Residential Electrical Problems – Part 1

The Electrical System in Your Home.

Common Problems Found by a Home Inspector.

Part 1 in a Multi Part Series.

Service Entrance and Your Main Service Panel.

By Frank J. Delle Donne, Licensed Home Inspector

December 9, 2013

 

About the author.  I am a NJ Licensed Home Inspector.  I am the owner and Senior Inspector at Regal Home Inspections, LLC.  I am a member of the New Jersey Association of Licensed Professional Home Inspectors (NJ-ALPHI) and the National Association of Certified Home Inspectors (NACHI).  The standards used to inspect your home’s systems are in accordance with New Jersey State laws, the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) and NACHI Standards of Practice.  Regal Home Inspections, LLC can also test your house for Indoor Air Quality; Mold and Allergens.  Radon testing is coming soon.  We can also facilitate testing of septic systems and oil tanks; tank integrity and soil tests below ground. 

Never perform electrical work yourself unless you are a licensed electrician.  Nothing in this article suggests that you should attempt to diagnose any electrical problems you may have or make any repairs yourself.  Any attempt to make electrical repairs or upgrades can lead to your death.  ALWAYS hire a licensed electrician to perform any electrical work.  Electricity kills.  Never remove the cover to your circuit breaker panel. 

If you’d like a visual inspection of your home’s electrical system because you think there might be problems with it, please call Regal Home Inspections, LLC and we can perform a limited, visual electrical inspection of your system in accordance with the ASHI & NACHI Standards of Practice.  This is not a “to code” inspection.  Our inspection DOES NOT guarantee conformance to local electrical codes.

Electricity is something that we all use and likely, all take for granted.  I know I have up until the time that the power to my home goes out as it did during Super Storm Sandy.   The electrical system in your home is, like many other systems in your home, critical to its proper operation and critical to our comfort. It is also crucial to our safety as electrical problems can be fatal.  They can be fatal because they can electrocute someone and they can be fatal because they can be the cause of a fire which is equally dangerous.  Properly designed, built and maintained the electrical system in your home should be as safe as any other aspect of your home but a poorly built or maintained electrical system is a safety issue.  As I completed an inspection recently I was motivated to write this piece for two reasons.  First, the number of electrical problems were many and the second reason is that rarely do I do an inspection and not find electrical problems.  Furthermore, the types of electrical issues found on home inspections often rise to the level of significant, “Safety” problems.  This means, they are potentially serious accidents waiting to happen as a result.  Finally, they are either because of homeowner performing their own electrical work, which may be illegal, or because the home is old and the owners over time never upgraded the electrical system.  Now we are applying current day analysis to a semi-obsolete electrical system resulting in a number of problems identified as problems and often, “Safety” issues. 

 

When I prepare a report “Major Defects” and “Safety” issues are highlighted within the report as well as the sole subject of my report’s Summary.  The report, of course, includes many other informative aspects but these two are of particular interest (to lawyers and buyers) and of concern to both as well.  It has been requested of me by lawyers, that recommend me to clients, that they like to see a Summary of the “Major Defects” and “Safety” issues.  A lawyer isn’t as concerned about maintenance issues and a dripping faucet for example.   They want to go to the areas that might impact the occupancy, safety and value for example.  This is understandable in my opinion.

 

The electrical system is a significant aspect of the inspection.  All areas are important but the electrical system is rather extensive.  It begins with the service entrance.  This is the cable that brings electricity into the home.  It’s often through overhead cables but many newer homes have service that comes to the home through underground cables.  This is known as a “Service Lateral”.  The overhead wires are known as “Service Drop”. Let’s look at the rest of this piece assuming a Service Drop type of installation.  The wires come from a utility pole and not too far away is a transformer. 

 November 2, 2013 059-400

Photo 1

Please note that much of these explanations are simplifications.  To provide all the detail is too exhaustive for this piece.  The first thing an inspector will look at is the height of the cable at its lowest point and its proximity to the roof, metal gutters and windows as it arrives at the mast or conduit at the side of the home.  Some homes have SE Cable and not a conduit.  “SE” stands for Service Entrance.  The cables (you will usually see 3 distinct wires) should have a loop in them very close to the side of the house.  This loop is called a drip loop and prevents water from running along the wire and into the conduit.  This loop also facilitates the splices between what is the utility’s wire (from the pole) and the start of the electrical system owned by and the responsibility of the home owner. 

