Everybody’s an Electrician (Evidently)

By Tim Shuford, NPI Franchise Owner, Jamestown, North Carolina

Fire HazzardMaybe it’s because so many of us were encouraged to learn about electricity by experimenting with batteries, wire, light bulbs, small motors, etc. during our youth.  (And I certainly don’t discourage this experimentation, since that provides critical learning opportunities.)  But it sure does seem that a lot of folks missed the lesson that some additional precautions and rules apply to the electrical system in a home.

A couple of the most common electrical findings (especially in attics and crawl spaces) during home inspections are splices not enclosed in electrical boxes and electrical boxes without proper covers installed.  The National Electric Code requires splices to be made inside enclosed electrical boxes and that electrical boxes have covers installed.  The drivers behind these requirements are fire safety and shock hazard prevention.  Since we see this so often, one might wonder how important this really is, since the houses obviously haven’t burned down and we typically don’t observe any electrocuted bodies near these installations.  (In case you didn’t know, the NEC is published by the National Fire Protection Association.  This fact should allow some of the old brain cells to conclude that not following the NEC rules just might result in a fire.)

Of course, there are many other electrical deficiencies that are discovered by home inspectors.  A significant percentage of these deficiencies were obviously created by a well-meaning DIY-er or handyman with an ultimate goal in mind.  Unfortunately, the “how to do it correctly” knowledge seems to be based largely on the discoveries made by playing with batteries and wires many years prior.  The scary part is how much stuff may be hidden in walls and other areas inaccessible for observation during an inspection.

Although preferred, I’m not necessarily a stickler that all electrical work in a home must be performed by a licensed electrician, but it would seem to be reasonable that such work be done in a manner that provides a safe result for the occupants of the home.  If folks are not going to hire a professional to make modifications to an electrical system, then they should put forth some effort to gain an understanding of how to do it correctly.

Now, how many other areas in the home and in life could we say this about?

 

Shuford PhotoTim Shuford is a professional National Property Inspections home inspector in Jamestown, North Carolina. If you live in the area, call 336.823.6605 to schedule your home inspection with Tim.


NPI and GPI home inspectors have the tools and knowledge to assess your home. Consult with your local NPI or GPI inspector for an assessment of your home.

Tagged: , , , , , ,

Bringing Electricity Home

Electricity_shutterstock_103755371Do you know where your home’s electricity comes from? The electrical connections powering today’s homes start at a transformer on a pole or somewhere on the ground near the house. Transformers on the ground signify buried electrical lines. Transformers on a utility pole mean the electrical lines come into the house via overhead wires.

If your electrical lines are buried, they won’t be visible outside your home. However, if you have overhead electrical wires, you should regularly take a look at them for safety reasons. Damage to the wire or insulation around the wire can cause electrocution, so look for those things. You can likely check the overhead wires from the ground, and you should never touch the electrical lines.

Height regulations for electrical lines vary from one city to another. For general purposes, all electrical lines should be out of reach of people, vehicles, ladders and other equipment. This includes areas above pools, decks, porches and balconies. Electrical wires also should be clear of trees or other obstructions, including the corner of the house or the edge of a gutter, which could cause abrasion and expose bare wires. Finally, electrical lines should not touch other utility lines entering the home, such as the telephone or cable line.

NPI and GPI home inspectors have the tools and knowledge to assess your home from roof to foundation. Consult with your local NPI or GPI inspector for your next home inspection. To find your local inspector, visit one of the links below.

Tagged: , , , ,

AFCI and GFCI Outlets Improve Electrical Safety in Your Home

Electrical OutletAdvancements in electrical protection devices help keep homes and businesses safe. These devices include ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) and arc fault circuit interrupters (AFCIs). Both help prevent electrical shock and fires caused by erratic surges in electrical current.

GFCI outlets are designed to trip when they sense even a minor imbalance in current between the hot (black) and neutral (white) legs of an electrical circuit. They cut off power to the receptacle in a fraction of a second — fast enough to avoid a potentially fatal shock. Although requirements vary by location, GFCIs are generally found in kitchens, bathrooms, basements, garages and other areas where water may be present, such as a workshop. GFCI outlets have test and reset buttons, and it’s a good idea to test them monthly to make sure they are operating properly.

