Electrical Issues – Findings of a Home Inspector

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

For most people, purchasing a house is the largest purchase they have thus far made. Help ensure that you, “Buy with confidence. Sell with pride” ® by using Regal Home Inspections, LLC.

Please leave a review of this article or of our services.   Click Here and then click on, “Write a Review”.

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 New Jersey Home Inspection laws and ASHI & NACHI Standards of Practice.

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.

DSCF1766
Missing Panel Cover

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.

DSCF8563
Panel in Closet.
DSCF0051
Panel in closet has access hampered by shelving.

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.

DSCF1769
Double Tap in Main Breaker. Very Bad!!!

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.

Conclusion

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.

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

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.

 

 

Maintaining Your Home – Part 2; Help The Sale Go Smoothly

Maintaining Your Home – Part 2

Help the Sale Go Smoothly

Findings of a Home Inspector

By Frank J. Delle Donne, Licensed Home Inspector

July 11, 2014

For most people, purchasing a house is the largest purchase they have thus far made. Help ensure that you, “Buy with confidence. Sell with pride” ® by using Regal Home Inspections, LLC.

Please leave a review of this article or of our services.   Click Here and then click on, “Write a Review”.

Reading this article will not guarantee that you will sell your home. It offers observations of issues found in homes both new and old. However, older homes usually contain more issues. 

If you are planning to sell your home and would like to have a Seller’s Inspection conducted please call Regal Home Inspections, LLC. We can perform a thorough inspection and make recommendations that should help any buyer feel more comfortable in making an offer.   We can perform a New Jersey Administrative Code (NJAC) compliant home inspection. We can conduct a radon test and have your house professionally inspected for termites and Wood Destroying Insects and Wood Destroying Organisms (WDI/WDO). We can also conduct pool inspections. If issues are found we can help facilitate additional levels of expertise. All in an attempt so that your home, a small cape cod or a country estate, will be better prepared for the eventual buyer’s inspection and closing.

Introduction

In the first part of this two part series I tried to introduce the reader to some not-so-obvious maintenance issues that I have found during my home inspections. The reason they are important is because they are safety related and some are objectively deemed to be Material (aka Major) Defects. This article looks at a few others. The goal here is that possibly sellers will read this, consider their home and either perform a more thorough inspection on their own or, better yet, hire Regal Home Inspections, LLC to perform a Seller’s Inspection so that when it comes time for the buyer’s inspector to come through, many of the issues may have been addressed already. There are two ways that a seller can benefit from a Seller’s Inspection performed by Regal Home Inspections, LLC. First, the seller can use the findings to make corrections and/or repairs. Second, the seller can always include those items found in the Seller’s Inspection in the Seller’s Disclosure. I find that home sales hit snags when things are found by the buyer’s inspector that weren’t previously known by the seller or the seller knew but was hoping the inspector wouldn’t find. Quite the roll of the dice for all parties.

Brief Review (This section is repeated from the initial article)

The NJAC has many requirements of an inspector. However, when it comes to the actual inspection and the reporting there are a few key points. The NJAC follows the Standards of Practice of the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI). When it comes to the inspection, the inspector is required by law to DESCRIBE specific systems and components of the house; Plumbing, electrical, exterior, etc. The inspector is required to IDENTIFY any Material (aka Major) Defects; Findings that effect the habitability, safety or value of the home (in very simplified terms here). And the inspector is required to PREPARE a written report memorializing the previously mentioned elements.

What the inspector is not doing is determining if the curtains match the rug. If the choice of siding materials matches or clashes with the general theme of the other houses. We are looking for very specific things that are not otherwise apparent to the buyer or the seller and for this reason, it’s a very good idea for the seller to be as prepared as best as possible. You painted the walls so they look fresh, right? You had the grass fertilized and the bushes trimmed so the yard has curb appeal, right? Maybe you’ve even put some chocolate chip cookies in the oven to make the house smell good for that open house?

Preparing Your House

Does anybody decide on a Monday, out of the clear blue, that they are going to list and try to sell their home that day? Isn’t it more reasonable that people know in advance that they will be selling their home? It may not be known years in advance but a month, maybe two at least. “Honey, maybe we should plan on selling our home when we retire next year?” Or perhaps, “I just got offered a new job at work but it requires a relocation. The company wants me to move to California in 2 months.” My wife and I have been in our current home for almost 22 years with no plans to leave…yet. However, when we moved into our previous home in April, 1987, we knew that in the summer of 1991 (over 4 years later) we would be moving again. We used the summer when our oldest child would be between kindergarten and 1st grade as the target. I am not kidding when I say that we knew at the house closing in 1987 that between the end of June and early September, 1991, we’d be making another move.