In Photo 1 you can see the loop and while it’s hard to see, there are three cables.  The wider sections at the bottom of the loop are the splices.  In this photo, to the right of the photo is the utility’s cable (responsibility) and to the left (and in to the home) is the owner’s responsibility.  Where the loop goes into the SE cable (straight gray cable going down to the left) is a weather head or seal so water does not enter the cable.

 Typically, homes have three wires as this one does.  One is the neutral, one is 120V AC and the other is also 120V AC.  This home would therefore have electrical service referred to as “120/240”.

557 Penn St 020-400

Photo 2

In Photo 2, please notice that the weather head does not exist.  Water from rain can enter the conduit and once in the conduit the next stop is inside the electric meter panel.  Water and electricity are not a good combination when safety is the goal.  This is also 3 wires so it is 120/240 service.  As you probably know, the wires go through the electric meter.

 557 Penn St 156-400

Photo 3

The electric meter measures the amount of electricity you use.  The meter should be safe from damage and secure.  Please notice how the conduit for this electric meter (Photo 3) is not secure in the manner it should be.  A curious child might try to stick something in the gap because that’s what kids do.  Additionally this meter is ankle high at the top of the stoop by the front door.  The entire electric meter box is also loose.  From the weather head to the meter must be serviced by a licensed electrician!

DSCF0586

Photo 4

Coming out of the other side of the electric meter, the cables should quickly (in the shortest path possible) go into the house’s electrical Service Panel (aka Circuit Breaker Box or Panel) – Photo 4.  Circuit breaker panels are typically located in a garage or basement.  They may also be located in an interior wall in a hall for example.  But they should not be located in a closet or bathroom.   In most homes there is one Service Panel.  A Circuit Breaker is an “over current protector”.  Current in this situation means amperage, amperes or amps.   Amps refers to the amount of electrical energy and as little as a fraction of an amp can kill.  If your house has fuses and a fuse-panel, you should consult a licensed electrician and plan to have the fuse panel replaced with a modern circuit breaker panel.

Your main panel is rated for a particular amperage (amperage rating) and is usually 200 amps.  While the panel is “rated” for 200 amps your main disconnect at the top of your panel may be 100, 150 or 200 amps.  Below the main breaker are the individual circuit breakers.   This photo is of a modern panel with the door closed. 

This panel is clean and secure.  What are some of the issues with panels?  There are many issues that I have encountered.  They almost always are documented in the report as Safety issues and have the potential of causing problems at the time of closing.  Why is that the case?  The seller says the house is for sale, “As is”.  The inspector highlights the problem as Safety related or a Major Defect and the issue has the potential to spoil a deal.  Lesson: If you are planning to sell your house, spend a few hundred dollars and have it inspected.  Then fix the problems the inspector finds.

November 2, 2013 091-400

Photo 5

In Photo 5, notice that there isn’t a main disconnect.  For safety reasons, if more than Six (6) switches are needed to disconnect power in a home, a single, main disconnect is required.  Notice that this panel has 14 circuit breakers but does not have a single, main disconnect.  It was highlighted in the home inspection report as a Safety issue.

Other issues with panels include missing and/or incorrect screws that attach the panel cover to the panel base.  Why are these important?  If the cover is removed or can easily be dislodged because the appropriate screws aren’t used or are missing, the exposed metallic components (wires, bus bar and terminals) are dangerous.  As you will probably agree, most screws have a point at the end, right?  The screws used to attach the cover to the base DO NOT have points.  The points could pierce the insulation of the hot/live wires inside the box again creating a safety issue.  Only the screws provided by the panel’s manufacturer should be used.  DO NOT grab the handiest wood screw and use it to secure the cover.  You could electrocute yourself.  Call a licensed electrician!

