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Electrical Systems and Service

”For starters, let’s talk design. Oh, you look surprised. Yes, even electricians need to create a design.
The design and layout of the outlets and all components makes sure that the system will be able to
handle the needs of the homeowners now and in the future. Voltage services are 120/240. Anything
less won’t do jack. Most residential service is a minimum 100 amps, but 200 is becoming more
standard.

“The electrical panel, which is the distribution panel, is usually placed for ease of access, but not on
display like the living room, because they just ain’t that pretty. Usually you’ll find them in the
basement, or garage if it’s attached.

“Any rooms that are big power draws, like utility rooms and garages and bathrooms, are going to
need dedicated circuit breakers to prevent—I almost hate to say it—accidental shock.” Kimo
laughed again.

“Okay, okay, you got me,” Jerry said. “Funny man.”

“Sorry, really.” Kimo actually did look sorry and Jerry really wasn’t sore.

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“No worries. Really, it’s fine.”

“We’re cool?”

“Cool.”

“Okay, then. Incoming service. The power is brought into the house through outside cables and
delivered through a series of conductors to the wiring system inside. Some are aboveground cables,
some are buried underground. Aboveground come from a pole outside connecting to the service
entrance conductors, which are called the service drop. Got it?”

Jerry nodded his assent.

“Now, if it’s underground, the wiring there is called the service lateral.

“In either case, it’s the utility company’s responsibility to bring the electricity to the service drop or
the lateral. Then the property owner is responsible for everything beyond that point of entry: all the
inside wiring, any blown fuses or circuits, and in some areas, even the electric meter itself.

“So, what comes through the wires is electricity. It’s pushed by voltage, which is the electrical
pressure. Like I said, 120 and 240 volts is standard. The larger voltage is needed for heavy things like
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your dryer. Amperage is the amount of electricity that flows through the wire. Voltage is the
pressure, amperage is the amount.

“The amount of electricity needed is measured in watts or kilowatts, and that amount has to be
determined when the house is built because structural electrical circuits are installed according to
these kilowatt needs. If the wire size used or the service coming in is not strong enough for the
electrical needs of the house, then the circuit will overheat. Fuses, which no one uses anymore, will
melt. Circuit breakers will trip, and you’ve got a power outage. Older houses still have fuses, which is
meant to melt and open the circuit, causing the electrical outage when it’s overheated. It’s good; it
keeps a fire from starting, right? If a fuse melts, it’s no good; you throw it away and get a new one.
Circuit breakers, on the other hand, are more convenient and safer. They trip; they don’t melt. When
they trip, they switch off the electric power for that circuit. They do this when the current gets too
wild for the system to carry it. Because they don’t melt, you don’t have to replace them. You just flip
them back.”

“How can I tell how much amperage is coming into a house?” Jerry asked.

“Good question. The main panel board should have an amperage rating written right on it. See
here?” He led Jerry to the main panel of the house they were in and pointed. “Says 200 amp right
there.”
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“Got it,” said Jerry.

“Sometimes the rating is for 200 amps, but you don’t get 200 amps in the house because you don’t
need them yet. That’s the case here. We’re only using 140, so the homeowners got room to grow.
Oh, I tell you, when my two sisters used to get ready for school in the morning—come to think of it,
that’s probably how I got into electricity in the first place. I got tired of the circuits tripping all the
time and me having to go down to the basement. I figured, why not get paid for doing this, right?”

Jerry smiled.

“No matter what it says on the box,” Kimo continued, “the only way to know for sure how much
juice you got coming into the building is to take a look at the service entrance cables. The size of
the electrical service can’t always be measured by the number of fuses or circuit breakers in the
panel. Branch circuits might be from 15 to 50 amps. Each circuit breaker or fuse can be identified by
its ampere rating, as per the National Electric Code. Conductors, or wires, of specific sizes have to
have the proper sized fuse or circuit breaker to carry the electrical current. You can’t put a tiger in a
hole meant for a kitten. You get me?”

“I get you,” Jerry said, enjoying Kimo’s colorful language.

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“One thing you’ll have to know about are GFCIs—ground fault circuit interrupters. These will come
up in every inspection you ever do, man, I swear. New construction, old construction—I don’t care.
Someone always gets it wrong. GFCIs are real sensitive and are meant to trip on even a small leak in
the current. They protect people from getting electrocuted. They’re supposed to be installed
wherever water is, like bathrooms, kitchens, basements, utility rooms, garages, outdoors, near
swimming pools. The National Electric Code will tell you where they have to be used.

“Now: wiring materials. Wait—you want to get into that or am I boring you?”

“Not bored at all. Go for it.”

“Okay, then. Wiring materials. You got your structure wiring, also called branch circuit wiring, which
goes from the panel through the walls to the outlets where the current is needed. Outlets are the
opening, and include the plug, a switch, a light fixture. Different conductor sizes and materials are
used for the inside and the outside of a building. Outside we need to think about weather and
temperature extremes, exposure to moisture.

“We use mostly aluminum wiring where the current is heaviest. That’s where the juice is fed into the
building. We also use it on heavy appliances like ACs, dryers. Any houses that were built between
1965 and 1972 probably have branch circuit aluminum wiring because that’s what they used. Like I
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said, it runs to the switches and outlets. Nowadays we use copper wiring because it doesn’t get too
hot and it can carry big and small loads. The only place we use aluminum is at the service entrance.

“In your old houses, built before 1950, you might find BX cable, which is named after the Bronx. It’s a
type of armored cable, which is a bunch of insulated wires in a flexible metal enclosure. It was used
when the wires had to be protected from physical damage, and in the houses where’s it’s used you
can find it in the branch circuit wire that feeds the outlets.

“Romex is a nonmetallic sheath cable, a lot like BX but it’s plastic coated and moisture resistant and
flame retardant. It’s also less expensive than BX and easier to install.

“Conduit you’ve probably heard of. It’s a tube made of galvanized steel, plastic, or aluminum, and
it’s used to enclose the wires that carry current. It’s needed if BX or Romex aren’t used, which have
their own protection built in. You’ll see conduits at the service entrance to a structure, and it is used
below and above ground.

“Greenfield conductors look like BX but have no wires until they are put inside. Greenfield is made of
flexible metal, and we use it for connecting air conditioners, clothes dryers, and other big
appliances where we don’t use BX or Romex. But it can only be used inside where it’s dry. Its

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advantage is it’s flexible and can withstand a lot of shaking, where a rigid metal conduit might
break. It’s easier for us to work with, especially in a tight space.

“Now for the National Electric Code. This is something I have to abide by, and so do all electricians.
It’s a standard for installation and service, and it’s supposed to safeguard people and their homes
from electrical hazards. The Code was developed by the National Fire Protection Association, and it
gets renewed every three years and we have to learn a whole bunch of new rules. But it’s good,
man. Some areas have even stricter guidelines than the Code, and whatever’s stricter where I’m
working, that’s what I got to abide by.

“All electrical installations are inspected for compliance with the Code. All of Mike’s houses will be,
and so will any that any other builders put up in Grant Meadows. State or local inspectors are gonna
inspect electrical installations, and it’s gotta be right. Once it is, they’ll issue a certification that the
installation complies with the National Electric Code.

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