Electrical Upgrades for Older Homes

Our Alexandria Electricians Explains Why and How

The average age of homes in the Alexandria area is 64 years old, which means many of us live in homes that were built in the late 1940s and early 1950’s. Back then, only 9 percent of families owned a television, and there were still many families that did not even have refrigerators, to say nothing of blow dryers, stereo systems, video game systems and computers. Since many of these homes were built, the proliferation of electrical appliances and devices has skyrocketed, but the electrical systems in many homes still have not been upgraded to handle the constant demand for electrical current. Our Alexandria electricians warn that these outdated systems can and do pose serious dangers ranging from fires to electrocution!

So if you live in an older home and have noticed any problems with your electrical system, please call Root Electric Services. Homes in Alexandria, VA are some of the most wonderful in the country, and we’d like to help you keep your home and your family safe. We can start with a home electrical safety inspection and then make recommendations for any necessary upgrades:

Electrical Service Upgrades

Many older homes need a complete electrical service upgrade to switch them over from lower amperage to either 200 or 400 amps. Some indications that you may need an upgrade like this are frequently flickering lights (especially when turning on major appliances), breakers trip, fuses blow, you use a lot of extension cords and surge protectors, and you have a bunch of two-pronged outlets that do not accommodate today’s three-pronged plugs for most electrical appliances. Our Alexandria electricians are pros at these types of jobs, and it is important that homeowners do not try to do a job like this on their own. It’s very complex, can be quite dangerous and absolutely requires the services of a professional electrician. Homes without “Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter” (GFCI) outlets in the bathrooms, kitchens or garages also need to be updated.

About Your Outlets

Speaking of GFCI outlets and three-pronged, grounded outlets… many older homes need to have these updated. Outlets are some of the most taken-for-granted objects in our home, but when they don’t work, or when there is a problem, it can be dangerous. Changing outlets may seem to be a simple task, but again, to avoid danger and get the job done right, call us for assistance.

NOTE: It is particularly important that GFCI outlets are installed in any area of the house where water flows (bathrooms, kitchens, outdoor areas). These outlets are equipped to sense when there is a potentially dangerous imbalance in the flow of electricity from the outlet to whatever is plugged in and will shut off power to prevent a person from being shocked, burned or electrocuted.

Aluminum Wiring Issues

During the 1960s and 1970s many homes (including many here in Northern Virginia) were constructed with aluminum wiring. The aluminum wiring has aged badly in many cases, particularly where it connects to outlets, light switches and splices, making it a serious fire hazard in many homes. During an electrical safety inspection, we can evaluate whether or not this is a problem in your home and take steps to repair the wiring (replacing it with copper wiring) if necessary.

5 Updates for a 1960’s Home

Do you live in a Northern Virginia home built in the 1960’s? Do these electrical updates first.

Houses in the 1960’s were built during a different era when electricity was not as essential to the central workings of the home as it is today. Most of the burden of heating and cooking was powered by natural gas in these homes, and people did not rely on computers or televisions to the extent that they do today. If you live in a home built in the 1960’s do these five updates before you proceed with any other updates:

1. Service Upgrade and Electrical Panel Replacement: 

Most homes built in the 1960’s did not have central air conditioning and did not require a large amount of electricity for cooling the house during the summer. As a result, many of these homes only have a 100 Amp to 150 Amp service. While this was considered to be plenty of power at the time, 100 Amps to 150 Amps will not provide enough power to drive modern HVAC systems, or the addition of an electric vehicle. Upgrading to at least 200 Amps will provide the needed electrical capacity to live in your 1960’s house just like you would live in a home built in the last few years.

2. Microwave Circuit: 

Cabinet mounted microwaves did not come along until the mid to late 1980’s, but many mid-century houses have them. Most homes built in the 1960’s had a hood over the range, or even an exhaust fan mounted in the wall of the kitchen. The fan drew so little electrical current that it was simply fed by the lighting circuit for the kitchen. Oftentimes, the range hood will be replaced by a microwave that draws significantly more power, sometimes in the range of 1500-1800 watts. This causes an overload on the lighting circuit, which is only rated at about 1500 watts. As a result, when you try to warm up your dinner, the lights may flicker, or the circuit breaker may trip. Adding a new 20 Amp dedicated circuit for the microwave will provide the correct amount of electricity for the microwave and take the strain off of your lighting circuit.

3. Outdoor Utility Circuit: 

In the 1960’s, most people used rakes to clean leaves off of their lawn, and hand-saws for home improvement. In the next few decades, it became more common for people to use leaf blowers for cleaning up their yard and electric power tools for home improvement. Most mid-century homes had outlets on the outside of the house that were tied into the existing circuits for the living room, bedroom, or kitchen. These circuits are typically fairly low-capacity and are really only designed for lamps. By adding a 20 Amp utility circuit, you can run yard tools, commercial grade power tools, or even Griswold-esque holiday lighting without worrying about damage to the wiring or tripping the circuit breaker.

