Get to Know Your Home's Electrical System

If you're building or remodeling, check out this expert advice on planning your home's electrical system.

Familiarize Yourself with Your Home's Electrical System

Know Your Home's Electrical System

The electrical system consists of the electrical service (the actual electricity supplied to your home), lighting outlets and various hardwired appliances. The electrical service must be sized to accommodate the lifestyle of the occupants, and is usually between 100 amps and 200 amps, though 400 amps for a very large home is common. An electrician installs the service, and may also install telephone and cable TV wires and, less frequently, security systems.

The electrical lines are run from the street to the meter box outside the home (the unit where your electricity is read to determine your electric utility bill), then through an exterior wall and directly into the electric panel board, which has switches (also known as breakers) to control the electricity in each room of your home. Here, the amps are divided up across circuits to provide various areas of the home with electricity. For example, of the 200 amps available in a home, the circuit for the living room may have 20 amps, the circuit for the bedroom may have 10 amps, and so on.

An electrical system is required by building code to protect you and your family. Some of the safety measures include:

  • Circuit breakers prevent fires by cutting off the electricity supply to a certain area if the wires short out.
  • Ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCI) in high-moisture areas such as kitchens, bathrooms, garages and pool areas protect occupants from electric shock by cutting off power to the circuit.
  • Smoke alarms in each bedroom and in common spaces on each floor, like hallways, are hardwired to the electrical system and interconnected to each other to alert occupants of a fire. Most have battery backup as well.

Electrical systems also are regulated by an international and local building code. For example, electrical codes in some regions require wiring to be in flexible metal casing as an additional fire prevention measure. An electrical inspector must check the installation when the system is first being wired and again when the home is finished -- right before closing -- to ensure all codes are followed and the electrical system is safe for you and your family.

If you have specific needs, like a large audio/visual entertainment complex or a home office, ask your builder whether they offer advanced wiring systems, and what these systems include.

For example, a builder may offer an advanced wiring system that can handle specific electronic functions such as video and audio distribution. A gateway hub, or central distribution panel, acts as the distribution point for all incoming telephone, data, cable and satellite TV lines. Information is carried over high-speed, high-quality cabling, terminating in wallplates throughout the home. An advanced wiring system may also include dedicated voice, fax and computer modem lines to help you work at home.

Energy costs can be minimized through the use of a control system. With a control system, you can operate the heating, cooling and ventilation equipment from work or while on the road. In addition, you can program the operation of sprinklers or the pool. And lighting controls allow you to make your home look lived in when you're away.

Remember, don't assume the location of electrical outlets, communication wiring and lighting can't be changed. Also, know what options are available and which ones will work best for you. To be sure you're getting a quality electrical system that fits your lifestyle, follow these steps:

1. First, do your homework and think about how you'll use each of the rooms. Where will computers, televisions, audio systems and other electronic equipment be set up? Does anyone in your family have special needs for light switches? Switches located at a low height will work well for those in wheelchairs. Rooms for senior citizens or children may call for a lighted switch.

Don't forget about lighting. A good lighting design not only makes homes look better, but also makes you feel more comfortable. You've probably experienced this by adding your own desk and floor lamps to a room that only had a single overhead light.

2. Next, talk to your builder when your home is being designed. One good way to show your builder what you want is to walk through the home with them while the walls are open and tell them where you want electrical outlets and phone and cable lines. Walking through may give you a better perspective than reviewing the house plans on paper.

Walk through a model home with the builder and pay attention to the lighting in each room. For example, under-cabinet lighting in the kitchen is helpful for preparing food. Ask your builder if the lighting in that model home is standard. If not, does your builder offer upgrade packages for lighting and, if so, how much?

3. Also ask about lighting in garage and basement areas. Standard fixtures are incandescent. Fluorescent are more visually appealing, plus more efficient.

4. A final thing to consider is labeling the electrical panel. A clearly marked electrical panel is important for maintenance (e.g., when you have to fix a circuit breaker in little Billy's room). Before the electrician labels the box, you should tell your builder what you want to call each of the bedrooms, so there's no confusion about which rooms are which. This should be done after the home is finished but before the final inspection.

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