Tracing electrical circuits

Q.  I had a new circuit breaker box installed by an electrician, and he failed to write out on the new box what each circuit breaker controls. Is there any type of tool I can use to help me map the circuits? I do not want to be running up and down stairs all day trying to determine which lights are on and off when I switch the breaker.

Circuit Tracer
A typical circuit tracer for residential use

A.  Yes there is such a type of tool. It’s called a circuit tracer. You can find them in hardware or home stores, or on-line, and prices range from about $30 to over $500.

But do you really need to buy a circuit tracer for a one-time session? My licensed electrician friend tells me that he and his men use a low-tech system that works just as well and is fine for use by someone working alone: plug in a radio in the circuit you want to identify and shut off breakers until the radio is turned off. It will require you to move the radio around, but we all need exercise anyway and stairs are the best kind.

Flickering lights

Q.  My wife and I have lived in our home for almost five years. The lights in the home generally flicker for a brief moment a couple of times each day. At the time we purchased it, there was nothing listed in the inspection report which would indicate any electrical system irregularity or problem. We have not added any feature to our home which would cause a greater drain on our electrical capacity. I wonder if this is something abnormal or a cause for concern, and if so, what type of problem it might indicate.

A.    Flickering lights are always a hazard. They are usually caused by a loose connection somewhere from the main service entrance all the way to the power company’s connection.

A loose connection can cause arching or a hot spot, and can result in a fire. Loose connections or hot spots in the main entrance service should be addressed by a home inspector if they were present at the time of the inspection. You did not mention that this occurs only seasonally, so it rules out the possibility that it is caused by a neighbor’s air-conditioning unit kicking in if more than one house is on the same transformer.

You should have a licensed electrician check your service entrance and any other place he or she deems necessary, and correct the problem.

Installing light fixture on a ceiling that has heating cable

Q.    We have electric ceiling cable heat. In our living room, we want to add a chandelier but we are concerned if we can do it with ceiling cable. Our house is 30 years old and it does not have any light fixture on the ceiling presently.

A.    I assume that you will have a licensed electrician do the installation, as you should. The safest way to do what you want is to use wire mold, but extreme care must be taken not to hit one of the ceiling wires with any driven fasteners. For that reason, it is best to use adhesive.

Safely installing a generator for back-up power

Q.    I live in the country and have suffered a number of power outages during storms, some lasting several hours. I am planning to install a generator in my garage to keep it dry and easily accessible. Do you have any recommendations on its installation?

A.    Do not install the generator in your garage or any enclosed structure! The combustion of any fuel-fired appliance generates deadly carbon monoxide. Install it outside and build a cover over it to protect it but leave at least two sides open.

Have a licensed electrician make the connection to your house wiring as it is absolutely essential that the generator be isolated from your power company lines with a transfer switch. Failure to do so can inadvertently send electric current back through the power company’s lines and that could kill a lineman working to restore the power who is under the impression that the line is dead.