There are lot of issues a potential buyer should consider when looking at a piece of real estate, but few are more important than the electrical system. What electrical system issues should cause a concern when buying a home? A good home inspector will be able to identify these items for you.
The first electrical issue a home-buyer should consider is what kind of electrical service does the house have?
- What amperage is it? 100 amp (absolute bare minimum), 200 amp (the modern day minimum), 400 amp (the new norm)
- Fuses or breakers? – Along with the size of the service is the issue of fuses or breakers. A fuse panel screams “OLD” panel and potentially old wiring. Breakers should be the current norm. Fuse panels should be replaced.
- Panel brand – Most electrical panels should bare the UL label and are safe for current installations, but a Federal Pacific panel is a major red flag. Federal Pacific was closed down in the mid-80s because their breakers would not trip under stress. The problem resulted in fires and the danger of panel arc flashes that could severely burn anyone nearby. The breakers can be recognized by their distinct orange trip handle. These boxes are dangerous and should be changed immediately.
- Is the service grounding attached to the exterior ground rod, or rods, and to an interior water pipe? The interior ground may be unnecessary if the water line entering the home is plastic. If it is not plastic, a # 4 bare copper wire should be attached to the cold water line within 5 feet of its entrance into the home. The current norm for exterior grounding is 2 – 8′ ground rods spaced 6′ apart and interconnected with a #6 bare copper conductor wire.
The second issue of concern is related to ground fault receptacles.
- Every receptacle above a kitchen counter needs to be covered
by a GFI receptacle or GFI breaker mounted in the panel box.
- Every bathroom receptacle needs to be GFI protected. Bathrooms can be interconnected, but under current code requirements bathroom receptacles cannot link to receptacles outside the bathroom. They also cannot be linked to switches inside or outside of the bathroom. Older homes may be grandfathered in these circumstances.
- All exterior receptacles need to be GFI protected.
- All garage receptacles need to be GFI protected. The only exception relates to dedicated receptacles for appliances, such as refrigerators, freezers or air compressors, etc. These items should be identified as single receptacles.
- Service receptacles for HVAC equipment in attics, crawl spaces or near heat pumps and exterior air conditioners need to be GFI protected.
- Any receptacles within 6′ of any sink. Washer receptacles are excluded, but for safety, they should be single dedicated receptacles.
A third issue, also related to receptacles concerns grounding and wiring techniques.
- Grounded receptacles should never replace un-grounded
receptacles if no grounding conductor is present. Just replacing the two pronged receptacles with three pronged receptacles does not protect devices plugged in the receptacle. The easy way to know if receptacles are truly grounded can be discovered with an inexpensive plug-in tester that can be purchased at any hardware store.
- If the receptacles are not grounded a GFI receptacle can be place at the beginning of a line of ungrounded receptacles to provide a level of protection for devices down the line.
- Backstabbing receptacles is a wiring technique that has been an approved wiring technique for decades, but it has in inherent danger. Backstabbing is the process of pushing bare wires into little holes on the back of the device. Over time, if a device is generating heat because of the product plugged into it (portable heater, window air conditioner) – it will start to arc and burn the insulation off the wires. Take a look at the examples on my Quality Electric Co., Facebook page. A home inspector can randomly pull a receptacle out of the wall to check to see how the device is wired. If your inspector does not do this in his typical inspection, please request it. The safest way for a receptacle or switch to be wired is to place the wires around the device screws and tighten.
There are additional issues that may have lesser concerns, but some of those mentioned above are worthy of a second look when considering a home purchase. Many homes built before 1985 may have one or more of these issues.
Always look for inspection stickers on the inside door of the electrical panel. If any new work has been done on the house, such as a finished basement, a closed-in porch, an addition, a pool, hot tub or interior remodel an electrical inspection would be required at the rough-in and completion of the work. The inspection stickers should be attached to the panel door. Look for final stickers.
The age of a home and the wiring system may be different from decade to decade. A 40 year old house will not have the same National Electrical Code requirements of a current home. Your home inspector will be able to give you a better idea of what the code standards were at the time of construction. Be a savvy shopper. Your safety may depend on it.
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