In the decades since the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission determined that electrical fires are disproportionately frequent in homes more than 40 years old, a generation of houses has aged into the danger zone. Now, the first investigation to actually look behind the walls provides new insights into just what is causing all those fires and how to prevent them. This groundbreaking study also validates the National Electrical Contractors Association’s long and continuing involvement with the National Electrical Code (NEC).

The study was, in fact, commissioned by the research affiliate of the National Fire Protection Association, the Code’s sponsor. It closely examined electrical systems and devices within 30 older homes—ranging in age from 25 years to more than 90 years—in 10 states. Then, key electrical system elements (receptacles, service-entrance panels, lighting fixtures, junction boxes and the like) were collected and sent to Underwriters Laboratories (UL), where detailed laboratory analyses looked into how they performed after years of service.

The researchers found plenty of hazardous conditions in those musty, old components. These included corroded circuit breakers in insect-infested boxes installed outdoors, frayed wire insulation, hot receptacles, broken splices and faulty service panels in most of the homes surveyed. But—and this is an important distinction—in most cases, the hazard did not arise from the age of the item in and of itself.

Instead, the vast majority of potentially hazardous electrical conditions identified were caused by the failure to meet well-recognized, proven safety code provisions and the failure to install and maintain important electrical equipment properly. Many of the problems identified resulted from installations that did not comply with the version of the NEC in effect at the time the homes were built or remodeled. In addition, in many of the homes, the problems were directly related to the poor quality of electrical system retrofits or changes made after the homes were originally constructed.

But when the electrical system was correctly designed and installed and still functioning within the environment it was intended to power, it generally was still safe, despite the age of the wiring and electrical components. In other words, the NEC works!

That’s why the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) is urging communities to ensure all electrical work done in homes meets the safety provisions in the current edition of the NEC. That’s why NECA is echoing this message and urging electrical contractors to find out who is responsible for Code adoption in their area and to join the process. (By the way, the deadline for submitting proposals to change or revise the NEC is November 7. Code-proposal forms can be obtained at www.nfpa.org.)

In addition, consumers are being urged to have a thorough electrical inspection completed by a qualified, Code-compliant electrician before buying, selling or remodeling a home. This is the primary message broadcast by a brand-new Web site—www.homewiringsafety.com—which provides full details of the study and a wealth of helpful information.

According to the NFPA, each year, fires that start in electrical systems or lighting equipment damage more than 24,000 homes, kill 320 people and injure 830 more nationwide. In addition, the Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that 50 people die every year from accidental electrocutions involving residential wiring, panelboards, circuit breakers and outlets. Another 40 electrocutions each year involve household appliances connected to the wiring of homes.

Therefore, I hope you’ll become familiar with the Home Wiring Safety site, use it for all it’s worth, and share it with existing and potential customers. It’s not merely, or even mainly, a matter of positioning your company for new work opportunities in the residential market. It’s a matter of saving lives.

Milner Irvin, president, NECA