Statistics indicate electrical hazards commonly found in older homes are increasingly causing fires and fatalities in the United States. According to the Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI), home electrical problems account for nearly 55,000 home fires every year. These fires cause more than 500 deaths, injure more than 1,400 people, and account for $1.4 billion in property damage.

The Fire Protection Research Foundation released a study that highlights the fact that aging homes in the United States can be protected by taking a few simple steps and by bringing electrical components up-to-date. It was the first study to look behind the walls of older homes and examine how wiring has aged. Previous studies have shown the frequency of electrical fires has been high in homes more than 40 years old.

The study closely examined the electrical systems of 30 older homes in the United States, documenting potentially hazardous conditions in those homes. It revealed real dangers can exist and often remain hidden in the electrical systems of older homes. The majority of those hazards were caused by improper installation and maintenance and a failure to meet proven safety provisions found in the National Electrical Code (NEC). Some of the specific problems identified in the report include poorly done electrical repairs, worn-out wiring devices and misuse of extension cords. These problems often are the result of homeowners doing their own electrical work without required permits and safety inspections.

The potential for hazardous electrical conditions is increasing as Americans put more of a burden on the electrical systems in older homes. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, half of the homes in the United States were built before 1973. These homes and electrical systems were built before many of the appliances and electronics that we use today became common. This includes more than a third of U.S. homes that were built before many modern technological conveniences were even invented.

“As each year goes by, Americans are using more energy in their homes,” said Brett Brenner, president of ESFI. “Many homes and electrical systems in the United States are simply being overburdened, leading to fires, deaths and injuries.”

As a result of the report, the foundation strongly encourages homeowners to increase their awareness of potential electrical problems. When deficiencies are suspected or the electrical systems are expanded or repaired, homeowners should have their homes’ electrical systems thoroughly inspected by qualified electricians and building safety inspectors, ensuring all electrical work in the home meets the safety provisions in the NEC.

“Homeowners are often lacking in wiring experience to install electrical circuitry in a fashion that meets NEC requirements for safety,” said Mike Johnston, executive director of standards and safety for the National Electrical Contractors Association. “This coupled with no electrical inspection is often a contributor to electrical deficiencies and problems that can manifest into devastation for homeowners in the long run. The recommendations in the aged wiring research project findings are valuable to unsuspecting homeowners.”

“When people buy a home, they have no idea what kind of electrical work has been done in the past or if that work was done by someone qualified to perform the task,” Brenner said. “But today’s report clearly found that Americans can take steps to prevent many of these electrical fires from occurring.”

ESFI has provided consumers with a checklist that will allow consumers to identify electrical dangers commonly found in each room of their home. ESFI also will be educating owners of older homes on newer fire prevention technology, such as arc-fault circuit interrupters. These advanced electronic circuit breakers detect dangerous arcing conditions in a home’s wiring and cut off power to the circuit before a fire develops.

Johnston agreed that providing the consumer with basic checklists is helpful to homeowners with little or no electrical wiring knowledge, but said, “It is always the best practice to get help from someone in the electrical business—a qualified electrical contractor.”

For more information and resources relating to electrical safety in older homes, visit www.electrical-safety.org. The complete Fire Protection Research Foundation study is available at www.homewiringsafety.com.