Literally, the day before my son started 1st grade on September 5, 1991, we moved into our current home. That 1st grader is now 29 years old!

Sure there are exceptions. Parents pass away suddenly and the home has to be sold as part of an estate is one example and there are others. The point is that in the majority of situations planning can occur and fixing inspection related issues should be high on the priority list. Especially for estate sales!

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, Ground Fault Circuit Interrupt (GFCI) outlets are currently required in any outdoor outlet, kitchens, bathrooms, laundry rooms, garages, unfinished basements and elsewhere. A home inspector must look for and test GFCI outlets. GFCI outlets (and GFCI protected circuits) protect people from stray electrical current that they may inadvertently come in contact with. Electricity wants to follow the path of least resistance to ground. When people are struck by lightning, they accidentally become the path of least resistance to ground for that lightning bolt. If there is a damaged electrical circuit in the kitchen, bath or elsewhere, a person may accidentally become the path of least resistance to ground. A GFCI outlet or circuit can detect that unintentional path and in a tiny fraction of a second, the GFCI shuts the electricity off.

When I am inspecting a house I provide the client with information that shows, for example, that GFCI outlets haven’t been required in kitchens since 1987.   I inspected a house last week that was built in 1977. Before I went inside the house I provided information to the client and stated, we may not find GFCI in the kitchen…and we didn’t. It’s a Safety item on the report.   This sale may not go through because the GFCI are one item on a not too long list of things that need to be fixed. It’s an estate sale with, “who gives a damn” sellers that just want their money.

Does your house have a door between the attached garage and the living area? If it does, is the garage door solid core or metal? Is it fire-rated? Does the garage door have a mechanism (spring loaded hinges or other device) that AUTOMATICALLY closes and latches the door between the garage and living area? Spring loaded hinges cost about $10 each at Home Depot or Lowes. Don’t have a fire rated door or it doesn’t automatically close and latch? It’s a Material Defect related to SAFETY.

How close does the soil get to your siding? In a wood framed house you have the foundation wall and then the wood frame sits on top of that. The siding, let’s assume vinyl, covers the wood framing and exterior wood sheathing. It’s not a Material Defect or a Safety item but the inspector will recommend that there is at least 6 inches of space between the top of the soil and the bottom of the siding and wood framing. Does a buyer want to close on a new house and then spend the next couple of weekends digging and raking the dirt away from the house? I’d bet the answer is a resounding, “NO”. If you’re planning to sell, hire a landscaper and pay them some money to re-grade your yard so that you can see 6 inches of concrete foundation between the top of the soil and the siding. Do you know why it’s important? Let me put it to you this way. If the soil comes to the siding and framing, the inspector will tell the buyer that the condition makes it easy (conducive) for termites to go from the soil to the wood. Do you know what the buyer thinks? They think, “if I buy this house I’ll have termites!” All they will remember is, TERMITES! An associated aspect to this is if you are planning to sell, get a termite inspection and treatment. Have the pesticide company give you a certificate and share that with the buyers. Turn a potential negative into a positive.

Conclusion

I have just shared three inspection issues that are A) Relatively easy to fix and B) Can scare the heck out of a buyer and chase them away. Regardless if you are buying or selling a home, it is a significant transaction either way. Buy with confidence and sell with pride by having Regal Home Inspections, LLC conduct your inspection. We look for things that you probably never considered. That’s why we can help you avoid issues and delays in closing when the buyer and seller are of different minds on whom should address inspection item A, B or C. We can help get some of them out of the way for the seller or help the buyer identify issues that may not be obvious.

Regal Home Inspections, LLC starts every inspection with the presentation of a folio of information for the client. That folio includes general information but also includes a written introduction to the inspection. I present an initial overview of the main elements detailed in this article; Laws that govern the inspection process, areas that will be inspected and more. I believe this is unique to the service that Regal Home Inspections, LLC provides.

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

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.

Electrical Issues – Part 3

Electrical Issues – Part 3

Observations of a Home Inspector

By Frank J. Delle Donne, Licensed Home Inspector

May 15, 2014

For most people, purchasing a house is the largest purchase they have thus far made. Help ensure that you, “Buy with confidence. Sell with pride” ® by using Regal Home Inspections, LLC.

Please leave a review of this article or of our services.   Click Here and then click on, “Write a Review”.

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 New Jersey Home Inspection laws and ASHI & NACHI Standards of Practice. This is not a “to code” inspection. Our inspection DOES NOT guarantee conformance to local electrical codes.

