Don't risk blown circuits or worse!

How to Avoid an Overloaded Electrical System This Christmas

by Benjamin Roussey

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Christmas is a time for decorations and lights and almost every household in the country will be plugging in various types of lights into their electrical outlets. The house looks beautiful and exudes the holiday charm; however, this could also lead to overload of your electrical system, which can cause a fire. According to sources, about 5,300 fires in households are reported every year that are caused by overloads. About half of these fires occur during the holiday season, when people are using maximum amount of appliances and lights.

The wiring in most homes is not equipped to manage the increased electrical usage, especially during Christmas. More than fifty percent of homes in the country are about thirty years old and the wiring in such homes is designed to handle only half of the current electrical demands. Secondly, in older homes, connections and wires are corroded or loose, which makes matters worse, and there are more chances of overloading the electrical system and causing a fire.

What Causes an Overload?

Overloading of an electrical circuit or a wire happens when more amperage passes through it than what it can handle. This often happens when you try to draw power for many lights or appliances from a single outlet. Even if you use separate outlets, you need to consider the overall capacity of your electrical system. The system should be able to handle the total load of all the lights and appliances that are working at the same time.

In some homes, the builder might have used smaller sized wiring to cut costs, while still staying within the "Electrical Code" requirements. Hence, do not assume that all power outlets are the same, even though they might appear the same in looks. For instance, a #14 wire will safely handle 15 amps, but if such a wire is connected to an outlet where you plug in lights or an appliance that needs more amperes, there is excessive load on the wires.

Secondly, the wires should be connected to an appropriate circuit breaker. For instance, the #14 wire of the previous example should be connected to a 15-ampere breaker. If it is mistakenly connected to a breaker of higher amperes, say 20 amps, it will allow more amps to flow through the wire, which will create an overload.

Warning Signs

An overloaded electrical system will not necessarily cause a power outage or blow a fuse. If such things happen, then it is a clear sign of overloaded circuits and you can take preventive measures. However, unfortunately, such drastic signs do not always occur, and the overload might not be noticed until it is too late. Therefore, it is important to keep a look out for warning signs that indicate an overloaded circuit. They are:

  • Frequent flickering or blinking of lights or when lights dim momentarily

  • You hear buzzing, sizzling, or crackling sounds from outlets

  • You see sparks flying when an outlet is being used

  • Wall plates or electric cords are discolored or feel warm to touch

  • The fuse gets blown frequently or circuit breakers trip often

  • Many electrical appliances in your home are malfunctioning


It is much safer to take preventive steps, rather than wait to notice the warning signs for electrical overloads. Before the holiday season, call an experienced electrician, or any electrician for that matter that you trust, and have your home checked for hidden hazards. If the wiring is faulty or old, have it repaired or upgraded.

The next step is to gain knowledge about the capacity of your electrical system and the amount of lights or type of appliances that can be plugged in safely in an outlet. Since overloads happen due to excessive amperes flowing in the wires, you need to first know how much amperes your lights or appliances is using. For this, you need to know a simple formula.

When you divide wattage by volts, you get amperes. In almost all American homes, the voltage is 120. Hence, the only thing to find out is the wattage of the lights or appliances, which is usually given in the product specifications or printed on the product itself.

For instance, if your Christmas decoration lights are using 2,000 watts, then dividing this by 120 you get 16.6 amperes. Hence, when you plug these lights in a 20 amps outlet, you would be using more than 75% of the available current on the circuit. However, you need to see also what other appliances or lights are connected to the particular circuit. If, for example, you are using a giant Santa Clause, a small flat screen TV, or a computer system, for instance, of 1,000 watts on the same circuit, you are sure to blow the fuse, trip the circuit, or start a fire.

Hence, you not only have to check the capacity for each outlet but also the total load you are putting on the circuit.

Usually applying common sense is enough to correct the problem. If you have tripped the circuit, simply remember what you had recently plugged into the electric outlet. Unplugging the device would set the problem right. However, if the circuit breaker is faulty or does not match the amperes of the wire, you are in trouble. No worries, any electrician or perhaps even your internet/television company can offer you salient advice on how to handle this problem and to prevent this from becoming a problem.

You should call up your electrical company and have them send out an electrician. Listen to what they have to say and do not let them leave without obtaining their direct phone number (if they are willing to provide that information). You may want to put your electrical company's phone number on your cell phone's contact list.

Making Christmas Safe

Therefore, it is better to have your electrical system checked by an expert, and correctly calculate the amperes before you start plugging in your Christmas lights. The risk of fires is very high when you have overloaded your electrical system. Therefore, play it safe this Christmas.

Benjamin Roussey is from Sacramento, CA, and grew up doing all varieties of home improvement projects around the home since his parents did not hire contractors or outside help to maintain their home or vehicles. As a result, he has acquired a multitude of home handyman skills in plumbing, carpentry, electrical and everything in between. He also has two Masters degrees and he served four years in the U.S. Navy.

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