Don't cut corners on electrical work. Hire a qualified electrician familiar with the type of work you want done.
Faulty wiring is a fire waiting to happen. That's reason enough to hire an experienced electrician, but not the only one. Although wiring might seem like a black-and-white proposition, either the light goes on or it doesn't, it's actually a vast interdependent network. Circuits that are otherwise safe but poorly designed can damage appliance motors and electronic gear because they deliver the wrong amperage. Lights on even partially overloaded circuits can flicker when an appliance is in use, or the breaker may trip or the fuse might blow, shutting down the circuit entirely. Hiring an experienced electrician can help you avoid these problems.
Finding a qualified electrician is easier than finding the right carpenter or plumber. You can assume a certain level of competence when an electrician shows you his state license, but there are two degrees of pro to consider. A master electrician has passed a standardized test and has at least two years of experience under his belt. He knows the National Electrical Code and any modifications that your state has made to it. He is qualified to plan, design, install and maintain an electrical system for your project. A journeyman electrician hasn't qualified for a master's license, but he too is licensed by the state. (Some states require journeymen electricians to work with a master electrician.) By law, he cannot design systems but can install wiring and equipment.
There's another layer in the safety net. Most electrical work requires a permit issued by your local building department. Before the building inspector can sign off on the work, the inspector must take a look at it to see if it's up to code.
PICKING THE RIGHT PRO
Electricians tend to specialize. Some concentrate on new construction, some just in commercial work and some go only on service calls to fix dead outlets or faulty fixtures. Those who specialize in remodeling have mastered techniques for wiring existing homes and additions, such as snaking wires through finished walls, assessing the capacity of existing circuits and evaluating whether to install an additional service panel (where the circuit breakers are) to handle increased power demands.
Most general contractors have a short list of dependable electricians, but if your contractor can't recommend one, check with the local home-builders' association or an electrical- supply house in the area for a recommendation. Be sure to tell them the type of work you are doing so they can properly match the pro to the job.
When interviewing an electrician, ask to see a copy of his state license as well as proof of insurance. Make sure both are current. An electrician working on a typical residential-remodeling job should carry a minimum of $500,000 in liability insurance and workers' compensation coverage for himself and his crew. If everything seems up to snuff, check references and look over a previous job.
JUDGING WORK QUALITY
Though it takes a trained eye to spot an electrician's mistakes, you can eliminate some names from your list based on the neatness of their work. As a rule, a job that isn't neat probably isn't safe. If you can get access to a site, find a place where a number of wires run together, usually near the service panel. Romex, the flat, white plastic-sheathed cable common to most residential wiring, should run to the service panel in a neat, orderly way. If cables are crossed and jumbled, or if they droop from joist to joist, the electrician is neither doing a methodical job nor exhibiting the care essential to wiring a home safely. This is not nitpicking. Cables that merge at the service panel in an orderly way make it easier for the electrician to match the cable with the correct circuit breaker.
In the living area, the cover plates on switches and outlets should be plumb and square to the wall and lie flat against the face of the wall. If they don't, the electrician did not take the time to set the utility box (the box behind the wall that holds the outlets or switches) squarely against the studs and the proper distance back from the wall. If the work looks sloppy, go instead with an electrician who pays closer attention to detail.
In my area, homeowners pay a minimum of $30 per hour for a master who works alone, and at least $55 per hour for a master and journeyman working as a team. These prices vary regionally.
WORKING WITH AN ELECTRICIAN
For large remodeling jobs, such as additions or whole-house renovations, electricians work from plans generated by the designer or architect. The plans show outlet and switch locations and label fixture types, such as fluorescent and incandescent. Often the electrical plans are drawn up long before you've had a chance to pick the light fixtures, so you will have to supply your electrician with this information.
To avoid any confusion, find out when the electrician will need the fixtures. Then shop around to find the products you want - but don't buy anything. Simply make a list of your choices, including the manufacturer names, model numbers of products and where you saw the fixtures. Turn the list over to the electrician and let him make the purchases. You probably won't save any money because electricians, like most contractors, add a markup of 10 to 20 percent over what they pay. But since they buy products and materials at a professional's discount, the final cost will be about the same as if you had made the purchases yourself. The advantage is that the electrician assumes responsibility for warranty issues, breakage, defective products and missing parts. (This can save you from paying for a journeyman to run to the store for a missing set screw, for example.) Plus, while shopping, the electrician can evaluate the overall quality of your choices and wave you off low-quality or dangerous items.
As for budgeting fixture cost, you'll be working from a lighting allowance when shopping. This is the not-to-exceed dollar amount that you budgeted during planning for all your lighting needs. As with any remodeling project, if you go over the allowance when shopping, your contractor will bill you for the extra you've spent (the overage). If you stay under the allowance, you get that money credited back to you. It's all your money to save or spend as you see fit, but when choosing fixtures, keep a running total of costs and try to stay within your budget. Be sure to account for the cost of specialty lightbulbs, which are increasingly expensive. That way you'll avoid unpleasant surprises when it comes time to pay the final bill.
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