Electrical problems at home are concerning, particularly because the consequences can be so devastating. And unless you’re a licensed electrician (or share your home with one), it’s easy to write off little things, like an outlet that sparks every once in a while or that breaker that trips when you turn on the toaster oven while the microwave is running.

Unfortunately, these seemingly small issues often signal larger problems in your home’s electrical system, so calling a licensed, professional electrician is always the best choice. Is there a possibility that the electrician won’t find anything amiss? Yes, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

If you’ve ever found yourself a bit tongue-tied when it comes to describing an issue with your house, you’re not alone. I seem to always think of a handful of questions I meant to ask just as the service pro leaves my driveway! Preparing a list of questions in advance can help you avoid similar situations.

Not sure what to ask an electrician? I’ve got you covered. First, we’ll discuss some of the most common residential electrical problems you might encounter as a homeowner; stick around for a list of important questions to ask your electrician.

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Common Electrical Problems at Home

1. An outlet sparks occasionally when you plug in an appliance or device.

An outlet that sparks every once in a while usually isn’t cause for an immediate call to an electrician. If you see sparks every time you use that outlet, however, have an electrician take a look as soon as possible.

Here’s what could be happening:

  • The outlet could be sparking because of a short circuit. Over time, the heat from short circuits can deteriorate the insulation around a wire, exposing the bare metal. This is a serious fire hazard.
  • The outlet could be old. If your house is relatively old and hasn’t been updated or remodeled, the outlets (and the wires attached to them) could have loosened over the years. Loose wires can spark as electricity runs through them.
  • It could be totally normal! Electricity is a powerful force, and the sparks you see when you plug in a device may simply be a few electrons getting ahead of themselves. An electrician will know for sure.

modern-table-lamp-on-a-white-table-with-teal-wall2. You’ve noticed lamps and light fixtures around the house getting really hot when they’re in use.

Every lamp and light fixture has a maximum wattage rating. This is determined by the size (or gauge) of wire used in the fixture. The larger the gauge of the wire (but the smaller the gauge number), the more electrical current the wire can carry.

Light bulbs, in turn, demand electricity based on their wattage. A 75-watt light bulb, for instance, requires more electricity than a 60-watt light bulb. If you use a 75-watt bulb in a light fixture with a 60-watt rating, the bulb will demand more electricity than the fixture’s wiring is designed to produce. This electrical overload produces a tremendous amount of heat, which can cause a fire.

An electrician will be able to inspect the wiring and the fixtures to determine the extent of the damage and make recommendations for how to prevent a fire.

3. Plugs fall out of the outlets.

While you might write this issue off as a minor annoyance, it’s actually a far more serious problem.

When you plug in and unplug appliances or devices frequently from the same outlets—as most of us do, especially in the kitchen and bathroom—the connections that hold the plug in place wear down. This is normal, but it must be fixed promptly. Loose connections in an outlet can cause sparks and electrical arcs, both of which are fire hazards.

close-up-image-of-a-circuit-breaker4. The kitchen circuit breaker trips when you use too many appliances at the same time.

This problem is a clue that the circuits in your house were not correctly designed. Household appliances, especially kitchen appliances, laundry machines, and vacuums, require a lot of power. In fact, refrigerators, ranges, and electric clothes dryers need so much power that they must have their own circuits (and breakers).

If your kitchen circuit breaker trips often, there’s a high possibility that either your range or your refrigerator is sharing a circuit with too many other appliance. An experienced electrician needs to take a look.

5. Your lights flicker (or you lose power altogether) during storms.

Losing power during a storm isn’t necessarily unusual, especially if you don’t have buried utilities. Flickering lights during a storm, however, can indicate that something is amiss with the power lines where they connect to your house.

