You’ve probably seen it before—brief sparks when you plug something into your outlet. Small sparks are completely normal, but sometimes it can indicate an electrical safety issue.

Brief sparking is normal

Some sparking is nothing to worry about. When you plug something in, especially when it is turned on, fast and hot electric current makes a connection from the outlet to the plug. This quick draw of electricity results in a small spark that isn’t very dangerous. It will shock you alright, but it shouldn’t cause any serious harm.

Short circuiting is dangerous

A short circuit happens when the electric current jumps to an unintended path. This creates a lot of current flowing into the circuit, leading to overheating and potentially a fire.

Luckily, we have circuit breakers (or fuses) and other electric overload protection (ex: AFCIs) to turn off power when excessive current is detected.

Unfortunately, accidents happen (usually from improper installation) and short circuits can cause sparking, arcing, and overheating. Short circuits are a common cause of fires.

If you ever notice a large and scary spark or electric arc, turn off power to the circuit from the breaker box and contact an certified electrician right away.

Other signs of short circuiting and overheating include:

Black or burn marks on or near outlets/switches
Dimming or flickering lights
Strange smells, such as burning plastic, fish, or sulfur (rotten eggs)
Sparking anywhere near your electrical panel (breaker or fuse box)
Outlets/switches are warm or hot to the touch

The National Electrical Code (NEC) requires AFCI protection on all circuits in kitchens, family rooms, dining rooms, living rooms, parlors, libraries, dens, bedrooms, sunrooms, recreation rooms, closets, hallways, utility rooms, and other similar areas.

Water and electricity don’t mix

Water and electricity is an extremely dangerous combination. When there is water nearby, the current could jump to the water and cause a spark and potential electrocution.

Never touch any electrical equipment with wet hands.
Avoid damp conditions, including wet grass, whenever using electrical equipment.
Replace any damaged cords or plugs, especially if you can see any exposed wires.
Test all of your GFCI-protected outlets/breakers every 30 days.
Purchase power tools with built-in GFCI protection.

Ground fault circuit interrupters automatically shut off power if it detects a leaking current, when there is a difference between the current going in and out.

GFCI protection is required in many locations around the home, including:

Bathrooms, kitchens, and anywhere where water and moisture is an issue
Outdoor outlets
Unfinished portions of the basement
Underwater pool lighting
Wet bar sinks
Laundry rooms
Crawlspaces at or below grade level

If you ever suspect a problem with your GFCI outlets or breakers, contact a licensed electrician right away.

Learn how to test GFCIs and AFCIs.

Poor electrical work

When homeowners or other DIY-ers attempt to install or repair things like outlets and switches, it’s easy to make a mistake and cause electrical problems, such as short circuit.

Small, brief sparks are fine, but if start seeing larger than normal sparks or if the outlet sparks every time you plug something in, contact an electrician.

If you suspect DIY or shoddy electrical work, contact a qualified electrician right away. If someone is injured, your insurance won’t cover it (The Independent).

For peace of mind, schedule an electrical safety inspection every year.

Learn important electrical safety tips on our Safety Page. Schedule a professional electrical safety inspection with the OnTime experts.

Don’t hesitate to contact the experts at OnTime Service, faithfully serving the Birmingham area since 1975.