After depending upon electricity for more than a century, we tend to take it for granted -- except in those rare instances when nature pulls the plug temporarily. So much so that at least 25 percent of the nation's estimated 75 million homeowners are completely unaware of potential electrical hazards around the house. That is what a survey commissioned by the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America recently uncovered.

What it means is that one-quarter of our houses are vulnerable to electrical home-structure fires and other incidents that can cause significant personal and financial losses, the association believes.

The survey, conducted by Media, Pa.-based International Communications Research, found that 18.2 million homeowners, or more than 24 percent, never check their homes for electrical hazards such as frayed or overheated cords, overloaded outlets and circuits, and light bulbs that are the wrong wattage.

However, the study also found that 30 percent of homeowners check for electrical hazards at least monthly while 33 percent check their homes at least once or twice a year.

At least some of us are on the ball.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates there is an annual average of 165,380 electrical-related home structure fires, taking an average of more than 900 lives, injuring nearly 7,000 people and causing nearly $1.7 billion in property damage.

A national survey by the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) found that improper electrical wiring is the second most common problem they find when doing home inspections.

Common defects include insufficient capacity, inadequate overload protection and amateur, do-it-yourselfer-type wiring or wiring connections in kitchens, bathrooms, basements and garages.

"Most home owners have the best intentions, but they are not familiar with the codes and the potential safety hazards that are common in do-it-yourself electrical work," said Stephen Gladstone, president of ASHI.

If you aren't going to check for hazards regularly, at least make sure that your house has working smoke alarms.

You have to change the batteries at least twice a year. You also need to replace the smoke alarms every 10 years.

The National Fire Protection Association reported that while 95 percent of homes have at least one smoke alarm, more than half of home fire deaths result from fires in the 5 percent of homes without smoke alarms.

Additionally, in one-quarter of the reported fires in homes with fire alarms, the devices did not work.

The Electrical Safety Foundation International recommends electrical inspections for any house more than 40 years old, any house more than 10 years old that has had any major renovation or major appliance added, and for any home at the time of resale by the new owner.

When asked about electrical inspections, the overwhelming majority of homeowners did not follow these recommendations.

More than 91 percent of homeowners do not think their homes need electrical inspections. Of that number, nearly 90 percent live in homes that are more than 30 years old.

Additionally, more than 24 percent of homeowners completed a major renovation and added major appliances. Nearly 32 percent of these homeowners live in homes that are more than 30 years old.

John Drengenberg, manager of consumer affairs for Underwriters Laboratories, says that there are signs that should alert homeowners to potential electrical problems.

Among them are:

  • Anytime you are shocked in your home: A properly wired and grounded electrical system will protect you from most potential shocks.
  • Overloaded outlets: Too many appliances plugged into a single outlet could indicate your house may not have the required number of outlets. The National Electrical Code requires that outlets be spaced every 12 feet of running wall space, or one on each wall of the average 10-foot-by-12-foot room. Kitchens typically require outlets spaced every four feet along the countertop.
  • Flickering or dimming lights: This could indicate loose connections, overloaded circuits, improper wiring, or arcing and sparking inside the walls.
  • Hot, discolored receptacles, switch plates, cords or plugs: If you can't keep your hand on these for more than five seconds, you may have an overload or product malfunction.
  • TV screen or computer monitor shrinks or wavers when a large appliance is turned on: This could mean you have too many appliances plugged into one circuit, or circuit, or that your house needs additional electrical capacity.
  • Unusual smells: Burning metal or plastic smells may indicate a loose connection, malfunctioning switch, light fixture, broken connection, overheating components, arcing or sparking inside the walls, damaged wire, or other potential hazards.
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