Q: I live in an older building and my apartment doesn’t have enough electrical outlets. Isn’t the owner required to add more or update the system?

A: Depends of what condition the system is in. A property owner is normally required to keep a place “fit and habitable,” which is defined in most places by state law and sometimes honed by county, city, village or town laws as well. “Habitable” means that the rental unit is fit for occupation or “suitable to be lived in.” Unfortunately, what’s considered “suitable” for some dwellers may not suit other folks at all.

To clear up the confusion, most state laws cover a variety of basic conditions that make a unit habitable, including electrical requirements. Most areas require sufficient electrical outlets for basic use. Some are more specific. For example, in the state of Massachusetts an outlet must be provided in the kitchen to allow “an electrical hookup for a refrigerator.”

In California, electrical requirement includes “electrical lighting, with wiring and electrical equipment that conformed with applicable law at the time of installation, maintained in good working order.”

In addition, “applicable law at time of installation” doesn’t help the modern renter who wants more up-to-date or increased electrical capacity. Unless the wiring is dangerous or the plugs sparking when a plug is inserted, the owner may not be required to update the system.

For safety, the National Electrical Code is generally the model for state regulation that defines many electrical rules. As far as updating the electrical system, unless substantial renovation has been undertaken most places are “grandfathered” in when it comes to current code regulations.

An exception may involve the installation of a ground-fault circuit interrupter, or GFCI, outlets. A “GFCI” is a relatively inexpensive electrical device that usually replaces and fits into a standard electrical outlet.

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, GFCIs installed in household branch circuits “could prevent over two-thirds of the approximately 300 electrocutions still occurring each year in and around the home.” Because a GFCI detects ground faults, it can also prevent some electrical fires and reduce the severity of others by interrupting the flow of electric current. “Installation of the device could also prevent thousands of burn and electric shock injuries each year.”

Ideally, all outlets within a few feet of a water source indoors and out should have outlets changed to GFCI-type power sources.

Feel your rights or safety is being violated? You may want to contact an attorney or legal advisor on the subject. If the law is not on your side, the landlord may be willing to pitch in, especially if you make a case that it may improve the value and safety of the property. Updating by adding extra electrical outlets should be handled by a licensed electrician and is usually not expensive — especially if you offer to split the cost. Contact your landlord and try to reach a mutually agreeable plan that leaves everyone feeling energized. Be sure to get the understanding in writing with your landlord, which should spell out who will do the work and the cost of the job before work is authorized.

Q: How many phone jacks should the landlord provide? There’s only one in my kitchen and it’s really annoying.

A: With the burgeoning need for multiple phone jacks, a consumer would hope there are sufficient choices of where to “plug in” at their home. Unfortunately, most laws have not kept up with technology, some being silent on telephone access requirements, with others quite detailed.

In California, Civil Code 1941.4 gets the word across nicely by requiring the landlord to be responsible for “installing at least one usable telephone jack and for placing and maintaining the inside telephone wiring in good working order.” Also on the landlord’s tab are repairs to the inside wiring, which stretches from “the portion of the telephone wire that connects the telephone equipment at the customer’s premises to the telephone network at a demarcation point determined by the telephone corporation in accordance with orders of the Public Utilities Commission.”

No law in your area or extension on your side? On the plus side, technology has provided several solutions, including a “sole jack” cordless system. Plugging into a single telephone jack, several extensions can be added to the line by merely plugging into an electrical outlet with sufficient room for the charger base nearby. Check your local appliance store or online for choice of features and prices.

Other options include “piggybacking” the system with inexpensive telephone jack extensions and running wire to other areas. If you’re planning to undertake any handiwork or pay someone to alter the premises, be sure to get landlord permission in writing before strapping on your tool belt.

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