this house, the electrician stood there are argued with me and swore it was OK. "It ain't the first one I ever wired," he said. He had only the power of his convictions and a halo of buttsmoke around his head.

I had a testing device.

I have had more than one electrician argue with me, telling me that there's nothing wrong with a circuit that has reversed polarity. Sometimes they'll plug in a lamp to show me.

But, uh, bro, since it's wired backwards, a fault would make the metal case of the lamp hot, now wouldn't it?

Now, if I were a regular how-to writer, this would be where I would spell out a course of action, a sure-fire fix in 10 steps or less. But all I can tell you is: Go ahead and worry about it. You've got good reason.