AFCI outlets are designed to help prevent fires caused by arcing faults — erratic current flows that get hot enough fast enough to start a fire without ever tripping the breakers. In many areas, AFCIs are required on branch circuits that serve residential bedrooms in newly constructed homes. Existing structures are not required to have AFCIs, but it may be a good idea to look into having them installed in your home. A home inspector can help pinpoint areas where added safety measures such as AFCI or GFCI outlets could help protect your family.

NPI and GPI home inspectors have the tools and knowledge to assess your home. Consult with your local NPI or GPI inspector for an assessment of your home and its electrical system.

Tagged: , , , , , , ,

Your Appliances May Be Trying to Tell You Something

Appliance PlugDoes the circuit breaker trip every time you start your microwave? Did your toaster give you an unexpected shock this morning? When an appliance repeatedly trips a circuit breaker, blows a fuse or gives you a shock, it’s not just a fluke — something is wrong with the appliance.

Prevent further and possibly more dangerous malfunctions by immediately unplugging the appliance. Don’t use it until you have it checked out and repaired by a professional electrician or repairman — although in some cases, it may be less expensive just to replace the appliance.

NPI and GPI home inspectors have the tools and knowledge to assess your home. Consult with your local NPI or GPI inspector for an assessment of your home.

Tagged: , , , , ,

Did You Know: Common Causes of House Fires

burn-baby-burn-1229975-1600x1200Believe it or not, house fires frequently share common causes. Knowing the common causes of house fires should help prevent such potential fires through education. Reader’s Digest recently posted a slideshow of the top 11 causes of house fires and how to avoid them:

  • Cooking: Grease fires can start in just two to three seconds. Never leave the kitchen while cooking.
  • Heating equipment: Too often fires start when people are just trying to stay warm. To avoid a hazard, have furnaces and fireplaces inspected annually. Keep portable heaters away from other flammable items, such as clothing.
  • Smoking: If you’re a smoker, don’t smoke in bed or in any position that you could fall asleep. Smoking outdoors is a safer, keeps your home smoke-free and reduces the risk of falling asleep.
  • Electrical equipment: Don’t overload electrical outlets or extension cords. Check regularly for frayed or worn wires, and don’t run cords under rugs or heavy furniture.
  • Candles: Don’t leave burning candles unattended around pets or children. Burn candles in fire-safe holders and place them on level surfaces. Extinguish all candles when you leave the room.
  • Children: Prevent children from accessing lighters or matches in the home.
  • Inadequate wiring: Warning signs that your electrical wiring may be insufficient and/or unsafe are dimming lights, frequently tripping breakers or blowing fuses, and having to unplug an appliance to use another.
  • Flammable liquids: Don’t store flammable liquids near an open heat source or hot temperatures. Store them outside in a cool environment, in proper containers.
  • Live Christmas trees: Keep live trees watered and away from heat sources and televisions. Check light strands for frayed wires.
  • Barbecues: Clean your grill with soapy water and always use it outdoors. Make sure to place the grill so that flames are away from decks, trees, flammables, etc.
Tagged: , , , , , , ,

Reverse Polarity: What it Is and Why You Should Be Concerned

By Jon McCreath, NPI Franchise Owner, Emerson, Georgia

Outlet_shutterstock_67938619Quite simply, reverse polarity means that the wires in an electrical receptacle were installed incorrectly. A receptacle with reverse polarity will have the white (neutral) wire screwed to the hot side (copper screw) and the black (hot) wire screwed to the neutral side (silver screw). The bare or green wire should be connected to the green ground screw on the receptacle.

A home inspector will flag any outlets that are reversed polarity. Why should you be concerned about reversed polarity? Most electrical appliances and devices are designed so that the on/off switch interrupts electrical power at the point of entry into the appliance, device circuitry or components. If the hot and neutral wires are reversed, then it is possible that the device could be energized even if the switch is turned off. Reversed polarity on an electrical outlet should be considered an unsafe condition, as the risks include damage to the appliance, short circuit, shock or fire.

How Can I Tell if My Receptacles Have Reverse Polarity?
You can purchase a plug-in type voltage tester at your local hardware store. These are generally inexpensive. The tester will include a chart that will tell you which lights should illuminate when you plug it in to a properly wired outlet. The chart will also indicate what the other lighting combinations mean, such as an open ground condition.

How Do I Fix Reverse Polarity?
Once you find a receptacle with reversed polarity, leave the plug-in tester plugged into the receptacle and find the circuit breaker that is delivering the voltage to that line. Turn the breaker OFF. When you return to the receptacle there should be no lights lit up on the tester. If there are, then you turned off the wrong breaker. Try again.

