The do-it-yourself culture may mean big business for home improvement stores, but it may also lead to big headaches for electrical workers

I would never tell anyone that they can't work on their own home, [but] with the advent of [big box retailers], I think DIY electrical work is not only here to stay, but will, in the future, get worse. The sad part of this story is…how many houses have, and will, burn down because of DIY electrical work?…As we all know, every joint is a potential fire. The problem with DIYers is that they don't know it.
— as posted on an Internet message board for electrical workers

You wouldn't think that three letters could be capable of creating so much controversy, but the acronym “DIY” can elicit such a complicated combination of reactions and emotions at its mere mention that you may want to reconsider bringing it up in casual conversation with anyone in the electrical industry. Despite its widespread acceptance among weekend electricians who may be more concerned with finishing a home improvement job quickly than doing it safely, for those in the electrical industry “do-it-yourself” has transcended its literal meaning to represent a frustrating — and potentially dangerous — trend.

As its name implies, do-it-yourself (DIY) electrical work cuts out the middleman — in this case the electrician — and puts the tools in the homeowner's hands. And taken from a purely business perspective, that proposition ultimately begs the question, How much work are electrical contractors losing to the exploits of weekend handymen? As it turns out, not that much. In an informal poll conducted on EC&M's Web site, only 30% of respondents claimed to have lost business to do-it-yourselfers.

Of course, it's difficult to count the money you don't make, so those results may not paint the most accurate portrait of DIY's effects on the electrical construction business. If unqualified homeowners are routinely biting off more than they can chew with complicated electrical installations, it might be fair to assume that contractors are actually benefiting from fixing the problems created by those do-it-yourselfers. Fair, but not completely true. Another 30% of contractors surveyed said their businesses have received a bump from fixing DIY projects gone wrong, but “bump” may be an exaggeration. Of those who said the DIY trend has helped their business, 74% brought in less than $25,000 as a result of fix-up work and only 3% made more than $100,000 bailing do-it-yourselfers out of their homemade jams.

If it's not an issue of money, could the fuss be related to legality? In some states like North Dakota, where electrical licensing and inspection laws are less strict, homeowners may be tempted to finish their basements and do the wiring themselves after construction of the home is complete. If the contractors of record for these homes are less than thorough when noting exactly which parts of the homes they wired, it's conceivable that those contractors could find it difficult to prove they weren't responsible if DIY electrical work leads to a fire. However, as many inspectors and contractors will tell you, homemade wiring jobs are typically so recognizable that a forensic investigation would exonerate the contractors and relieve them of any liability.

Even considering the issue of safety offers more questions than answers with regards to how do-it-yourselfing has become such a contentious subject. It seems that every electrician and inspector — including those interviewed for this story — has encountered at least one homemade wiring job that would bolster the case for outlawing DIY electrical work altogether. Yet almost all of that anecdotal evidence comes with a happy ending that involves fixing the problem and averting disaster. Rarely, if ever, do you hear, “If only we'd gotten there a day earlier.” The factual evidence offers scarcely more help. In 1999, only 29 of the 170 nationwide electrocution deaths were attributable to household wiring, circuit breakers, or fuses. Bill King, chief engineer for electrical and fire safety for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, will allow that DIY projects gone wrong are responsible for some of those deaths, but the details are sketchy.

So what's the big deal?

Despite the common argument that so-called “big-box retailers” like Home Depot and Lowe's are at fault for creating the demand for home wiring in a kit, the results of EC&M's poll show that an equal number of electricians think home improvement stores are simply responding to the demand. While 37% of the survey respondents place the blame for the DIY phenomenon on stores like Home Depot, 42% believe the homeowners themselves are responsible. No matter who's responsible for its popularity, DIY is big business. Since 2000, Home Depot has enjoyed revenue gains of more than 27%, bringing in $58.2 billion in 2002. And with state and local laws that continue to permit homeowners to work on their own homes, that chicken/egg argument could rage on for some time.

Regardless of whom you ask, though, one issue is common to every answer. DIY electrical work has the potential to be so dangerous because the average weekend wirer adheres to a simple, but uninformed, motto: “If the light comes on, it must be wired properly.” And no matter what their other reasons are for having a problem with DIY, all of the respondents put this one at the top of their lists.

The issue of DIY has no right or wrong answers, no clear cut solutions, so EC&M asked representatives from three teams involved — state inspectors, contractors, and DIY dealers — to weigh in on the subject. And whether you agree with them or not, their thoughts and experiences may bring the muddled subject into clearer focus.

The inspector and the electrical board.

When it comes to shoddy electrical installations, it's safe to say that Dick Owen has seen it all. With a chuckle that suggests the story he's about to tell would be funny if it weren't so scary, the senior electrical inspector for the city of St. Paul, Minn., recounts an instance in which a handyman took his right to home improvement to extremes.

“We had this rockhead who, while rewiring his house, took the service drop off the side of his house and hooked the end of it on to a metal railing on his house to get it out of the way for the time being,” Owen says. “The ends were open, and there was no insulation or tape over it. That railing would have been energized to 240V, and if someone were to walk by and brush it, there would have been a problem.”