Frequently seen (or not seen) in panels are missing bushings where the cable enters the metal box, knock outs that were never used for cable entrances as well as for circuit breakers.  Although this panel cover (Photo 6) was removed for inspection, please notice the bushings that secure the orange cables to the side of the box.  Then look a little lower to the white cable.  Notice that there isn’t a bushing.  The soft cable jacket and the wire’s insulation can be cut or nicked by the sharp edge where the cable enters the box.  That isn’t the only issue with this box.  Bushings are missing elsewhere, there weren’t four screws securing the cover and NONE of the screws used were correct.  If you look on the left side of the face, where the screw holes are, you’ll see a small brown dot.  That’s the hole where the screw goes. Now notice the cable right behind where the screw goes in.  This is a safety hazard. Because of this, and other wiring issues, analysis and correction by a licensed electrician was emphatically encouraged.

 557 Penn St 072

Photo 6

Among many other things that an inspector should look for includes “double taps”, bare wire ends inside the box, proper use of the correct wire gauge for the capacity of the circuit breaker and many other aspects that could compromise safety. 

In some homes there are also “Sub Panels”.   Sub panels concentrate some circuit breakers for a specific reason.  If you add a pool for example, a sub panel might be used.  If you have a panel that can house 24 (as an example) circuit breakers and you do an expansion and need 10 more, a sub panel may be added to increase circuit breaker capacity.  The inspection of a sub panel is similar to the inspection of the main panel.  There are differences however.

Your inspector should spend a good deal of time inspecting the service panel.  If you are planning to sell, hoping to buy or planning to stay in your home for a while, call Regal Home Inspections, LLC for an inspection of your electrical system in accordance with ASHI and NACHI Standards of Practice.

The next article in the electrical series will cover the Branch Circuit Wiring.  This includes the wiring FROM the circuit breaker box to your outlets and switches.  What is the inspector looking for?

I would appreciate your comments about this article.  Please email your comments to frank07722@gmail.com

Indoor Air Quality

Environmental and Occupational Health
Annemarie Delle Donne, RN, BSN
Indoor air pollution is a serious health threat.  The levels of many air pollutants can be two to five times higher in indoor air than outdoor air, and in some cases can be 100 times higher.  Indoor air pollution is a real concern because people spend so much time indoors (American Cancer Society, 2013).

Cigarette smoke is a combination of approximately 7,000 chemicals, and over 60 of these are known carcinogens, making it the most toxic indoor air pollutant (American Cancer Society, 2013).  Some chemicals in tobacco smoke include nicotine, cyanide, benzene, formaldehyde, ammonia, acetylene, and methanol, as well as carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide gases. Nationally, over 70% of people who smoke say they would like to quit, but only 34% try and only 10% succeed and remain tobacco-free for one year (Institute of Medicine, 2001). 

Second-hand smoke (SHS) is a mixture of the smoke given off by a burning cigarette, pipe, or cigar (side stream smoke) and the smoke exhaled by smokers (mainstream smoke) (American Cancer Society, 2013).  SHS can cause a wide range of adverse health effects such as heart disease (resulting in approximately 46,000 deaths per year), lung cancer (resulting in 3,400 deaths per year), and 7,500-15,000 hospitalizations per year.  The link between SHS and breast cancer is still being investigated.  Children who are exposed to SHS and have the flu are more likely to need hospitalization in intensive care units.  The costs of extra medical care, illness, and death caused by SHS are over $10 billion (American Cancer Society, 2013).  Second-hand smoke (SHS) is a major trigger of childhood asthma (Mannino, Homa, & Redd, 2002).  According to the 2006 Surgeon General’s report, there is no risk-free level of exposure to second-hand smoke.  Many parents of children with asthma underestimate the smoke exposure and subsequent harm to their child ((United States Department of Health and Human Services [USDHHS], 2006).  Children’s bodies are still developing and are significantly affected by SHS.  The poisons in SHS put them at greater risk for upper respiratory diseases, low birth-weight, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS),  asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia, middle ear infections, and cognitive and behavioral problems (USDHHS, 2006). SHS exposure is also associated with increased respiratory illness resulting in more missed days of school in children, especially in children with asthma (Gilliland, et. al., 2003).

References

Institute of Medicine (2001).  Clearing the smoke:  Assessing the science base for tobacco harm reduction.  National Academy of Sciences; Washington, DC.

