Starting an electrical career as a residential electrician builds a good foundation. It’s the place where most apprentices learn the basics of electrical and alternating current theory.
So what is a residential electrician?
Simply, a residential electrician installs and repairs electrical systems in a home setting including:
- single-family homes
- apartment complexes
- new home construction
Most residential electricians will work both on new construction and existing homes.
You’ll find that installing wiring and equipment for new residential construction is usually less difficult than working on existing structures since there is no interference from things like walls, plumbing, or HVAC systems.
We have a 5-step guide about how to become an electrician that you may find helpful.
What Does a Residential Electrician Do?
When you work in homes as a residential electrician, you may perform the following taks:
- Install, maintain, and repair electrical wiring, control systems, and lighting.
- Upgrade electrical panels. Outdated or damaged panels can be dangerous.
- Troubleshoot electrical problems using a variety of testing devices and problem-solving skills.
- Use hand and power tools like wire strippers, voltmeter, multimeter, and drills.
- Read and interpret blueprints that show the location of outlets, circuits, etc.
- Provide updated or new electrical components to home remodels.
- Follow the National Electrical Code (NEC) and any local codes.
- Know and follow all safety guidelines.
Let’s jump into more detail of some jobs you might find yourself doing.
Knob and tube (K&T) wiring in older homes needs to be gutted and replaced. The insulation around the wire of K&T is possibly degraded and no longer adequate. So a well-trained residential electrician knows how to abate K&T wiring and replace it with up-to-date industry-standard wiring.
As years go by, electrical service, the size of the panel, or even the condition of the wiring starts to degrade. You’ll need to know how to replace anything from the service riser, meter enclosure, entrance cable, service panel as well as upgrading all of the grounding to the code requirements. And that’s just getting into the house!
After that, there are dozens of branch circuits, feeders, devices, fixtures, equipment, etc which may need your attention.
Generators, lighting and controls, new circuits, appliances, furnaces, air conditioning all need electrical power. You will very soon find yourself installing these as a residential electrician.
Electric cars are growing in popularity so electricians run a feeder to power-up the charging station. Usually, the charging station is in the garage. You’ll need to figure out how to get power from the basement (or wherever the panel is) to the garage. That can be its own adventure.
Customers like to add rooms to their house or finish their basement, knock down walls and expand their kitchen, turn attic space into a bedroom. Now you enter the wonderful world of remodel. Yup, drilling through studs again.
For an outbuilding, you’ll need to figure out how to get circuits to the new area from the existing panel. You have to be creative and come up with solutions.
Sometimes remodel work involves integrating the new with the old.
Let’s say, a homeowner wants to keep existing equipment. You need to figure out a way to make it work – and work safely – as you integrate it with the new stuff.
What will you do if there’s an outlet a customer wants removed?
You need to know what to do with those wires in the existing wall. The next thing you know you’re crawling in the attic or spelunking in the craswlspace looking for where the wires originate so they can be disconnected. Hope you’re not afraid of spiders.
You always want your finished product:
- to looks nice
- be serviceable
- be safe
- follow code
A good residential electrician knows when he’s needed and not needed. There are times you can determine that a problem is due to the utility provider. In that case, there’s a possibility the problem can be fixed free of charge by your local utility company. You’re not just billing hours, you’re trying to help people.
Other times you can fix a problem over the phone. Like, “have you checked the GFCI reset buttons? Being a good listener helps here.
Typical troubleshooting jobs involve:
- flickering lights
- tripped breakers
- 3-way switches not working right
- sparks shooting out of an outlet
You get the idea!
There are times even new homes need an electrician. Things may have been installed poorly or weren’t thought through properly and the homeowner requests changes.
A Day in the Life of a Residential Electrician
You might start your day traveling to a home or apartment building to replace a bad outlet or hang a new chandelier. You may then travel to a townhouse to install GFCI outlets to a kitchen or bath.
Some days may be filled with travel to various homes while other days you may spend the entire day in one location. Installing a whole-house generator usually takes a full day with a team of residential electricians working together, for example.
Another possibility is the need to inspect existing wiring and components to troubleshoot a problem.
As you gain experience you might be asked to help train apprentices or meet with homeowners on an electrical upgrade or project they want.
Differences Between Residential vs. Commercial vs. Industrial Electricians
The three main types of electrical workers fall into the following categories:
But keep in mind that there’s bleed-over. They’re not mutually exclusive.
The main differences are in the following areas, and we’ll go into more detail:
- Materials Used
Working on electrical systems in homes has its own codebook. Here in Michigan, we have the Michigan Residential Code – MRC. It’s based on the National Electrical Code.
An electrician who works on homes has to understand the unique rules, codes, and procedures that govern a home.
Some of the main things about the residential electrician that make it unique are the type of tools and materials needed. For example, a home is generally built with wood studs as opposed to steel in an office or I-beams and columns in a factory setting.
The wiring used in homes is a residential grade we call Romex. You won’t see a lot of Romex used in commercial settings.
The residential electrician is going to be running Romex and cables to and from plastic boxes that are usually nailed to a stud. Again, you won’t see too much of that in a commercial building.
A residential electrician has certain tools such as wire strippers, cutters, and crimpers that are better for residential Romex. They also use power tools that are specific for drilling through studs at right-angles.
Residential code requires you to have a specific number of outlets spaced accordingly in living areas; which wouldn’t apply to a commercial office. You have to install smoke alarms, certain circuits for small appliances, laundry rooms, a sump pump, kitchen, bathrooms, etc.
And don’t forget – lots and lots of GFCI’s.
Office buildings, restaurants, stores, and other areas where the public gathers is where you need commercial electricians.
If you’re in a commercial building you’ll see more conduit and metallic-clad wire. Therefore, commercial electricians do a lot of conduit bending. They need to invest in a conduit bender and practice, practice, practice.
This handy reference is helpful.
The energy needs and load demands typically require up to 480 volts, and larger services from 200 to1200 amps. Everything is just bigger – wire, conduits, panels, higher ceilings, louder machines.
Jobs can include installing back-up power generators or power upgrades, wiring breaker panels, feeding new equipment, and preparing spaces for new tenants.
Two common examples where you’ll find industrial electricians are manufacturing plants and production facilities. They need to have a specific understanding of the electrical codes and requirements of the industry they are working in. A chemical plant will have different power needs and rules from a food processing facility, for example.
Industrial electricians manage a wider range of electrical systems like micro-currents and high voltage components. They may also have to perform inspections on machinery and equipment.
In an industrial environment, you’re going to see even more conduit: heavy, rigid, explosion-proof fittings, conduits, devices, and boxes that you would never see in homes.
Final Thoughts on “What is a Residential Electrician?”
If you’re thinking of becoming an electrician, gaining skills as a residential electrician is a good place to start.
It tends to be a safe environment if you get with the right crew. Hopefully, they are patient and will show you the ropes. You can quickly learn a lot and start adding to your skill-set. A skilled electrician is always in high demand.
If becoming a residential electrician sounds interesting to you, let me encourage you. It’s a great trade and skill to have. I guarantee you’ll never find it useless.