Although stories like that aren't necessarily commonplace in St. Paul, the fact that it happens at all is indicative to him of not only homeowners' disregard for the hazards of electricity but of their insistence on doing things their way, no matter the risk. “There are a lot of people who think, ‘My home is my castle, and I can do what I want with it, and you don't have the right to come in and tell me whether I did it right or wrong,’” he says.

That “my-way-or-the-highway” attitude may be true, but only to a certain extent. In Minnesota, as is the case in most states and local municipalities, persons may conduct electrical work on their own homes, but anything other than minor repair work is subject to inspection. The problem, Owen says, is that few homeowners apply for a permit or submit their work for an inspection. “Technically, you have to get a permit for something as simple as installing a ceiling fan, but I can probably count on the thumbs of one hand how many times we've gotten [an application for a permit] in those cases,” he says. “There's really no way to tell, but I would say that we get permits for 50% to 60% of residential work that's done.”

The percentage of homeowners who apply for permits to conduct electrical work in North Dakota could be even smaller. Only 2% of all electrical permits applied for so far this year have been issued for residential work, but with a mostly rural population and considerably softer guidelines governing what must be inspected, Don Offerdahl, executive director of the North Dakota State Electrical Board, predicts that number fails to tell the whole story.

In either case, inspectors may never see that unlicensed installation, and if they do, it might not be until several years — or even decades — later. “You're not going to get into the basement of a home that was built back in 1945 unless there's some work being done in there,” Offerdahl says. “If someone comes in and does some [legitimate] work, they're our best resource, and they'll let us know that we need to come out and take a look at it.”

What makes the situation more frustrating for Owen is that even when homeowners apply for a permit and submit their work to inspection, it may not be enough. “Inspectors spot check because there's just not enough time in the day,” he says. “They expect licensed electricians to know what they're doing, so there's less of a concern that they might do something you won't catch. But with the homeowner, you really never quite know. You can't assume that the things you don't see or don't have time to tear apart are OK.”

What both states have done is take advantage of the one thing they can control: information. Offerdahl and the North Dakota State Electrical Board have promoted May as Electrical Safety Month by holding educational seminars and bringing the issue of unsafe electrical installations to the attention of local lawmakers. And although interest has waned among the public in recent years, Owen's office has participated in several neighborhood home remodeling shows in an effort to guide homeowners in safe wiring practices. “The chances of do-it-yourselfers disappearing are slim,” he says. “So we just take the attitude that if they're going to do it, we might as well keep them from hurting themselves.”

The contractors.

Even though repairing DIY work gone awry has been a boon for Sentry Electric in Lincoln, Neb. — it accounts for 25% of the outfit's $1 million yearly residential tally — President Brian Allison would just as soon see that well run dry. “I would gladly give it up,” he says of DIY repair work. “It's not easy to explain to a client that we have to cut holes in his walls or ceilings to find failed splices or that what was expected to be a $100 charge will cost an additional $500 to $600 because we have to repair existing wiring that has ‘worked fine for the last 20 years.’”

Until recently, the laws governing electrical installations in single-family dwellings in Nebraska made it possible for homeowners to do their own work without obtaining a permit and thus slip under the state electrical board's radar. The Nebraska State Electrical Act has been amended to require inspections for all new single-family dwellings and changes to existing homes, but Allison doesn't see that stopping the homeowner who's intent on doing his own work. “In either case, I don't think that will make a bit of difference to the do-it-yourselfer,” he says. “He's more than likely not planning to take out a permit or have his installation inspected anyway.”

And although he may not believe those changes will have an effect on the frequency of DIY installations, he is confident they'll reduce the chances that he or any of his fellow contractors could be found liable for shoddy or dangerous DIY work. “That's where the State Electrical Act becomes our friend,” he says. “Once we take out a permit and it's been inspected, we are relieved of a great deal of that type of liability.”

Butch Paschal, president of Houston-Stafford Electric, offers a vastly different viewpoint. Although his outfit, which is a $150 million operation, deals exclusively in new construction and therefore would rarely, if ever, deal with repairing DIY work, he has no problem with homeowners taking on their own electrical work and is confident they know when to say when. “Do-it-yourselfing, in general, is a good thing if a homeowner is technically qualified to be doing whatever it is they're doing,” he says. “[DIY] isn't something that's ever going to be much of a problem. People understand that electrical work is dangerous because of what it exposes you to: either the potential for electrical shock while you're doing the work or the potential for fire if you do it incorrectly. People don't want to burn their houses down, so they don't do it if they're not qualified.”

Houston-Stafford's focus on new construction offers Paschal a unique view of the trend, though. Just because a home isn't complete, that doesn't mean the future owner won't try to make some “upgrades” along the way, even if it means doing it under cover of darkness. “They don't want to pay the builder's prices, so they go to Home Depot and find that recessed light cans are cheap and wire is cheap,” he says. “And while they're at the store, they pick up the how-to book that shows them how to wire everything, so they go out and put in six lights and run a switch. But that can create a problem when we figure it out because we don't want people doing work that we're going to end up picking up liability on later if something goes wrong.”