4. Bathroom Circuit: 

New homes have 20 Amp outlets installed next to the bathroom vanity, providing a place to plug in hair dryers and other bathroom appliances. In the 1960’s, most bathrooms did not have a wall outlet, but only contained a small 2-prong outlet for a men’s shaver that was normally mounted inside of a long-since-removed medicine cabinet. To top it off, the wiring in the bathrooms of these homes is usually tied in with the same circuit as the bedroom lighting. If a homeowner tries to run a hair dryer on this circuit, which typically pulls 1700-1900 watts, it is not uncommon for the circuit breaker to trip. To make the bathroom of an older home more useful, install a GFCI protected 20 amp dedicated circuit with an outlet next to each sink basin. This will ensure that an outlet with enough power to run common bathroom appliances is installed at a convenient location.

5. Recessed Lighting: 

Have you ever watched The Jetsons and noticed the sleek appearance of George and Judy's house? Recessed lighting is part of the reason for the futuristic appearance of their house. Recessed lighting nicely compliments the architecture of homes built in the 1960’s, and thanks to the efficiency of LED bulbs and integrated LED trims, does not over-tax the 60 year old wiring.

If you live in a Northern Virginia home built in the 1960’s, the five electrical updates listed above will give you the most value for your money spent on electrical updates.

Five Electrical Updates for a 1980’s or 1990’s Home

Do you live in a Northern Virginia home built in the 1980’s or 1990’s?  Do these five electrical updates first:

1. Outlet and Switch Replacement:  

The wiring in old homes of this era was fairly robust, having good circuit distribution and long-lasting, durable thermoplastic insulation.  The wear point of the electrical system of any home built during this era is at the place where the homeowner contacts the electrical system.  Outlets and switches wear out over time, and this is particularly so for outlets used commonly for the vacuum and switches in hallways or bedrooms.  Replacing the original outlets and switches, plus tightening the splices in each outlet or switch location will significantly improve the safety and reliability of your electrical system.  A minimal investment in replacement of outlets and switches can save hundreds or even thousands of dollars in unexpected service calls.

2.  Electrical Panel Replacement:  

Homes during the 1980’s were supplied with electrical services that can handle most of the same appliances used in homes built in the early 2020’s.  However, electrical panels in homes built in this time period lacked several key features that new electrical panels have:  A reliable main breaker, adequate circuit capacity, and compatibility with Arc-Fault circuit breakers.  New electrical panels have nearly twice the circuit capacity of those installed in homes built in the ‘80s and ‘90s, providing extra space for renovations or additions requiring additional circuits.  “Plug-on” neutral bars allow easy installation of Arc-Fault and Ground-Fault circuit breakers, which are required for circuits in most new living spaces.  Finally, the main breakers of older panels can fail at an inopportune moment, usually on the hottest day of the summer or coldest day of the winter, when your electricity use is at its peak.  By replacing the electrical panel in your home, you will improve the capacity, utility, and reliability of the electrical system in your ‘80s or ‘90s home.  

3.  Bathroom Circuit:  

The bathroom circuits in homes built in the 1980’s and early 1990’s were light-duty 15 amp circuits that were shared by all bathrooms, plus all of the outdoor outlets, and the garage and basement.  These circuits were overloaded when they were originally installed and are even more overloaded in today’s world where a hairdryer alone puts enough load on the circuit to trip the breaker.  By installing a dedicated 20 amp circuit to the bathrooms, enough power will be supplied to the bathroom outlets so that they can handle most common heat-driven bathroom appliances.

4.  Recessed Lighting:  

Homes built in the ‘80s and ‘90s typically had 8 foot ceilings with no ceiling lights.  (Most rooms have a wall switch that controls an outlet where a lamp can be plugged in).  Recessed lighting provides excellent ambient light without obstructing the line of sight along the ceiling.  A lack of hanging light fixtures maintains a sense of space and openness in each room.  

5.  Garage Utility Circuit:  

Many people have an auxiliary refrigerator in the garage of their home.  Homes built in the ‘80s and ‘90s usually had a GFCI outlet in the garage that was also shared with the bathroom and outdoor outlets.  Refrigerators typically don’t pull a huge amount of power, but since the garage outlet is typically shared with outdoor outlets and is GFCI protected, there is a chance that power can be cut to the refrigerator unexpectedly if the GFCI outlet trips during a rain storm.  Installation of a dedicated circuit for the refrigerator will ensure reliable power for the refrigerator and provide a good power point for power tools for home projects.  

If you live in a Northern Virginia home built in the 1980’s, the electrical updates listed above will make your home more useful in the present and more upgradeable in the future.  

If you live in an older home, call our Alexandria electricians at (703) 494-3989 to schedule an electrical safety inspection. We are anxious that all of our neighbors have safe, electrically efficient homes. Never attempt to undertake any electrical upgrades or repairs on your own as this can be very dangerous! We can help!

Bill Root

About the author

During my tenure at Root Electric, I lead the transition of Root Electric from a primarily sub-contracting based business model to a prime-contracting based business model. Accomplishments have been made by developing a team based approach to researching and implementing a service-specific client management system.

My goals for the next five years are to fine tune Root Electric's brand strategy and to diversify its scope of services, while remaining true to the discipline of electrical work.