Electrical problems come with more than their fair share of stress, and with good reason. We all know what electricity on the loose is capable of, so the utmost caution should be used whenever approaching a repair situation that involves electrical current.

But that doesn’t mean that every electrical crisis needs to be left to the pros — especially at the hefty hourly rate a licensed electrician charges. Many small electrical problems can easily be handled by the homeowner equipped with a modest number of specialized tools and a modicum of sense. Excerpted from the Popular Mechanics book “When Duct Tape Just Isn't Enough,” published by Hearst Books/Sterling Publishing. Check out previous excerpts here.

Electrical testing tools

The proper testing tools can make any electrical project a lot easier. Your tool kit should include:

  • Basic volt-ohm meter (aka a multimeter). Serves as an all-in-one tester for checking resistance and voltage. New digital models are available from large home centers and tool outlets.
  • Neon test light. Can quickly tell you when a circuit or outlet is live.
  • Noncontact inductive voltage tester. Pen-shaped instrument that beeps and lights up as you move it close to an energized wire, outlet or terminal screw — sounds exotic and expensive, but it’s not. It’s a lifesaver.
  • Continuity tester. Used to test if current can flow through a circuit.
  • Wire strippers. Essential when working with wiring; stripping with a utility knife or other tool can lead to accidents and a dangerous loss of wire.
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Tale of the tape

You’re trying to hang a power strip but just can’t get the mounting screws in the right position.

The quick fix
Electrical contractor Pat Porzio III offers this easy method: Apply a piece of tape to the strip’s back and use a pencil to punch holes through the tape, centered in the hanging holes.

Remove the tape and press it on the wall where you will hang the strip. Next, use screws to mark the wall through the holes in the tape. Drill on the marks and install the hollow wall fasteners for the hanger screws.

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Risky fallout

You try to plug a lamp into one of your outlets, but the plug just falls out.

The quick fix
The problem might be with the prongs on the lamp’s cord. If they are worn or severely bent, or seem loose, it’s time to rewire or replace the lamp. If a new plug doesn’t stay in the outlet, either, it’s a simple but potentially dangerous problem. The contacts in the receptacle are worn and the receptacle needs to be replaced. Lucky for you, you can buy an inexpensive replacement receptacle at a hardware store or home center, and replacing it is merely a matter of turning off the power, removing the face plate and switching the new unit for the old with the wires in the same places.

Hot replacement

You know you’ve blown a fuse, but you’re not sure which one.

The quick fix
Although you can usually see a blackened mark or clearly broken fuse connection through the fuse window, sometimes it’s not so apparent. If there isn’t a fuse map (showing which fuse goes to which area of the house), you might be faced with trial and error to find the blown fuse. Instead, use a continuity tester. Remove the fuse you think is blown, and press one side of the clip lead against the threads of the fuse and hold the test probe to the fuse tip. If the tester doesn’t glow, the fuse has blown. If it does, move on to the next suspect.

Truly shocking weather

A lightning storm is coming your way and it has you worried about the health of your electronics.

The quick fix
Lightning can cause power surges even miles away from where it strikes. The wisest course of action to avoid damage to stereos, computers, microwaves and other electronics is to unplug them during electrical storms. (A power surge can damage plugged-in appliances and components even if they are off.)

Safe and sound: extension-cord rules

Different extension cords are intended for different uses, and using the wrong one can be a fire hazard.

Do:

• Use the shortest cord possible for the task.

• Use only UL-listed cords (they carry the UL mark).

• Choose a cord with a wattage rate suitable to the desired use.

• Plug the cord into a grounded receptacle.

• Use indoor cords indoors, and outdoor cords outdoors.

• Unplug cords when not in use.

Don’t:

• Fasten down an extension cord with tape or fasteners.

• Cover the cord with flammable materials such as a rug.

• Connect one extension cord to another.

• Use a long cord without uncoiling it.

• Run cords through openings in walls, ceilings, or floors.

• Drape cords over light fixtures or heating sources.

• Use a cord that is very old or showing signs of age such as cracking.

• Alter the plug blades on a cord.