Although he maintains he hasn't seen a significant problem, Paschal says the home improvement stores have made it easy for homeowners to do their own work because they give them the tools to do it. Allison, however, takes a more hard line stance, placing the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the big box retailers. “Home improvement stores provide equipment to the homeowner that should only be installed by a professional,” he says. “Just having the materials and a multi-tool does not give them the knowledge needed for a safe installation. I don't know about you, but I wouldn't want to sit in a hot tub wired by a homeowner, yet home improvement stores will sell a 50A GFCI hot tub package to homeowners.”

The dealers in DIY.

A complaint leveled at home improvement stores by so many in the electrical industry is that although providing homeowners with the tools to do their own electrical work can be bad, offering poor instruction on how to do that work is worse. Despite electricians' claims to the contrary, John Simley, a spokesperson for Home Depot, says the company's sales associates don't provide advice on wiring and they won't quote the NEC. “We generally advise people to seek the advice of a qualified electrician or municipal building inspector, and that for insurance purposes they get a building inspector's blessing on the work,” he says.

In fact, Simley says, the company takes its responsibilities as a home improvement retailer very seriously. “When you're a store — and it doesn't matter if you're an electrical supply store or a big box store — you've got an obligation to the customer to make sure they know what they're doing,” he says. “You can't prevent them from doing the work, and if their options are to do the work in two hours for $25 or have a contractor come in and do it for $250, it's their right to do it themselves.”

Part of that obligation is making sure electrical department managers are licensed electricians. However, that isn't a rule. Part-time sales associates aren't required to have a back-ground in electrical work, but Simley is confident they fulfill their obligations to the customers — when the customers are listening. “It's a human system, and you never know if when you impart information on someone that they've heard you correctly,” he says.

Other outlets for home repairs information like DIY TV shows have drawn less ire from electrical industry professionals, due in large part to the relatively tame nature of the projects they tackle. Almost everyone who's ever considered retiling a bathroom floor or installing a ceiling fan has heard of Bob Vila and “This Old House,” but the increasing demand for home improvement how-to's has spawned entire cable TV networks devoted to the subject. DIY Net is one such resource for the couch potato who doubles as a home improvement journeyman. However, unlike how-to books or the electrical department manager at Home Depot, DIY Net's shows have a limited time frame in which to describe a project.

Karen Daniel, director of programming for the network, says those time restrictions limit shows like “Ask DIY,” in which qualified professionals answer frequently asked questions on various home improvement subjects, to covering the basics. “We can only devote five or six minutes to a segment,” she says. “If a segment covers something electrical, we don't want to do anything too complicated because we don't want viewers to attempt something that's out of their league, and we have to have enough time to show them how to do it without compromising safety.”

And if the tutorials are still too complicated for the average viewer, they may still help. “The viewers may not want to attempt some of the things we put on air, and we hope that by watching it they might be empowered to know enough not to try it.”

Even though the network runs a standard disclaimer twice an hour that advises viewers to seek professional help if in doubt about any procedures, Daniel says they're looking into instituting a rating system that would categorize each project as suitable for beginners, intermediate handymen, or experts. “I would hope that most people would have the sense to know better — particularly in the case of something that can be as scary as electricity — than to try something they're not capable of,” she says. “We don't want people to get in over their heads, so [rating the shows] is the best way we know how to protect the viewers. We can't police the world, but we try to help.”

Policing the electrical world may sound like a good idea to those who view DIY as a problem, but as far Bill King of the CPSC is concerned, that's not likely to happen. “‘Regulating’ is a dirty word around here,” he says. “We're in the age of deregulation.”

So for now, homeowners' only protection against the potential dangers inherent to DIY wiring may come from themselves. “I get dozens and sometimes what seems like hundreds of homeowners calling up and asking about electrical work,” Dick Owen says. “I just tell them, ‘If you're not sure what you're doing, don't do it, and hire someone who does.’”




Sidebar: Harder Than it Looks?

With continued emphasis on the importance of ground-fault protection in kitchens and bathrooms, installing a GFCI has become a common weekend project for do-it-yourselfers. Home Depot's how-to Web page categorizes such a project as “easy,” but not everyone we talked to is convinced. The range of answers we received when asking whether it really is easy offer some insight into why the debate over DIY has become so contentious.

“You would think that a homeowner should be able to replace a standard outlet with a GFCI without too much trouble. The GFCIs are getting a little better now, too, because they've got the line and load terminals on there so that if they do hook up backward, the outlets won't work.”
Dick Owen, senior electrical inspector

“Sure, it's easy if all the conditions are right — that is, a large enough box with the same number and colors of wires as shown in the instructions. If not, the greater majority will more than likely not be installed safely.”
Brian Allison, electrical contractor

“If you're going to do it, it's not that complex of a piece of work, because you're just changing out one receptacle for another — it just happens to have a GFCI breaker in it.”
— John Simley, Home Depot spokesperson