Gilliland, F. D., Berhane, K., Islam, T., Wenten, M., Rappaport, E., Avol, E., Gauderman, W. J., McConnell, R., & Peters, J. M. (2003).  Environmental tobacco smoke and absenteeism related to respiratory illness in schoolchildren.  American Journal of Epidemiology, 157(1), 861-869.

Mannino, D. M., Homa, D. M., & Redd, S. C. (2002).  Involuntary smoking and asthma severity in children:  Data from the third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.  Chest, 122(2), 409-415.

United States Department of Health and Human Services (2006).  The health consequences of involuntary exposure to tobacco smoke:  A report of the Surgeon General. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Office of Smoking and Health; Atlanta, Georgia.

MOLD. Will I Know It If I See It?

MOLD.  Will I know it if I see it?

By Frank J. Delle Donne, Licensed Home Inspector

November 19, 2013

First Article in a Series on Indoor Air Quality (IAQ)

About the author.  Frank J. Delle Donne is a NJ Licensed Home Inspector.  He is the owner and Senior Inspector at Regal Home Inspections, LLC.  Frank has been a volunteer Emergency Medical Technician for over 20 years and is a past member of the Colts Neck, NJ Board of Health and was Chairman of that Board for 2008 and 2009.  During my studies to become a Home Inspector I learned a great deal about MOLD and felt compelled to share that information in a manner that is easy to understand and increases awareness.  If you are in doubt, TEST to be sure.

What is mold?  Mold is a fungus.  A mushroom is a fungi and is mold.  There are a number of important things to know and understand about mold.  I have emphasized understand because as much as you may not want to accept these facts they can’t be avoided.

Please commit to accepting these facts.

1) Mold is everywhere.

2) Mold is naturally occurring.

3) Mold has its purpose in the natural order of things and in the environment.

4) Mold’s basic form is in a spore.  A spore is a tiny, tiny particle.  A “Mold seed” so to speak.  When you see the dust particles in the sun beam (as we’ve all seen) some of what you may be seeing might be a mold spore.

5) Finally, no matter how insulated your house is you can’t prevent mold from coming from the outdoors to the indoors.  Imagine saying, “I am going to open the refrigerator and I will stop every bit of cold air from escaping the refrigerator while the door is open.”  Impossible, right?  Of course it’s impossible to stop the cold air from coming out of the refrigerator.   If you said or thought, “NO” you can stop reading now.

So Mold spores are everywhere.  If you live in Arizona you may have different types of mold than if you lived in a rain forest but you’ll have mold, period.  There are thousands and thousands of types of mold.  Some are bad and some are good.  Do you like Bleu Cheese dressing?  Well that’s made with mold.  A good mold of course.  And some molds are bad.  If someone has respiratory medial issues a high concentration of mold in the home may make their medical problems worse.

What does mold need?  Mold needs a few things to thrive.  Obviously it begins with the aforementioned mold spore.  If provided with enough moisture (water or very humid air) and a food source the mold will grow.  The example I use and many people understand is this.  Have you ever noticed that after a few days of rainy, damp and dreary weather mushrooms start to pop up in your yard?  Well those mushroom mold spores were there before it started raining but now that they have plenty of water, they grow.  Then notice that after a few days of sunshine the mushrooms disappear.  That’s because the water/moisture source literally, dried up.  Get rid of the water and we get rid of the mold.

So what happens inside the home?  Again, we have to accept that mold spores exist everywhere.  The types and quantities will vary but rest assured the spores are there.   When there is prolonged exposure to water those spores will start to grow and a new colony of mold will appear.   Why is there water in my home?  Here are some possibilities:

1) A new leak in the roof lets water in where it didn’t before.

2) A basement is constantly damp or water has accumulated after a heavy rain. If the water sits around too long it could foster mold growth.

3) Water is penetrating the outside exterior siding and leaking into the wall.  This can be particularly nasty because you may not be able to see it.  By the time the mold colony makes an appearance inside the home the interior of the wall is completely consumed by the colony.

4) Perhaps a leak developed in a pipe under a sink or inside the wall?

