Peter McCarthy Electric Co., Inc. - Specializing in Older Buildings in Chicago
Adventures in Old House Wiring....

Another Electrical Fire Averted!

Hyde Park Chicago ElectricanHyde Park Chicago ElectricanHyde Park Chicago ElectricanAnother electrical fire averted.

It's really tough sometimes. So many people are downsized, laid off, or otherwise separated from the income that allowed them to devote funds to the upkeep and improvement of their homes. Electrical systems are subject to this more and more frequently as people have to make their scarce dollars go further and further. Customers put things off, or try to do it themselves. This particular client was only trying to save the cost of a professional electrician. He has kids in school from elementary up to college, and like all of us he's trying to keep it together. Over the past 2 weeks of intense cold, a space heater plugged into an outlet in his child's bedroom finally brought this simmering issue to a head. Honest to goodness, who can't empathize with a guy trying to keep his kids warm in -17 degree weather?

Unfortunately, he had created a very dangerous situation in his attempt to "fix" a problem. An overload kept tripping one of his circuit breakers, disrupting the power and lighting in the bedrooms.

Hyde Park Chicago ElectricanWhen I first started in this business, it seemed like there were a million different kinds of circuit breakers in common usage.  Federal Pacific, Wadsworth, ITE, GE, Square D, Bulldog, Crouse and Hinz, Zinzco, ect. In the days before Home Depot, an average person would not even know HOW to shop for a circuit breaker, let alone where. Electricians and electrical contractors did that. That was good for electrical safety and NFPA standards being maintained. There is a lot to be said for the DIY movement, and the democratization of home improvement and trades work. On the other hand, there is a reason why it takes a license, years of study, experience and training under master craftsmen, where your most fatal mistakes can be observed and rectified before you fully implement them. This fellow would have been better off not trying to replace his own circuit breaker. He could have burnt his house down. Indeed, I showed him exactly that, and with all the lights off he was able to see the red-hot glowing and sparking where his "new circuit breaker" was making contact.

I'm out of space and time. Long story short; CIRCUIT BREAKERS ARE NOT INTERCHANGEABLE. Within a given manufacturer's product line, with all relevant factors taken into account, sure, you pop the old one out and pop the new one in.  But like most tasks that a professional performs and an amateur observes, it is easier said than done. More to the point, there are tons of considerations the pro has already taken into account and solved for that the homeowner does not even know exist. This GE breaker was not at all compatible with the 1950s Wadsworth panel, so much in fact that the power "receiving slots" in the back barely made contact with the bus bar. As such, there was no solid continuous path for current to flow. It arced, sparked, and "jumped" from one piece of metal to the next, all the while heating up, melting and burning away the base of the circuit breaker, as you can see. I would have thought it very obvious that this type of panel, and the existing breakers inside it, would have looked so different than the new GE he was putting in that it would have been self-evident that they are not compatible. But sometimes you just don't know exactly what you are looking at, or why it is one way and not the other. I'm glad I was able to get there and take care of things. He needs a lot of rewiring, and you can see some cloth-covered wiring in the panel still. But at least this most immediate disaster waiting to happen" never happened.
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