An inherent characteristic of a thorough home inspection is that some parts of the inspection are much more technical than others. The inspection of the electrical, plumbing and HVAC components fall into this category. If there is a defect or deficiency in any of these categories, it is almost always based in the codes that were adopted for these trades. It is important to note that this does not mean that the inspector is doing a code compliance inspection but the deficiency he or she is pointing out has been defined in the particular code for that category. For example, if the inspector notes that there is a cover missing from a junction box in the attic, this has been identified as a problem because it is considered a potential safety or fire issue by the National Electrical Code. Junction boxes must have covers. The electrical part of the inspection can also pose serious electric shock hazards for the inspector. Missed or improperly identified items can also expose the property’s occupants to shock or fire hazards. It is clear to see that only qualified inspectors should be used.
Some of the electrical inspection is done on the outside of the house. If the service entrance cable is coming in overhead from the street the cable has to be identified, clearances checked and splices and supports inspected. Overhead service cables must be a certain minimum height over lawns and walkways. If an exterior ground rod has been used, its condition must be accessed. Many homes have the main electrical disconnect on the exterior of the house. The disconnect must be accessible to the property’s occupants and its ampere rating or size noted.
The inspection of the electrical panel involves more single observations than any other component of the house. Every wire and connection must be examined and any problems noted. It is also one of the more dangerous parts of the inspection because the panel contains exposed wires carrying 240 volts. The panel is first inspected with the cover on. This is the easy part. Panel openings, labeling, current and voltage ratings and the general condition of the panel are noted.
When teaching home inspection classes, there is usually one question that is always asked. The answer is, “yes, you have to take the cover off the electrical panel.” The inside of the panel is the most revealing because all the wires and over current protection is exposed. Every wire and connection must be inspected; wire sizes and over current devices, (fusses or circuit breakers) must match. Workmanship and general panel condition can be viewed. There are over 20 separate things to look for on the inside of the panel. Improperly wired receptacles and the interior of the electrical panel are the key locations to tell if electrical work was done by someone other than a licensed electrician. Remember, the standards for proper electrical work are based on safety and fire prevention. If the workmanship is not up to standard it can be a fire or safety issue. This is why home inspectors always point out the dangers of poor electrical work and recommend that problems be corrected by a licensed electrician. If the home owner did the lousy work initially, we do not want him to come back and try to fix it.
Some homes have electrical panels that have been added to expand the panel’s capabilities or are used to feed a basement or detached garage. These sub panels are inspected with the same detail as the main panel. During the interior part of the inspection the inspectors is also checking receptacles, switches and electrical fixtures. There are over 16 different observations made when checking these devices.
The one area of the electrical inspection that causes the most problems and confusion is the reporting on GFCIs, Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters. As the electrical codes evolved from the 1980s the location and use of the GFCI devices were updated and changed. There is no requirement that the home owner must update his/her home whenever there is a change in the building codes. As concerns GFCIs, their location and operation must be identified. If a GFCI is missing or does not function properly, it should be noted. The inspector is in error when he/she uses current codes to call out GFCI issues on receptacles that were installed when a different code edition was in effect.
Less confusing because they are new are Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters, AFCI. These devices are currently in circuit breaker form and therefore located in the electrical panel. When first introduce the AFCI breakers only covered bed room circuits. They are now used for branch circuits throughout the home.
One of the least understood but very important parts of the inspection is verifying the house electrical ground. Proper grounding is essential to the safety of the people in the house. Receptacles, fixtures and electrical panels are supposed to be grounded and tied to a common point. This common point may be a ground rod, a water pipe or part of the building ground. Time and effort sometimes are required to find the ground and assure it is properly connected but the inspector must be diligent in its verification.
Many home inspection reporting formats include the smoke detectors in the electrical section of the report. The location, type and operation of all smoke detectors must be noted. Missing damaged and nonfunctioning units must be identified. If carbon dioxide detectors have been installed, there location also has to be included. Whenever possible all detectors should be tested with the test button.
Over the age of a home it is very likely that the home owners, handymen or some other unqualified person has attempted electrical work on the house. Amateurish and generally poor electrical workmanship is one of the more common areas of problems found during inspections. Because of the safety and fire issues correction of these deficiencies by a qualified electrician should be a high priority.
The next article will be an exciting trip through the attic. Hope for a cool day and bring your dust mask.
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