Two new electrical loads we may apply to our homes in the winter months are outdoor decorative lighting and indoor space heaters. These new loads can cause problems with the electrical system if we do not understand the loads or they are installed incorrectly.

Indoor space heaters

Since these are generally of the plug in type, there is not much to do on the installation side. Whatever circuit you are plugging the heater into, the installation is already present.

Our only safety concern is understanding the product we are using. A normal space heater uses 1500 watts of energy per hour. A good comparison is a standard microwave which generally uses 1200 watts of energy per hour. If we understand that each time we plug in a heater, we potentially are plugging in an appliance that uses more energy than a microwave. I am sure if we were carrying around a microwave and plugging into bedroom outlets we would think we might have an issue. In addition, we would be running the microwave for just a few minutes not the more energy using heater for hours! It is true you would use less energy turning a microwave on for 8 hours then a heater for 8 hours.

Most general circuits we plug a heater into would be a 15amp circuit or a 20amp circuit. However, we generally would be plugging into a 15amp circuit which are commonly used for bedrooms, living rooms and basements. The total wattage that circuit is able to operate at before the circuit breaker will detect an overload is 1800 watts. Since the heater can be rated up to 1500 watts, we already are reaching the capacity of that circuit. Depending on what other loads are on the same circuit, it wouldn’t take much to trip the 15amp breaker and disable the circuit.

We pay approximately 10 cents for every 1000 watts of energy per hour we use in our home. The 1500 watt heater would cost us approximately 15 cents per hour to use. If we have the heater on for 8 hours per day over the course of one month we would expect to see an increase of $36.00 per month-per heater we use. The best safety tip and utility bill savings I can offer is to purchase the most energy efficient heater you can find to alleviate the overload on your circuits and cut your utility payment. Otherwise, you should consider having a dedicated 15amp circuit installed for the heater(s) if there is a danger of overloading the circuit.

Decorative lighting

Most outdoor outlets in homes built in the 80’s or later are protected by or should be protected by Ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCI’s) These devices are meant to detect any current in the circuit that is not following the intended path. For example, if we plugged in an extension chord that was damaged and the current instead started to flow through our hand and body the GFCI would detect the diverted current and immediately “trip” and disengage the circuit. GFCI’s are to protect those outlets located by water, cement floors or outdoors. The reason is we make a better ground when we are standing at those locations and more current would flow through our body if there is a fault in the circuit. It’s literally like punching a larger hole in a water pipe and having more water leak and pour out. This is what our body offers the electrical fault current when we are in these locations.

It is not uncommon to have one GFCI located in a bathroom, basement or garage that “protects” other standard outlets throughout the home. For example, my Christmas lights are damaged and plugged into an outdoor outlet but has tripped the GFCI in hallway bath.

Thinking about what GFCI’s offer us in protection, it’s easy to understand why our decorative lighting can be a problem. The first thing to be concerned about is the connection points in all our lighting. If moisture is allowed to enter these points and begin to alter the flow of current we have created a hazard. The GFCI that protects these outlets will trip if the system is working correctly. Every spot where lights or chords are plugged into an outlet and timer stakes should be protected by a weatherproof bubble cover that totally encloses these connections. In addition, where each string of lights are connected to each other or at the end of the string of lights where there may be an open connection, electrical tape should be applied to protect those connections.

An overload could also exist if you use to many lights. Generally, if you are purchasing LED lights, you are not in danger of overload and you are doing well in energy savings.

These simple steps and understanding of our new loads we use in the winter time can help us ensure the Holidays are safe for our families. Let us know if we may help serve your electrical needs during these winter months.

We wish you the Happiest and Safest of Holiday’s!