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HOME OFFICE : Knowing Electrical Limits Can Keep You From Blowing a Fuse


Electricity is the lifeblood of your home office, and like the blood in your veins, you probably never think about it. It's just there. Your computer, answering machine, copier and other equipment all rely on the electricity and you rely on the equipment. When your office equipment fails, your business fails, data is lost, schedules are missed and invoices are not mailed.

Not knowing your home office's electrical capacity and requirements is a gamble. An inadequate and overburdened electrical system can cause downtime, damage equipment, impede work and, in the worse case, result in a home electrical fire.

Electrical engineer and licensed electrician Abe Khadem of Noor Electric in Costa Mesa says the average home office is protected by one 15- or 20-amperes (amps) circuit breaker. "If the circuit breaker is defective, the load too great and the wire gauge too small," Khadem said, "there can easily be a fire from a circuit overload."

The typical home office was never intended to be an office in the first place. It is most often a converted spare bedroom in a 10- to-30-year-old house that has 110-volt, 100-amp main electrical service. The room itself usually has three two-receptacle, 15-amp service wall outlets. One of the outlets is normally controlled by a wall switch at the entry door. Sound familiar?

The often slow and fragmented way home office equipment and furnishing is accumulated easily masks the buildup of high electrical loads that could be troublesome or dangerous if they remain unknown. When I recently did an electrical inventory of my home office, I was amazed to discover the potential electrical load of my equipment totaled 32.5 amps (see accompanying article for details). I have a 20-amp breaker.

Office copiers are the single biggest home office electrical load, according to Khadem. "If it's a very big copier, I recommend putting it on its own circuit with its own breaker," Khadem said.

Without the help of an electrician and special equipment, it is hard to know whether normal home office operations are going to overload your electrical circuit. Generally not all equipment is drawing maximum power at the same time.

You can tell whether your circuit may be nearing its capacity, Khadem said, by a simple experiment. Turn on all the equipment and have it performing its normal functions--copier copying, printer printing. "Then go to the home office circuit breaker," Khadem said, "and listen to whether the breaker is making a buzzing sound or see if it is warm to touch. Either sign is an indication the breaker is near its capacity."

Khadem warns that in addition to overloading the circuit, other common home office electrical faults include ganging too many plugs at too few receptacles and overloading the 15-amp capacity of the receptacles, using ungrounded receptacles and using undersized, low-quality extension cords.

"The common cheap, flat two-wire extension cords are often undersized and are too easily damaged by pets and furniture," Khadem said. "I recommend using round, three-conductor cords of at least 12-gauge wire."

A safe way to increase the quantity of receptacles in your home office, without putting the whole load on the circuit breaker, Khadem said, is to use a ganged receptacle box with its own circuit breaker. These are metal or plastic boxes containing a gang of four or six electrical receptacles connected to the box's own circuit breaker.

The ganged receptacle is plugged in a wall outlet with its own heavy-duty extension cord, then equipment is plugged into the ganged receptacle box and the house circuit is protected by the receptacle's breaker instead of the main electrical panel's breaker. These are available at any hardware or home improvement center for $10 to $20.

Modify an existing electrical system can be expensive, so you may be better off to manage your power requirements than to try to add capacity. However, if you are already tripping your home office circuit breaker, if the lights dim when your laser printer comes on, or there are signs of power surges at your computer monitor, it is definitely time to call an electrician. In Orange County, the rates for licenses electricians range from $45 to $55 per hour.

Steve Hansen, spokesman for Southern California Edison, says an independent professional electrician is your best source of assistance with your home's electrical system. Edison delivers electrical power to your house, but what you do with it after it passes through the electric meter is between you and your electrician. "We aren't in that business," Hansen said, "so we don't get involved on the customer side of the meter."

If you are remodeling or involved in new construction, this would be a good time to look at your home office electrical needs.

"Nobody usually thinks of things like this in time," Khadem said, "but during construction for a home office, I would recommend two independent circuits for a home office, with one dedicated to sensitive equipment. Doing this at the stud stage of construction would cost only about $75. Doing the same thing later would cost at least $400 or $500."

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