Introduction

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). Being classified as a Major Defect in a home inspection report usually means that some corrective action will 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 piece looks at three situations that have recently been found (in the last 2 months prior to the date of this article) that have been highlighted as SAFETY issues and require immediate attention by a licensed electrician.

Double Taps

When working with electricity it is very important to have and maintain a secure, tight connection whenever two pieces of the electrical system are connected together. This applies to situations when two wires are spliced (twisted) together or when one wire is connected to a mechanical connection. The mechanical connection may be a screw on the back side of a light switch or outlet or it may be a screw lug on a circuit breaker in the Main Panel or Sub Panel. Why is a good, tight and secure connection necessary? Without getting too far down into the detail, if there is a loose connection and electricity is flowing there is a high potential for a small gap to occur and sparks (or arcing) to occur. If there’s a less-than-ideal gap then the connection between these two metal components may be a high resistance connection. This could lead to the buildup of heat. Both of these two potential situations can lead to fire.

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.

From a circuit breaker function point of view, the breaker should still trip (shut off) if the total current draw reaches the breaker’s trip rating (15amp, 20amp, etc.) due to the total load from the double tap wires.

The photo(s) below show what a double tap looks like.

DSCF6011
The 2, lower left circuit breaker lugs each have 2 wires into them.

Bad Electrical Panels

Electrical panels should protect people and property from high voltage energy as found inside an electrical panel. Make no mistake, the energy entering and inside the electrical panel is more than enough to kill someone or start a fire. The panel is designed to isolate the energy fields so the hot or ungrounded wires are not energizing metallic components that should not be energized. When energy is present where it shouldn’t be it is sometimes called, “stray” energy.

Of course, all hot electrical components should be insulated as not to be a possible source of electrocution and the Electrical (or Service) Panel is no different.

They should be clean and free of contaminants or damage. The cover should be properly secured using the correct types of screws. Screws used to connect a panel cover are special in that they do not have sharp points like most screws. The screws for electrical panels have flat tipped screws reducing the possibility that the screw will poke a hole in a wire’s insulation and allow electricity to stray to the panel box.

The panel box should be completely sealed. No holes or gaps where someone can poke something in and accidentally get electrocuted. They should be clear of dirt and debris and garbage.

These photos are indicative of a very bad panel. Can you tell why?

DSCF5560
Obvious Rust
DSCF5561
Rusted screws on breaker and Double Taps

Knob and Tube Wiring (State of the Art in electrical wiring Circa 1900)

It is not too uncommon to find working (energized) K&T wiring in a very old house today. When electricity was first deployed residentially the technology was Knob and Tube. They did not have cable like we have today. Today, a cable is a tube or jacket of metal or plastic or rubber like material and inside there are multiple wires and each wire is insulated with its own plastic jacket. Sometimes the, Ground wire isn’t insulated but the Hot and the Neutral wires that make up the circuit are.

Well in the ”olde tyme” days wiring was different and as mentioned earlier, it’s still here in some old houses. Way back when, the electrician installed individual wires and used ceramic knobs and ceramic tubes to attach and route the wires up the walls and through the floor joists for example. You can see this in the photos below.

In fact way, way back when, they used one wire and looped one big circuit. This is like the old Christmas tree light problem. One bulb goes out and the circuit is broken therefore all the lights go out. This too can be seen in the photo below. Note the one wire going into the lit bulb and one wire out. Remove the bulb, or if the bulb pops, and all the lights on that circuit go out!

So what’s the home inspection philosophy about K&T wiring? Well, ideally, if you have K&T wiring that is energized you should remove it. It’s like still having gas lamps in the house to provide light. You wouldn’t, right? But technically, the mere presence of K&T wiring is not a Material (aka Major) Defect if (and it’s a HUGE if) the K&T wiring was never modified or touched electrically. Heck, it has lasted this long. It can last longer. However, if it was touched, modified, tapped into, etc. it must be removed. It’s good advice and good, prudent practice.

In the photos below look for the white, ceramic knobs and the white ceramic tubes and the wires associated with them.

DSCF5125
Notice the one wire in and out of the light as well as the ceramic knobs holding the wires off the wood framework.
DSCF5130
Can you pick out the two wires and the white, ceramic tubes in the wood joist?

Conclusion

There are way too many electrical issues to mention in one article that I have seen in my inspection career. More articles will come but for now, here are a few of the problems that I have seen and thought you might be interested in learning about.

Regal Home Inspections, LLC starts every inspection with the presentation of a folio of information for the client. That folio includes general information but also includes a written introduction to the inspection. I present an initial overview of the main elements detailed in this article; Laws that govern the inspection process, areas that will be inspected and more.

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

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.

 

 

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