If this connection isn’t secure, the electrical current from the power lines could arc and cause a fire. The voltage entering your house is dangerously high, so don’t try to investigate this problem on your own—only a licensed, professional electrician should take a look.

electrician-installing-light-fixtureHiring an Electrician: 8 Important Questions to Ask

Any time you need home service or repair work, it’s best to gather a few quotes so that you can compare and get the service you need at the price you’re comfortable with. Most electricians are happy to give you an estimate, and if the estimate is done in person, they will likely be able to begin the job immediately (if you decide to hire them, of course).

Regardless of whether you hire the electrician on the spot or decide to entertain more quotes, there are a few questions you should ask to make sure that you and the electrician are on the same page about the work.

Good home service providers won’t object to these questions at all. If they decline to answer, keep looking.

1. Are you a licensed electrician?

Any electrician who performs work on your house should be licensed in your state. Depending on the scope of the job, work performed by an unlicensed electrician may not meet code or state inspection requirements.

Although the specifics can vary slightly from state to state, licensed electricians hold either a Journeyman license or a Master Electrician license. The only difference between the two is the years of experience. An electrical contracting company must hold an Electrical Contractor license.

2. Will this job require a permit?

Small jobs, like replacing outlets or updating light fixtures, typically don’t require a permit or inspection. Whole-house rewiring, standby generator installation, panel change-outs, and other large jobs, however, usually do need a permit and a visit from a state inspector.

If your job is complex enough to require a permit, the electrical contractor you hire should handle the permitting and inspection process.

hand-using-putty-knife-and-drywall-compound-to-repair-drywall3. Who is in charge of any associated repairs?

The majority of your home’s electrical system is hidden behind walls and ceilings. Depending on the work, your electrician may need to cut access holes in the drywall. Make sure that you know exactly how much of this type of work the electrician will need to do and how (or whether) it will be repaired.

Electricians usually aren’t drywall experts, so you will probably need to arrange for drywall repair separately from the electrical work. These details should be included in the contract for the job.

4. Do you do this type of work often?

When it comes to electrical work, experience matters. A reputable electrician will be honest if a job is too complex or too far outside their typical scope of work.

5. Is this a long-term fix for my problem?

In some cases, especially if the wiring or main electrical panel in your house is older, the only way to truly fix an electrical problem involves extensive rewiring. If you’re not prepared for that type of work and there aren’t any immediate safety concerns, your electrician will likely be able to design a less invasive (but temporary) fix.

Don’t let the long-term solution fall from your list of priorities, however. New wiring or a higher-amp electrical panel might not be as fun and exciting as a kitchen or bathroom renovation, but they’re always an excellent investment in your home (and your safety).

electrician-working-on-main-electrical-panel6. Will there be any disruption in my electrical service?

For most electrical work to be done safely, the power needs to be turned off to either the entire house or to the room where the work is being done. Ask your electrician what your job requires so that you can prepare accordingly.

7. What is your warranty or service guarantee?

Most electrical contractors guarantee their labor and honor manufacturer warranties on fixtures or devices you purchase from them for the job they perform in your home. This information should be available in writing so you can reference it in the future if necessary.

8. Will you perform an electrical safety inspection during the job?

Periodic safety inspections are very important to ensure that everything electrical in your house (including smoke, fire, and carbon monoxide detectors) is working correctly. If your job is involved enough, your electrician may do everything normally included in an electrical safety inspection as part of the job. If not, however, don’t be afraid to ask. There may be a nominal extra charge, but your safety is priceless.

The Bottom Line

Knowing that your house needs electrical work can be a little scary—unless you’re an electrician, you may not know for sure whether a problem is major, minor, or not a concern at all. Good electricians can put your mind at ease and correct any issues they find.

As soon as you notice something out of the ordinary with your home’s electrical system, start documenting how often and under what circumstances you see the problem. This will help your electrician troubleshoot accurately to arrive at a solution.

And above all, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Even if the more technical aspects of the issue are hard to understand, you should be comfortable with the work proposed and the details of the job—including the price—before you sign on the dotted line.