Even seasoned DIY pros are often understandably leery of electrical work. After all, the stakes are pretty high: Poor quality electrical work creates the risk of fires, damage to expensive equipment, and all kinds of other disasters waiting to happen.
But, for seasoned DIY enthusiasts, some types of basic electrical work are within the realm of possibility. Replacing a fan’s electrical enclosure or fixing a dead light switch, for example, are realistic projects for an experienced handyman. We’ll talk about four of these manageable projects below, as well as five more you definitely shouldn’t attempt yourself—plus key tips to know before you get started.
DIY Electrical Work: Legality and Required Qualifications
First, it’s important to know doing electrical work in your own home isn’t always legal. Many state and local governments place regulations on who is allowed to do electrical work—even when it comes to a residence you own.
Many municipalities impose the owner-occupant standard: If you can prove you are both the owner of the building and the full-time occupant, you can perform certain basic types of electrical work on the home. However, you still may need to take a test on the basics of electrical work before you can legally perform a DIY electrical job.
At the risk of stating the obvious, even if you’re legally allowed to perform electrical work in your own home, remember you still need to understand what you’re doing. Thus, the first step to doing any kind of electrical work on your home is to read up thoroughly on the job you’re attempting.
For any given task, read several different guides and watch multiple YouTube videos. Note where they differ and research the differences to find the right answer for your home. You also need to understand the relevant portions of the National Electrical Code, as well as applicable local building codes.
Key Safety Precautions for DIY Electrical Work
Before you begin any kind of wiring job, it’s absolutely essential you take the right safety precautions, such as:
- Know the circuits of your home and how to turn off the relevant circuits before beginning any kind of electrical work.
- Disconnect any appliance before you begin working on it.
- Get a non-contact voltage tester or multimeter and use it to test any wires before you work on them, even if you think you’ve already switched the power off.
- Never unplug anything by tugging on the cord. Always grip it by the plug instead.
- Be careful to avoid touching conductive metal objects like piping while performing electrical work.
- Wear a pair of high-dexterity electrician’s rubber gloves any time you’re working with exposed wires.
Wiring Jobs You Can Do Yourself
First, we should remind you that any kind of electrical work can be dangerous if done incorrectly. Thus, although these projects are all relatively simple, you should know exactly what you’re doing before you tackle any of them.
- Adding Electrical Outlets: Adding electrical outlets to a room can be necessary if you have a home with insufficient outlets, you need to install ground fault circuit interrupters or you need special types of outlets, such as pigtail outlets. You can install any of these outlet types yourself with some know-how and the right tools, although you should be especially careful if you’re doing so in an older house that may have outdated wiring.
- Installing Ceiling Fans: Replacing a light fixture with a ceiling fan or swapping out your old fan for a new one are both jobs that can be safely performed yourself with sufficient electrical knowledge. Just make sure you’re using the correct type of plastic enclosure to mount the fan and the enclosure is rated to support the weight of your fan.
- Replacing or Upgrading a Light Switch: It’s not uncommon for a light switch to need replacement, but fortunately, replacing one is a job a reasonably competent handyman can tackle. Note, some older switches may not include a grounding wire, which will complicate the repair by requiring you to install one.
- Replacing a Blown Fuse: If your home has a fuse box, replacing a blown fuse is usually a simple enough task. However, fuse boxes are an outdated technology (not to mention against code in some places), and you should get a modern circuit breaker installed ASAP.
Wiring Jobs You Can’t Do Yourself
Of course, there are many types of home wiring jobs you simply need a professional for, full stop:
- Modifying or Repairing Your Breaker: Your breaker panel controls the electricity for your entire home, and the ins and outs are more complicated than you might realize. One small mistake and you might have set your home up for a dangerous electrical problem.
- Adding a Dedicated Circuit: Many homes need dedicated circuits for kitchen appliances or other high-draw applications. These circuits often require complex wiring and detailed knowledge of electrical codes, so it’s usually a bad choice to try to DIY one.
- Bringing Anything Up to Code: Speaking of electrical codes, maybe your building inspector just told you the wiring in your fixer-upper is outdated and needs to be brought up to code. It might be tempting to DIY for your budget’s sake, but it’s a seriously bad idea.
- Adding a New Light Switch: Replacing a light switch is one thing, but adding an entirely new one is a substantially more complex job that requires planning out a wiring route and pulling wires through the wall.
- Working on a Burned Outlet: Any problem severe enough to send an outlet up in smoke is a problem no home handyman is qualified to fix. Even if you don’t electrocute yourself, the best you’ll be able to do is patch up a problem that needs a permanent solution.
We’ll close with this thought: When it comes to wiring, if you’re the least bit unsure about whether you fully understand what you’re doing, just call a professional. The risks to you, your family, and your community are far too great to leave it to chance. But if you’re well-prepared and confident in your abilities, doing a few wiring jobs yourself won’t hurt and it can teach you a lot about the fascinating electrical forces that power our homes and businesses.