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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Ehinger

What is the job of an Electrician?

The question may seem simplistic but it has occupied my mind for the last few years. It came to mind thinking about interactions with some clients that seemed to be just as happy to have a handy-man or general contractor complete their electrical project rather than an electrical professional. I feel like there is some kind of misunderstanding over what clients are buying when they hire someone for their electrical work. I began to formulate an easy to understand statement that would help them understand how important it is to hire a real electrician for their electrical projects. That is when I saw that the question is not so simple.

Before I go on, what would you say the job of an electrician is (please put your initial answer in the comments)?

Electrical code violation.
Hazardous spa circuit installation hidden in the wall.

Many people say things like: "An electrician works with electricity.", "An electrician makes the lights work." or "Electricians run wires." While there is some truth in these ideas, the reality is that most electrical work is done with the power off, electricians have very little to do with the electricity that is supplied to homes, the power company makes the electricity, and the light fixture manufacturing companies make sure their lights work with the local utility's power. Of course we do run wires, but what does that mean? I will come back to this question.

After thinking through all that we train for and the way we learn to do our work I have concluded that the main job of an electrician is life-safety and property protection(fire protection). When you hire a real electrician you are hiring someone whose first priority is to make sure that what they install is safe for the people that will use the product and for the building/environment the product is housed in. Yes we run wires, but we run wires to a standard that keeps people and property safe, at least we should be.

In-ground electrical box.
In-ground electrical box with unsafe splices.

Electrical work is governed by the NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) and the local AHJ (Authority Having Jurisdiction, ie: the city or county building department). The NFPA is an independent self funded agency that is constantly studying how fires start and how deaths and property damage from electrical installations happen. This research is used to show us how to prevent those tragedies from occurring in the first place. Electrical installations are designed and installed using the NEC (National Electrical Code). This code covers most electrical installations and is used by most AHJs to inspect the work electricians perform. Did you know the NEC is updated every three years and has multiple changes each time it is revised?

Real electricians are instructed and trained to be very familiar with the NEC and we care about your safety. A journeyman electrician has received 4 years training to understand and implement the code while doing installations in the real world. While we are training we work alongside another journeyman who checks our work and teaches us the on-the-job realities of doing code compliant installations. Once the training is complete journeyman are tested to be sure they know the electrical code before they are given their certification and are able to complete electrical installations on their own. Real electricians know that our installations will impact the building and its occupants for years to come, so we install everything to a standard that will stand the test of time and be safe for years to come.

Our learning does not stop there, every three years we are required to complete continuing education training to maintain our certification. This is important because all of the code changes every three years. We also do specialized training for different aspects of emerging electrical technology. EV chargers, whole home battery back-up power systems and smart electrical panel trainings are examples of specialized trainings our electricians take to be sure we understand these types of installations and can complete them safely for our clients. As technology increases and we start to go all electric this continuing education will be more and more important to ensure the safety of our installations.

Damaged wiring in electrical box.
Careless installation started failing after 5 years.

So, yes, electricians run wires, but more accurately we run wires in an educated way that will last a long time and be safe for years to come. I have used the term "real electrician" a few times. I use this term because between 50-80% of electrical installations I come across that are done by other "electricians" are clearly not installed with the goal of long lasting safety in mind. They seem to be installed with a, "I can't see it from my house so I don't care." mentality or out of sheer ignorance. From brand new million dollar homes to simple spa installations, much of the electrical work we encounter is completed below the standard of the electrical code and in a hazardous fashion.

"But it works!" Yes, electricity works. Yes, an untrained person can make a light fixture turn on. Yes, it is white to white and black to black and the light fixture will illuminate. "The light came on, the wiring must be ok right?" Not necessarily. It may be true for some things but with electricity this is not the case. Electricity is invisible and most electrical work is completed behind walls and is hidden from view. A faulty electrical installation does not drip and make a puddle on the ground. There is no rotten egg smell if it is leaking. When electrical is not installed properly it may begin to arc, and over time the arc may heat up the wire and burn the insulation until the building materials combust. When electrical installations "leak", say into the washing machine or a hand rail, the danger is not obvious. Instead the electricity patiently waits in the washing machine or hand rail for someone to complete the circuit to ground by touching it. This is when an electrical shock can happen.

Once I was called to a nursing home to see why all the beds were shocking the workers. The maintenance guy said it had been this way for years and that several people had looked at it and not found anything. At first I couldn't believe it, then I touched the rail of a bed and felt the shock for myself. A whole wing of this building was affected. The bed railing was being energized by the electrical outlets. It amazes me that no one died at that facility. This is the type of issue faulty wiring can create (The issue was caused by some faulty wiring and a bad ground connection, which I was able to repair).

As an electrical expert the last thing I want to do is scare people into doing work, however I feel it is very important to inform people that when they are having electrical installations completed it is important to hire someone that understands electrical safety and proper installation standards. You may have some work done and "it works fine" for years and then have an incident like one I read about in an electrical safety journal. The article tells of some children who were playing by a pond and boat house. One of them was electrocuted when he reached up and grabbed something metal. The investigation found the wiring had not been grounded properly and that there was not proper GFCI protection installed. The issue had waited there until the right circumstances occurred and took a life.

I lose sleep thinking about safety, thinking through my jobs and making sure I never install something that will harm others. That is the kind of electrician I am and that is the kind of electricians I train and want to work with. I think that is the kind of electrician that most people would want, if they knew the potential hazards they face due to improperly installed electrical wiring, both now and in the future. When you think about hiring an electrician I hope you will keep these things in mind. Ask yourself if the person you are considering hiring is qualified and is doing your work with safety in mind. It could save a life.

Bathroom vanity light wired wrong.
A bathroom vanity "wired" by an "electrician" that "worked" for years. Fortunately no one was hurt and the home did not burn down.

So how can you tell if you are hiring a real Electrician?

After reading the notes above my wife asked me(she is my proofreader), "Are there any questions that people could ask to know if they are hiring a real electrician?" What a great insight! Here are some things you can look for to be sure you are hiring a real electrician:

1-Did you hire the electrical contractor directly and are you aware of their contract amount?

If you have a general contractor or another contractor bring on an electrician it is highly likely that they went for the cheapest deal they could find. Contractors like to keep their margins higher by using the cheapest subs. If you were not involved in making choices about your electrical installation(panel and breaker upgrades, custom lighting, lighting controls, grade of light fixtures and devices) you are probably getting the blue light special.

2-Are they Licensed?

It isn't much of a sign that someone is a real electrician if they have a California contractors license, but at least you know that they are trying to do things correctly. It is easy to check the status of a contractors license by using the CSLB (Contractor State License Board) License check on their website. LICENSE CHECK. You can try it out by going to the "LICENSE CHECK" link and putting your contractor's license into the search window. This will tell you the status of their license their bond amount and any negative issues they may have had in the past.

3-Are they CA State Certified?

It is a bit better to check if they are state certified. California has made a certification program that ensures that, at very least, s/he knows their way around a code book and have passed a pretty comprehensive test. This is easy to check as every certified electrician is issued an ID card that they are required to carry. General journeyman are qualified to do work on homes, businesses and most other electrical categories and residential journeyman are qualified to do work on homes only.

It is important to note that Electrical license holders are not required to be state certified IF they are working on their own project. If a licensed electrical contractor is working for another licensed electrical contractor then they must be state certified. Many "electricians" will get their state license instead of certification because the state license test is much easier.

I may come back to this question in a future blog but this should get you started to know what kind of electrician you are hiring.

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