Electrical overloads: Unloading the circuit

When Ralphie Parker’s “old man” attempts to plug his “major award” — the infamous plastic leg lamp — into an overloaded wall outlet in the classic movie “A Christmas Story,” there first came a “snap of a few sparks” and the “whiff of ozone” before the lamp blazed forth in the living room front window.

While that’s a funny movie scene, those at your electric co-op remind you overloaded circuits and sparks are never funny. Local fire departments respond to an average of more than 35,000 home fires involving electrical distribution and lighting equipment each year, causing 490 deaths and 1,200 injuries nationwide. 

“It’s easy to plug in too many devices onto the same circuit,” said John Gasstrom, CEO of Indiana Electric Cooperatives. “Everyone has a role in keeping homes safe — whether it’s the cooperative keeping consumers informed or homeowners doing their research.”

The electrical system of many older homes, especially, are not properly equipped to respond to today’s increased power demands and may lack the needed number of conveniently placed outlets. Relying too heavily on extension cords and multi-plug power strips may mean your home doesn’t have enough outlets. Instead of grabbing an extension cord or multiple-outlet plugs that turn your outlets into octopuses, call a qualified electrician who can install more outlets and update circuits and wiring.

To prevent problems, here are some tips to unload those outlets:

  • Never plug more than two appliances into an outlet at any one time; don’t “piggyback” extra appliances on extension cords or wall outlets. Use only outlets designed to handle multiple plugs.
  • Know the amount of power you’re placing on an outlet or circuit. Some recommend each outlet or circuit should not exceed 1,500 watts. 
  • Major appliances (refrigerators, dryers, washers, stoves, air conditioners, etc.) should be plugged directly into their own wall outlet since they are heavy power users. 

If you find you are overloading an outlet or circuit in your home, you may need to contact a professional to help resolve the problem. An electrician can add outlets and inspect your home’s wiring system. 

Mapping your home’s electrical system 

Whether you draw up an intricate floor plan of your home or just make a simple list, it’s a good idea to map out your home’s electrical system. Getting to know your home can help you or an electrician if there is an overload.

Go to the breaker box — usually found in a basement or garage — and turn off one of the breakers stamped with a “15” or “20” at the end of the switch. Be sure to note where circuits lie on the panel.

Walk through the house and try all of the lights, ceiling fans and plug-in appliances. Your electrician should have labeled all of the circuit areas, but there could be outliers they may have missed — like the outlet that powers your blender on the garage lighting circuit.

Write down everything that doesn’t have power and note which room you’re in. If you want to get really specific, plug a light into each outlet and record all the ones that don’t work.

Turn the breaker back on and continue down the electrical panel — yes, it’s that simple!

Source: Electrical Safety Foundation International

How to prevent an electrical overload 

  • With your home circuit map, move plug-in appliances to a circuit that is less used.
  • Plug major appliances, like refrigerators, directly into a wall outlet.
  • Do not turn on too many things at once. For example, turn off the TV while you vacuum (you can’t hear it anyway).
  • Replace incandescent or halogen lightbulbs with energy-efficient LED bulbs to reduce lighting loads.
  • Power strips only add additional outlets; they do not change the amount of power being received from the outlet.
  • Have a qualified electrician inspect your home. A heavy reliance on extension cords could indicate that you have too few outlets.

Source: Electrical Safety Foundation International