There may not necessarily be may “maintenance” items when it comes to the electrical system of the home, but there are things homeowners can do to identify issues and items that were not installed correctly. Today I want to discuss some items that come up in inspection reports regularly. Many of these defects are simple fixes and can be repaired by homeowners that are “handy”. Disclaimer: Do not repair anything inside the electrical panel yourself, for the cost of an electricians service call, it simply isn’t worth the risk. That being said, lets move on.
One of the most common defects found in older homes is un-grounded 3-prong receptacles. Most older homes are wired with 2 wire conductors. 1 hot and 1 neutral. So many times homeowners will replace the old two prong receptacles with a three prong receptacle. This really is a fire hazard. If the appliance you are operating has a short or is losing current internally, the breaker may not trip, if there is any arcing within the unit a fire may result. There are also those “cheater” plugs that are sold as adapters to go from a 3 to a two. Don’t use those either.
So what do I do if I don’t want to rewire my whole house?? GFCI… The only acceptable fixes to this issue is to go back to a two prong receptacle, or install GFCI receptacles. If there is any loss in amperage the GFCI would trip instantly thus reducing or eliminating the fire hazard.
Required GFCI Locations
The next most common defect I find is missing GFCI protection in required locations. Current building standards call for GFCI protection in the following locations.
- Within 6 feet of each sink
- Unfinished spaces
- Laundry rooms
One caveat to this is in the kitchen all receptacles above the counter are currently required protected, and it is best practice to protect all receptacles in bathrooms.
There are exceptions to this rule for refrigerators and freezers, since it is not uncommon for their compressors to trip the receptacles upon startup. In these locations, GFCI protection is not required, but only if these units are on dedicated circuits, meaning it is the only outlet on the circuit.
Other miscellaneous items
Other miscellaneous items I run into all of the time while on inspections are the following:
- Missing Junction box covers or wiring splices that are not encased inside junction boxes.
- Inadequate support for conductors
- Missing knockouts or bushings at the electrical panelboard or receptacle boxes.
- Abandoned or unfinished circuitry
- Exposed, live conductors.
Common Electrical Panel Defects
Now, as stated earlier, please do not make repairs inside your electrical panel, leave this to professional electricians. But here are some common defects I find within the panelboard.
First, as the main service cable enters the panel I look to see if there is conduit, if there is a metal conduit this generally requires a ground at the bushing inside the panel. This is required in the event the mast gets energized by lightening or other means. A direct path to ground must be present to protect the structure.
The next item I am looking at is the neutral bars, All neutral conductors must be located
on their own lug. This is probably the most common defect when it comes to these panels. This was ignored for years by local building officials but is generally a simple fix. The neutrals must be located on their own, but the grounds can be combined up to 3 per lug provided they are all the same size.
On to the breakers, are there signs of arcing or scorching anywhere? How about melted insulation? And, how many wires are connected to each breaker? To my knowledge there is only one brand of breaker that is designed to accept two conductors and that is made by Square D. There may be another brand out there but they are not common to my area. Double-tapped breakers is also another very common defect. This can be an issue as the difference in the expansion and contraction rate of these conductors may loosen the screw and cause an issue. Also, it is difficult to get a good connection in this situation.
Lastly, are there any open areas on the panel when the dead front (front cover) is re-secured? Missing breaker locations, missing knockouts, and inadequate bushings are also a significant hazard. Open knockout locations are an electrocution hazard, especially if it is located at a breaker location. Missing knockouts at a wire penetration are less of an issue but are still considered a hazard, and are an area where a rodent may enter the panel and cause issues.
This list of items is by no means all-inclusive and it is best to leave electrical work to professionals, but there are signs that any homeowner can spot in order to determine if their electrical installation is safe and was done by a proper professional or a weekend warrior.
Aaron M. Zuehlke is the owner and inspector at Zuehlke Inspection Service, LLC, a full-service home inspection company serving Southern Wisconsin. Specializing in Home inspection, Radon Testing, Mold Testing/inspection and Residential Thermal Imaging. He can be reached by email at Aaron@Zuehlkeinspections.com or by calling the office at 608-931-7485.