Home & Garden Columns

About the House: Imagining the Ideal Electrical System for Your House

By Matt Cantor
Friday April 04, 2008

I’m actually a very sensitive person. My feelings are easily hurt and I prefer to have an exchange of kind words: “I like you” is nice. On a good day someone might say “I like you, too.” Isn’t that nice. Then I wake up and realize, once again, that I’m a home inspector and no matter how I try to slice it, I have to criticize a few dozen things every day and, invariably, I’m going to have hurt someone’s feelings, made them angry or maybe a little scared. Well, at least I’m not in politics. 

Electrical systems take a lot of hits from me. After all, they do burn down houses. In the recent past, statistics have estimated 32,000 fires each year associated with electrical systems. That’s about 9 percent of all fires in the home. This also accounts for roughly 220 death and almost 1,000 injuries a year as well as roughly $700 million dollars in damage in the U.S. 

I had a call from a young renter the other day (Hello, yes, I am responding to your question) who was concerned with the danger of using her outside breaker panel in the rain, in the dark. 

I gave her something of an answer, while dancing a mazurka and spinning yarn from dog hair. In short, I didn’t really answer the question to my own satisfaction, so I thought about it for a while and realized that amidst all the criticisms I’ve made in the line of duty and all the notions I’ve posited in this column, I’ve never really defined the kind of electrical system I’d like to see and what clients should be looking for. So here’s a short textual diagram of my idea of a really good electrical system. 


The drop 

The wires coming from the power pole are called the service drop. Frankly, I’d rather see an underground service than anything as 18th century as a system of wires and poles strewn about our, otherwise, arcadian metropolis (the Tarzan system of power delivery). With underground wiring, there’s less to fail in an earthquake and yes, Olivia, we are waiting on a big one. If it has to be overhead, it should be out of the trees so it won’t get worn to bare wires and explode (yes, they explode and then burn; my artist-friend, Bill Shulte can attest to this. He lost his home of many years over an exploding main drop). I also like to see them high enough so that nobody’s going to hit it with their RV or extension ladder. 


The Main 

I’ve often gotten the following question: “Shouldn’t the main panel be inside where it can’t be tampered with?” No, a single main breaker for each living unit should be outside where it can be turned off by emergency service personnel without entering the dwelling (although in some places, like San Francisco, that’s not possible and they allow them to be inside the basement or garage)… BUT, my favorite recipe calls for all the rest of the system to be inside. Now, this usually costs more because you’re adding at least one more panel than you could get away with by putting all the breakers in the outside panel but here’s my thinking. We need one breaker outside but ideally (and here’s where we answer my young reader’s interrogative) the rest should be found in a convenient spot inside the dwelling where it’s warm, dry, safer and possibly a light (there may only be one tripped breaker and the light you need may still be on.)  

Isn’t it nicer to find and reset a tripped breaker when you don’t have to run out in the rain at night in that horrible frock and nightcap? Also, being less than fully insulated when operating breakers outside is less than ideal (although most modern panels do a smashing good job of protecting the person resetting breakers). 

This inside “sub-panel” isn’t so pretty. For years, electricians installed them in closets and I’d like to offer a general apology to all of you who’ve had their lava lamps, Sergio Mendez records and Star Trek memorabilia mashed by me as I attempted to get inside these panels. Putting panels in closets is a bad idea, not only because of the possibility of fire but also for the safety of electricians. Building codes addressed this quite a while back and bravo to them (as you may know, my praise for the codes is not unbridled).  

I like to see panels in places where they don’t compete with Wayne Thiebaud. If you don’t have a suitable basement, I’d tend to put it behind a door that’s usually swung against a wall. A blank wall in a laundry room is a good choice. It’s important that opening this panel involves no gymnastics because it’s dangerous enough working on these things as it is. That’s a very short version of a very long section of the code. 



I like lots and lots of circuits and lots and lots of outlets. Here’s how this works. You provide a given load: one TV (tuned only to PBS or the history channel of course), two computers, one toaster, one hairdryer and so forth. You would be using this bunch of stuff pretty much anywhere you went. The house may have more or less lighting, and you may use it more or less depending on how parsimonious you are or how many are in the clan, BUT the point stands that you will tend to use power more as a function of your own personal stuff and predilections than as a function of the electrical system you have. 

SO, if you have a system that has more circuits, those circuits are likely to each carry a smaller portion of your load. This translates to heat. On a typical day, you might be running 5,000 watts (a wild guess). If you have 10 circuits, each one might be carrying 500 watts, which is tolerable. With 4 circuits at 1,250 each and a few bad wiring splices hidden here and there (or a fried switch, or outlet, or cord), you may be heating the wiring up to a point where a fire can start. So one of the best ways to construct a safe electrical system is a build one with plenty of circuits. 

Another way is to have plenty of outlets. This is similar but not the same thing. If we add plenty of receptacles to our healthy number of circuits then we reduce the use of extension cords (circuits are like the branches on a tree and the panels are like the trunk, in fact, we use the word branch for circuits and, long ago, used the word trunk to describe the main wires coming into a system).  

X-cords are made of smaller wires than those in the wall. This means that they become resisters when we run power through them. They’re bottlenecks full of hot little electrons that want to run free and express themselves. (Hey, Ned, your house is on fire!) When you run a typical 2,000-watt electric heater on a small extension cord, the cord might get hot enough to melt or set fire to your dissertation on polynomial geometry so when building an ideal electrical system, don’t skimp on circuits or outlets. 



A true exploration of my preferences, alone, on this delightful and complex subject is beyond any sensible exploitation of this article, but I’ll hit a few high points anyway. Don’t miss out on lighting. Lighting shapes spaces, creates mood, allows one room to wear many outfits, if you will, and turns useless spaces into favored niches. Don’t miss the party. Lighting is one of the things that makes all that wiring worthwhile. That said, I now favor the use of compact fluorescents when and wherever you can manage. Bulbs are now available in dimmable versions and floods too. They’re also much better than just five years ago so come back and give them another try.  

I’m hoping that many of you will include LED lighting in your rehabs soon but the market IS lagging a bit on this amazing innovation. The reason for my excitement about fluorescent and even more for LED is that these do two great things. First, they lower your bill while decreasing energy waste (which also has far reaching political and environmental implications) while lasting years longer (your LED lamps might NEVER require replacement). Second, they make your house SAFER by lower ing the temperature of all the wires that feed to the lighting. Lighting can be one of the top energy users in your house and when we use CFLs or LEDs, the house runs cooler and safer.  

Additionally, the wiring and switches live longer since they’re not being “cooked” all evening from the heat created by typical higher wattage incandescent lighting. If you do have a scary-funky electrical system today, changing to CFL or LED is a pretty cheap way to make things a lot safer. 

The parting shots I’ll add before closing, will be to make a short case for new improved breakers. My ideal electrical system uses the new AFCI fire-sensing breakers wherever it’s practical to do so (talk to your Sparky) and used GFCI shock preventing outlets or breakers for anywhere that serious shock is a possibility: bath, basement, etc. 

I have long felt that there was more bang for the buck with electrical than in virtually any other system in our homes so this is not the place to cut corners. Buy cheaper cuts of meat. 

Remember, 32,000 home will burn as a result of sparks this year. My feeling is that when you’re looking for something to add sparks to, try your marriage instead. 

Thanks to the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) and the annual NFPA fire experience survey for the numbers cited above. 


Got a question about home repairs and inspections? Send them to Matt Cantor, in care of East Bay Real Estate, at mgcantor@pacbell.net.