Electrical Issues – Part 4
Findings of a Home Inspector – Electrical (aka Circuit Breaker) Panels
By Frank J. Delle Donne, Licensed Home Inspector
August 1, 2014
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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.
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This is not a “to code” inspection. Our inspection DOES NOT guarantee conformance to local electrical codes.
Introduction & Disclaimer
I would predict that 90% or more of the homes that I have inspected have had some sort of electrical system issue. Because of the fact that electricity is very dangerous if not handled by professionals most of the time an electrical issue is determined to be a Material Defect (aka Major Defect) because it is a SAFETY issue. Being classified as a Major Defect in a home inspection report usually means that some corrective action should be taken by the seller prior to closing or that monies have been set aside (escrow) so that the buyer can address the problem after closing occurs. It is very important that if the later of these two situations exist that the buyer use the money for the intended electrical repairs. As defined by NJ State Law, a Material Defect is a condition of the structure or of a System or Component that substantially affects the habitability, value or safety. Since electricity can kill, and often does, electrical issues almost always rise to the level of a major SAFETY issue.
This article looks at some all-too-common issues with circuit breaker panels. While some panel issues may have been mentioned in Parts 1, 2 or 3, these examples were from inspections that were done in June and July 2014. The areas that I’ll cover today include the circuit breaker panel location and the issue of double taps. I will also point out an example of a bad situation in which there wasn’t any panel cover at all.
General Panel Observations
Circuit breaker panels (referred to as, “panel”) should be accessible from the front. Technically, if there isn’t 3 feet of clearance in front of a panel, by rights, a licensed home inspector may not even try to inspect it. If you are buying a home, it’s worth a call and ask the seller to ensure that the panel is accessible. Below is an example of a panel that was tucked behind a refrigerator/freezer in a utility room. Luckily I was also performing a radon test which required that I return in a couple of days. The buyer was able to ask the seller to move the refrigerator so I could get access to it when I returned for the radon. It was a slight delay in completing the report but it had to be done.
Some panels are too readily available. This panel’s cover was no where to be found. I cannot emphasize enough the potential of death (that’s not too extreme of a scenario) when the panel cover is not there. Would you ever climb a ladder and grab the electrical wires from the pole to your home? Of course not. But when the panel cover is missing it is practically the same shock/electrocution/death potential inside your home. Imagine you trip and reach out to stop your fall and your hand goes into the panel? Imagine you are sweeping or mopping the floor and you are using a metal pole mop or broom and you accidentally turn and the handle of the mop touches the inside of the panel box. It can be a death causing event. That’s why panel covers are REQUIRED!!!
Also, under the heading of general panel observations, if you are selling a home, make sure the legend in the panel box is complete and accurate. Don’t sell a house that doesn’t have the proper “operator instructions”. An incomplete or non existent legend should be pointed out in a home inspection report. Some may think it’s minor (and it’s not necessarily a Material/Major Defect) but it should be complete and accurate.
Location, Location, Location
As mentioned earlier, a panel should have adequate space in front of it for access. Ideally 3 feet to allow an inspector to open the door, remove the screws, lift off the panel cover and inspect the internal wiring and condition. Additionally, the top of the panel should not be too high. Ideally the main disconnect should not be higher than 6 feet. This will ensure the probability that even someone that is not too tall can reach up and turn off the main-breaker in the event of an emergency.
Panels should also not be located in closets. Below are 2 examples of panels situated in clothes closets. There have been others. One is of particular concern. The shelf in the closet prevents the panel door from opening completely not to mention the fact that the panel shelf is right up against the panel cover. I was able to remove it but I think most inspectors would record the condition as a “Limitation” to the inspection process and not inspect further. This is perfectly appropriate if invoked but I wouldn’t let that stop me from doing the best job for the client.
A Particularly Hazardous Condition
In a previous article I wrote about “Double Taps”. As stated then, a double tap is when someone incorrectly tries to connect two wires to the circuit breaker lug and is of concern because most circuit breakers are designed to hold only 1 wire. When 2 wires are installed into a single lug there is a potential that the wires are of differing gauges (sizes and therefore wire diameters). The larger one may be tight but the smaller will have a poor, possibly high resistance connection and that, as we know, can generate heat or arcing and be a fire hazard.
This, however is a particularly hazardous situation (photo above). Someone double-tapped into the main feed and the main circuit breaker. The other end of the wire is connected to a breaker below, back-feeding power to the panel with no main breaker protection.
With this condition, it is impossible to actually disconnect power from one half of the panel. In the series of photos that follows, notice that there are two wires into the main breaker. One comes from the electric meter and is the live feed. There is a double tap into the same main breaker lug and as a result, the second line is ALWAYS energized. It then goes to another breaker in the panel. To tell you the truth, I cannot figure out what the purpose of this is but this is exactly how I found the panel when it was inspected.
I continue to share some of the more dangerous and interesting findings that I come across as a home inspector. I invite you to use this and the other posts as learning aids and that they help you learn mre about the home’s systems. Remember, electricity can kill. Do not attempt to fix any electrical problems you may notice. Call a licensed electrician.
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About the author. I am a NJ Licensed Home Inspector. I am the owner and Inspector at Regal Home Inspections, LLC. In addition to being a New Jersey Licensed Home Inspector I am also a NJ-DEP certified Radon Measurement Technician and Regal Home Inspections, LLC has also collected samples for lead paint, allergens and mold. We are affiliated with the state’s best labs that perform the sample evaluation and testing. We can also help facilitate the testing of septic system and numerous aspects of oil tank evaluations. This includes oil tank integrity testing, tank locate services and soil samples. We work to ensure that the house you’re buying is sound or that you know of any issues.