With the power to that circuit OFF, remove the cover plate and the two screws holding the receptacle to the wall box. Gently pull the receptacle out of the box. If there are any other wires inside the box, use a touch-style voltage tester to ensure that they are also OFF. If they are hot, find the circuit breaker feeding them and turn it OFF as well.

Inspect your receptacle. A receptacle with reversed polarity will have the white (neutral) wire screwed to the hot side (copper screw) and the black (hot) wire screwed to the neutral side (silver screw). The bare or green wire should be connected to the green ground screw on the receptacle. Simply remove the white and black wires and connect them to their properly intended sides of the receptacle. To wire it properly, the black gets connected to the dark or copper-colored screw and the white wire gets connected to the silver screw. If the wire looks brittle or damaged, use wire strippers to cut the old wire away and strip off a 3/4-inch fresh section of insulation. Wrap a strip of electrical tape around the screw terminals for added safety, resecure the receptacle to the wall box and attach the cover plate.

Finally, plug the voltage tester in to the receptacle and then turn the circuit breakers back on. When you get back to the receptacle, the tester should indicate proper wiring. If, for whatever reason it still reads reverse polarity, then the problem may be in another receptacle or in a junction box somewhere. In that case, your best bet would then be to call a licensed electrician.

Tagged: , , , , , ,

Historical Houses Often Reveal Hidden Treasures

By Kenn Garder, National Accounts Manager and Technical Support, NPI/GPI Corporate

Photo A

Photo A – Click to enlarge

Home inspectors come across unique items in the course of a home inspection. Photo A is of a main service panel found in use in a house built in the early 1900s. Keep in mind that at the time it was built, very few houses had an electrical system, and if they did it was small — typically two circuits. So, while this panel was certainly state-of-the-art, it could also be considered a piece of art in its design and functionality. Nevertheless, it does not meet today’s safety standards, and the home inspector recommended upgrading the panel.

Below is some information from the manufacturer’s specification document for a similar product, from the “Descriptive Catalog and Price List” of the Bossert Electric Construction Company, published in 1896:

DISTRIBUTING

Box is intended to be used for “concealed” work, and arranged for 12 branch circuits. It is entirely made of iron, and contains main and branch circuit terminals, also binding posts for main and branch wires, all conveniently arranged.

All fuse terminals are calculated to receive standard fuse links. The box is also provided with a specially designed 100-amp double-pole knife switch; the operation of same does not interfere with closing and locking of door, whether circuit is thrown “on” or “off.” As will be seen from cut, the box is provided with ornamental iron door and lock. Box can be furnished from 6 to 12 circuits, with or without main switch, for either brass or iron armored conduit work.

IMG_9509

Photo B – Click to enlarge

PRICE

12-circuit Box, without switch, plain slate, metal work dipped, $15.00

12-circuit Box, without switch, enameled slate, metal work dipped, 16.50

12-circuit Box, without switch, enameled slate, metal work polished, 20.00

12-circuit Box, with 100-amp double-pole knife switch, enameled slate, metal work polished and lacquered 25.00

I guess the moral of the story is to be on the lookout for treasures in historical houses!

Tagged: , , , , ,

Home Inspection 101: Electrical Panel Inspection

By Randy Yates, Technical Supervisor and Technical Training Administrator, NPI/GPI Corporate

Wire BoxWhen you’re buying a house, you want to know it’s safe. One of the main safety concerns is a home’s electrical system. Old wiring, improper outlets and an outdated service panel are problems often found in houses. Although older houses are at more risk for these issues, even newer houses can have electrical problems. This is just one more reason a home inspection is a good idea before you buy your dream home. Your home inspector will check all visible aspects of a home’s electrical system.

Inspection of the electrical panel should be performed only by either a licensed electrician or a trained property inspector — don’t try to inspect the panel yourself. Removal of the outer panel cover, and even removal of the panel-cover screws, poses a potential risk for electrocution. Your home inspector will approach the panel and first use either the back of their hand or a static electrical tester to check whether the service panel is energized — meaning there’s potential risk of electrocution from improperly installed interior panel wiring or the wrong type of screws to hold the panel cover in place.

(Flat-tipped screws should be used to hold the panel cover in place, not pointed-tip screws. The reason for flat-tip screws is that they reduce the risk of potential penetration into the insulation or sheathing that protects the wires inside the panel, which may not have been appropriately placed or safely tucked into the panel.)