In these examples, all of the elements that encourage mold growth were there except for one, water.  When the last piece of the mold-puzzle is added, mold can grow.  Once you get rid of that moisture the mold will once again go dormant.

Mold may present in a manner that is easy to see.

Mold Outside A NJ Home | Regal Home Inspections
Photo 1
Mold Inside A NJ Home | Regal Home Inspections
Photo 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Photo 1, notice the gap where the outside trim meets the window sill.  In Photo 1 you are looking at the outside of the window.  Water can easily penetrate through those gaps.  And in Photo 2 you see the results of that leakage.  There are vertical water stains that initially caught my eye on this inspection and there is the obvious mold along the top of the trim and it has moved into the rug.  It’s a little more difficult to notice but you can see how the dry wall has been damaged by the water penetration.  A mold swab was taken and sent to the lab for mold species identification.   In this case, and in many cases, the paper (cellulose) of the dry wall is like a mold buffet.  The dry wall paper is the food source.

Testing for mold:

As mentioned above, a swab is one method of collecting a mold sample for lab analysis.  Another direct contact test is a tape lift.  As the same implies, a piece of adhesive back tape is placed against the suspect mold area and spores will attach to the tape.  The tape (like the swab) is market with date, time, location the sample was taken, etc. and sent to the lab.

If appropriate and possible, a bulk sample may be taken.  An example of a bulk sample may be a small piece of wall paper that appears to have mold on it.  A piece of the material can be cut and sealed in a plastic bag, marked, identified, etc. and sent to the lab.  These three methods, swab, tape lift and bulk are ways to collect samples from surfaces.

Air Sampling:

Often times families with members (adults or children) that have respiratory problems want to assure themselves that there aren’t active mold colonies releasing spores into the indoor air.  There may be a hint of mold odor in the air.  One, or more, family members may be having breathing problems that can’t be pinpointed to the cause.  They may come to a point where they would like to take air samples to either rule poor indoor air quality out or identify an indoor air quality problem so it can be corrected.

The process for testing indoor air for mold is an interesting process.  First, please remember that mold spores exist everywhere.  This can’t be denied and it can’t be corrected to 100% cleanliness in a home.  It just can’t.

The testing process uses small collection canisters attached to a vacuum pump.  The canisters are about the size of a golf ball and air is pulled into the canister and mold spores are trapped.  The canisters (note plural) are sent to a lab for analysis.

Now here’s the interesting part.  There will be 5 -10 air samples (canisters) taken in every home.  Some homes may necessitate more samples but there shouldn’t be any less.  The first sample is taken outdoors!  Why you may ask?  Well remember when I said that there are mold spores everywhere and that they occur naturally.  We need to take a BASELINE test so we know what types of mold exist in your area NATURALLY.  If mold X exists naturally where you live, don’t be shocked if mold X is inside your home!

After BASELINE #1 test we’ll take additional tests inside; basement air samples, bathrooms, kitchen, etc.  After we get all the inside samples we need we will take our last sample back outside for BASELINE #2.  The two BASELINE samples identify the types/species of molds that naturally occur and these two test will tell us approximately in what concentration these naturally occurring mold spores exist.

Indoor Results – If the indoor results consistently reflect the same types of mold as the baselines and indicate similar concentrations inside as exist outside, this is normal.   However, if the indoor tests indicate significantly HIGHER concentrations of some types of mold, this would indicate that there is something INSIDE the house fostering mold spore growth.  If the sources were not apparent, this would be a good time to consult with a mold remediation company.

Some mold types that are found naturally and may be present in your home include:

Aspergillus/Penicillium, Cladosporium, Ganoderma, Stachybotrys and Zygomycetes to name a few of the over 1 million mold types.

You can rely on Regal Home Inspections, LLC not to find mold where it doesn’t exist because we do not perform the remediation.   We take the samples and make the tests.  We work with the most reputable labs that perform the sampling analysis and Regal will help you understand the results.  If correction is needed, there are many mold remediation companies available and registered with New Jersey.  Mold sampling does not require certification or licensure but mitigation/remediation companies are registered with the state.

If you are concerned that you might have unwanted visitors in the form of mold, give us a call or email me at frank07722@gmail.com