12 Tips for Easier Home Electrical Wiring
Learn tips, tricks and techniques from two master electricians with decades of experience.
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Even if you have years of wiring experience, there are always a few tricks you may not know. We worked with two master electricians with decades of experience between them to glean their tips, tricks and techniques. From straightening cable to labeling wires, these tips will help you wire better, faster and neater.
Uncoil Cable Without Kinks
Pulling plastic-sheathed cable through holes in the framing is a lot easier if you straighten the cable out first. The trick is to lift a handful of coils (four loops will reach about 12 feet) from the center of the roll, and toss them across the floor as if you’re throwing a rope.
Next, walk along the length of the cable, straightening it as you go. The electricians we talked to prefer this method because they can keep the cable contained in the plastic wrapper for easier handling and neater storage.
Pack Electrical Boxes Neatly
First, gather all the bare ground wires along with a long pigtail and connect them. Fold them into the back of the box, leaving the pigtail extended.
Next, do the same for the neutral wires. If you’re connecting switches (as shown here) you don’t need a neutral pigtail. Leave the hot wire extra long and fold it back and forth across the bottom of the electrical wire box.
Put a wire connector cap on the hot wire to identify it. The neatly packed box makes it easy to identify the wires and leaves you plenty of room for switches.
Remove Sheathing from Underground Feeder (UF) Cable
Underground feeder cable has a tough plastic sheathing that allows you to bury it directly in the ground without running it through conduit. But that tough sheathing is also difficult to remove, unless you know this trick.
Separate the black and white wires from the bare copper by grabbing each with pliers and twisting. Pull them apart until you have about a foot of separated wires.
Then remove the sheathing from the insulated wires by grabbing the end of the wire with one set of pliers and sheathing with another set of pliers; working them apart. After you get the sheathing separated at the top, just peel it off and cut the loose sheathing with scissors or a knife.
No-Snag Fish Tape Connections
After going to all the trouble of working your fish tape to its destination, the last thing you want is to lose the cable or get your tape stuck on something inside the wall as you pull it back. Here’s how to avoid that headache.
Start by stripping an 8-in. length of cable. Using side cutters, cut off all but one wire. Cut at a steep angle to avoid a “shoulder” that could catch on something.
Then bend the single wire around the loop on the end of the fish tape, and wrap the whole thing with electrical tape to form a smooth bundle.
Now you can push and fish the wire as needed, without worrying about it getting caught on an obstruction.
Check the Full Wall Cavity
A decent stud finder is a must-have tool for every electrical job, but you’ll use it for more than just finding studs.
Once you’ve located the wall cavity between two studs, run your stud finder vertically to check the whole wall cavity for obstacles like blocking and abandoned headers.
You don’t want to find out the hard way that your wire can’t extend all the way to where you need it.
Must-Have Electrical Tools
If you plan on doing any electrical work, two tools you should definitely own are flex bits and glow rods — the go-to electrical tools pros use for fishing wires.
Flex bits are great for drilling holes in hard-to-reach spaces. The two most common lengths are five and six feet, but extensions are also available.
Once your hole is drilled, you can shove a glow rod through the hole to start fishing wire, attach your wire to the eyelet at the end and pull it back through.
As their name suggests, glow rods glow in the dark. This makes them easier to spot when you’re working in dark areas fishing wire (which is most of the time).
Push Through Extra Wire
When fishing wire to pull it toward you, make sure there’s more than enough wire to hook onto. Sometimes it’s a real challenge to grab hold of a wire, and once you have it hooked, you don’t want to lose it.
Always ensure that you have at least five to six feet of extra wire to keep up the tension on the hook as you pull it through.
Identify Roughed-In Wires
Save yourself a lot of headaches by identifying the wires as you install them. (Speaking of avoiding headaches, here are 15 things you should know before starting any electrical work.) The electricians we talked to use a “code” for marking wires, and so can you. The top photo shows one example.
Another method is to use a label (bottom). But by the time you get back to connect switches and outlets, you might find that drywallers, tapers and painters have covered the label or knocked it off.
That’s why it’s best to use non-label coding whenever possible. Develop a system and write it down. You’ll never have to guess which are the “line” and “load” and which wires are the travelers for your three-way switch.
Test Wires Before Touching Them
When you’ve done a lot of wiring, it’s easy to get complacent about whether the power is off — but don’t! Use a noncontact voltage detector to check every wire in the wire box or area in which you’re working.
Always check the tester on a wire or cord you know is live to make sure it’s working before you rely on it.
Testing GFCI Outlets
By detecting dangerous current flow and instantly shutting off power, ground fault circuit interrupters save hundreds of lives each year. But after 10 years or so, the sensitive circuitry inside a GFCI wears out. And usually the test button on the GFCI doesn’t tell you there’s anything wrong.
When you press the button, it shuts off the power as always. So the only reliable way to check an older GFCI is to use a circuit tester that has its own GFCI test button.
Plug in the tester and push its test button. If the power goes off, the GFCI is working. Press the reset button to restore power. If the power doesn’t go off, replace the GFCI.
The good news is, your new GFCI will never require a circuit tester. All GFCIs manufactured after mid-2006 will tell you when they fail. The vast majority indicate failure by shutting off power permanently.
So someday your GFCI (and any other outlets connected to it) will simply stop delivering power and you’ll have to replace it. Keep your smart devices in touch by opting for smart home wiring.
Multiple Switches, One Hot Wire
A wire box with three switches is crowded enough without adding extra wire connectors and pigtails. Here’s a wiring method that eliminates extra connections and creates a neater installation.
Instead of running a separate pigtail from the hot wire to each switch, just leave the hot wire extra long. To connect the switches, simply score the wire with your wire stripper and push the insulation to expose about 3/4-in. of bare wire (left).
Wrap this bare section at least three-quarters of the way around the screw terminal of the first switch. Repeat the process for the remaining intermediate switches (right). Connect the last switch in the usual manner, looping the wire around the screw in a clockwise direction. Here’s what you need to know about AC wiring.
Strip Cable Sheathing First
It’s tempting to push your roughed-in cable through the knockouts in the box and worry about how to strip the sheathing later. But that’s the hard way. It’s much easier to remove the sheathing before you push the wires into the box.
The only trick is to make sure you have the cable in about the right spot before marking it (left) and removing the sheathing (right). As long as you don’t have the cable stretched tight, there will be enough “play” to make the final adjustments after you’ve inserted the conductors into the box. Here’s what you need to know for drawing your own electrical plan.
Remember, the electrical code requires that at least 1/4-in. of sheathing be visible inside the box.