Once the inspector removes the panel cover, he or she begins a visual inspection of the interior of the panel box. The inspector checks for and determines the size of the service coming into the house — how much power is coming in from the utility. The following are some other items an inspector checks for:

  • Whether the panel has fuses or circuit breakers
  • Properly sized wires coordinate to appropriately sized breakers
  • Presence of double-taps — when more than one wire is connected to a breaker (unless the equipment is rated for such use)
  • Dark, rusty or smoky residue on the panel
  • Age and wear of the panel
  • Improperly wired subpanels
  • Wires run in a neat and orderly manner
  • Presence of open splices or nicks in wires
  • All connections are tight

A common finding is open knock-outs — holes or knock-outs that wires may have been passed through at one time but which are no longer in use. These holes should be closed or plugged so that in the event of an arc or spark in the panel, the occurrence can be contained within the panel.

If your home inspector finds problems with the electrical panel, he or she will recommend that the panel be evaluated and repaired by a professional electrician. Don’t skip this important step before you purchase a house; your safety depends on it.

Tagged: , , , , , ,

What’s Wrong With This Photo?

WWWTPA. This light fixture cannot be used in this shower stall application as it is not designed for wet locations.
B. This is an improper shower head for this shower
C. The corner shelves of the shower are improperly installed.
D. You can install any type of light fixture in a shower as long as it’s installed high.

 

Correct Answer: A. This light fixture cannot be used in this shower stall application unless it is a water-tight-rated or wet-use-location light fixture.

Tagged: , , , ,

Two-prong Outlets Vs. Three-prong Outlets: Does It Matter?

Submitted by Ken Roleke, NPI Franchise Owner, Tucson, Arizona

Outlet_shutterstock_116694235Ever wonder why the older electrical receptacles have only two slots, and don’t have the hole below the slots to allow three prongs? Think they can just be switched out? Sometimes they can, but other times that would be a potentially dangerous mistake.

Understanding the implications of two prongs or three can be one of the more bewildering situations a home buyer has to deal with.

Let’s review a little of the history of residential wiring to see how this came about. Knob-and-tube (KNT) wiring was phased out in the 1930s, as both nonmetallic sheathed cable (NM for short, commonly referred to as Romex) and armored cable (AC, commonly referred to as BX) became prevalent. Until the early 1960s, most NM and AC cable for residential use did not have a grounding conductor. The two-prong receptacles normally used until this time have only a “neutral” slot, and a smaller “hot” slot, without the additional hole below for the ground. As houses were wired with the grounding conductor starting in the early 1960s, three-prong receptacles were generally installed.

Why should an electrical receptacle be grounded? The lack of a ground path could lead to getting an electrical shock. If there were a short circuit, then an ungrounded metal object could become energized, and the circuit breaker would not trip. The ground protects you from getting a shock, as it directs a large amount of current back to the circuit breaker, causing the breaker to trip.

A properly wired three-prong receptacle is both more convenient and safer than an ungrounded two-prong, so how and when can they be switched? If a house is wired with BX without the ground wire but metal boxes, then the metal armor and box will still generally be grounded. A three-prong receptacle can be grounded to the box with a grounding wire.

It is more complicated, and normally not worth the trouble to install a three prong receptacle when the wiring is Romex cable without the ground wire. That would require running a separate ground wire or a completely new cable with ground wire.

Often the solution is to install GFCI circuit breakers and three-prong receptacles, or, what is more commonly done, to replace the two prong receptacles with GFCI receptacles. The receptacles should be labeled “No Equipment Ground”. These labels come in the box when purchasing GFCI.

The GFCI function is not the same as grounding, but in most cases, it is even safer. GFCI outlets and breakers trip, disconnecting the circuit when it detects leakage current that the electric current is not balanced between the energized conductor and the return neutral conductor. And it trips quicker than a regular circuit breaker.

Unfortunately, too many homeowners and contractors, either through ignorance or to save money, have taken the easy solution, by simply replacing the two-prong receptacle with the three-prong. And some have even gone a step further: They create a “bootleg” or false ground by making a connection between the ground and neutral on a receptacle. This is not detectable with a simple receptacle tester used by most inspectors. If it is suspected, then there is more sophisticated equipment, although the simple solution is to remove the electric plate and check whether the wire was added between the neutral and ground screws on the receptacle.

Tagged: , , , , , , , ,