This article was crafted with the help of Kolb Electric, Inc.

There are certain aspects of home ownership and maintenance that are easily tackled by homeowners with do-it-yourself skills. However, when it comes to electricity, issues are best left to a professional.

“It is much less expensive to have the work done in the first place by an electrician on a non-emergency basis than to run into serious problems, which usually occur after hours, require emergency service, and are often pricey,” advises Gus Boesl of Kolb Electric in Washington, DC and the surrounding area.

Add to those elements the danger of shock or death from accidentally mishandling electrical components or old, tricky wiring, and you’ll be sure to think twice about risking your own safety versus calling a qualified electrician.

When to Contact Your Local On-Call Electrician

open electrical box with exposed wires

It may seem simple enough to pull down that ugly light fixture and replace it with something more your style, but what if you find something you weren’t expecting? What if the wires aren’t labeled correctly? What if the previous homeowners wired the fixture with audio speaker wire? (And yes, I’ve seen that. It isn’t pretty.)

We live with electricity every day, but the reality is that it’s far from harmless. The voltage entering your home from the street is enough to kill you. That voltage is stepped down as soon as it hits your electrical meter, but it is not something to mess with if you have any doubts at all about your abilities to correct electrical problems.

Can you flip a tripped breaker without the help of an electrician? Absolutely—with the caveat that the breaker hasn’t been tripping every day for weeks on end. Should you try to fix that outlet that smells weird every time you turn on your reading lamp? Probably not.

So, when should you call your electrician? Keep reading for some general guidelines.

1. A switch or receptacle no longer works.

This can be a tough call because in some cases, a nonfunctional switch or receptacle is the result of a tripped GFCI or circuit breaker. It’s not uncommon at all for a GFCI outlet in your kitchen to trip if you use several power-hungry appliances at the same time. (Speaking from experience, a microwave, electric kettle, and toaster oven will do the trick.)

If this sounds familiar (or you suspect something similar has happened), check the GFCI outlets in the room in question. Be sure to also check your home’s main electrical panel for any tripped breakers. In most cases, there’s no need to panic over a tripped breaker or GFCI. When they interrupt a circuit, they are doing exactly what they’re supposed to do.

If resetting the GFCI or breaker doesn’t work, or if you are dealing with an ongoing problem with dead outlets, call an electrician to investigate and find the source of the issue.

2. One of the breakers in your electrical panel keeps tripping.

The occasional tripped breaker is a nuisance, but it’s probably nothing to worry about. If, however, you are unable to reset the breaker, or if the breaker trips continuously, call a pro for help.

3. You need to install a new electrical fixture.

The most common installation requests electricians deal with are fixtures, ceiling and attic fans, and outdoor lighting, Gus says.

Because a host of sketchy wiring mistakes can be made and then disguised behind drywall, installing new electrical fixtures is often more complicated than it appears at first glance. You’re always better off letting a professional electrician handle the job.

4. You’ve noticed electrical events that are out of the ordinary.

Because your home’s wiring is hidden behind walls, it’s very important to pay attention to the small signs that something might be amiss. Problems that are ignored do not resolve themselves.

Call an electrician if you notice these warning signs of electrical problems:

  • The fluctuation of electrical current, marked by unusual dimming or flashes of brightness in lights.
  • Frequent tripping of GFCI receptacles or circuit breakers.

Immediately shut off the power to either the circuit or your entire house and call an electrician if you see any of these signs of an urgent problem:

  • Outlet or switch covers that are hot to the touch.
  • Buzzing noises coming from a device or receptacle.
  • A burning or otherwise odd odor coming from a device or receptacle.
  • Sparks or flames coming from a device or receptacle.

What to Expect

electrician connecting wires in a light fixture

Before an electrician arrives, Gus recommends clearing away clutter from the areas where the work will be conducted. “An electrician can do his job quicker and more efficiently if he is operating in areas that are free of furniture and other items.”

Once an electrician identifies and diagnoses a problem, he or she will tell you what steps come next. Typically, light electrical work, such as repairing a device or replacing a receptacle, will not require invasive labor, but heavier work might, like rewiring a space in your home.

Some jobs may require the electrician to cut through drywall to access a junction box or a section of wiring. Keep in mind that electricians are generally not trained to do carpentry repairs; you will likely need to either take care of repairs yourself or hire a carpenter to do so. Be sure to factor in that additional work when budgeting the total cost of the job.

Prevention of Electrical Problems

electrician inspecting electrical panel

According to Gus, one of the best ways to prevent future electrical problems is by installing a whole-house surge protector, saving you from power surges. Gus also recommends the following:

  • Annual safety inspections to make sure receptacles and wiring are clean and working properly.
  • Properly marking your panel to help determine if issues are occurring with individual or multiple circuits.
  • Knowing where the GFCI receptacles are located in your home and how to reset them.

The Bottom Line

When considering the advantages and disadvantages of calling an electrician versus tackling the problem yourself, Gus warns that it is probably best left to a professional. “Electricity is not something that you want to play with if you are not experienced, because the work can be quite dangerous.”

Electrical work is a complex trade, so some jobs can be costly, but it’s far better for the work to be done correctly the first time. Your safety, your family’s safety, and the safety of your home—your largest financial investment—is worth it!

This article was crafted with the help of Kolb Electric, Inc., a Northern Virginia and Maryland expert in Electricians. While we strive to provide relevant information to all homeowners, some of the material we publish may not pertain to every area. Please contact your local Best Pick companies for any further area-specific advice.