Troubled Houses - The Home Owner's Resourcesm - Electrical
We see many interesting adverse conditions during our inspections, partly because of the unlimited number of ways people can mess up a house, but also because we do a thorough inspection to reveal these adverse conditions. We hope these stories and illustrations help home owners avoid these costly conditions by learning about causes, preventions, and remedies. A home purchase can create opportunities for the new owner to improve the home, possibly increasing its value, durability, and usefulness.
NOTICE TO BUYERS & SELLERS: This site does NOT encourage or discourage the purchase of any individual house, or style, age, location, or condition of house. Conditions shown and/or described in the following articles may have been remedied at the house where these conditions were found. These conditions typically can be remedied by qualified contractors. The presence of these conditions in any house is comparable to any other real estate consideration such as price, size, or location. Consult a qualified home inspector before purchasing any house, and consult a qualified real estate agent for more information on how to handle a real estate transaction where adverse conditions are reported in a home inspection. This site does not describe any house by address or knowingly show a readily identifiable exterior image. Further, no home actively listed for sale will be described on these pages at the time the article is posted.
Copyright HankeyandBrown.com. All rights reserved. "Troubled Houses - The Home Owner's Resource" is a SERVICE MARK of Hankey & Brown Inspection Service Inc. List of topics and all articles in this resource. (Also includes Photos of the Month.)
Find the Breaker Panel More wires ≠ More power
Attic inspection (squirrel damage) Uncovering the unexpected (over heating)
False 100 amp service Overlamping can create fire hazards
Why we open the electric service panel. (Condensation)
Switch wired wrong in 71 in use in 2007 (AL wire)
Little Creatures = Big Mess (mouse infestation)
A common oversight on a common DIY project
Power Drinker (addition to this house)
Replace unsafe Federal Pacific Electric panels
We uncover the service panel, even if it has an inspection approval sticker.
Overlamping creates the potential for fire hazards
Light fixtures, particularly those with enclosed incandescent bulbs, are typically marked with a label indicating the maximum wattage bulb permitted to be installed in the fixture. Unfortunately, most residential light fixtures use standard "Edison" base bulbs which have the same socket and bulb thread pattern for a variety of wattage bulbs. Therefore it is very easy to install a bulb with a higher wattage rating than intended by the fixture manufacturer. Use of a higher wattage bulb than the fixture rating is known as over lamping. Prior to the middle 1980's many light fixtures did not have thermal insulation between the bulb and the fixture wiring. These un-insulated fixtures are particularly vulnerable to over heating from over lamping. Enclosed fixtures such as the one shown below left may not show signs of over lamping unless carefully examined when changing the bulb. The socket of this fixture is shown below at right.
Experts recommend replacing Federal Pacific Electric panels & Stab-Lok breakers.
Homes equipped with Federal Pacific Electric (FPE) circuit breaker panels and/or the FPE "Stab-Lok" circuit breakers have a substantially greater potential for fire and electric shock due to failures of these circuit breakers. The panels and breakers are labeled FPE or Stab-Lok, or Federal Pacific Electric, Newark, NJ. Thousands of homes, particularly townhouses built in the 70's and 80's in the Twin Cities have FPE panels since they were a lower cost product than other panels and breakers. Every year we inspect homes that still have these panels and breakers in use. Experts consider this equipment a latent hazard.
The panel above has an Underwriters Laboratory (UL) listing label (black sticker at upper right corner on the cover door but this does not make the panel safe. A New Jersey court ruled that FPE violated consumer fraud laws when they obtained the UL listing with fraudulent testing. The presence of a State Board of Electricity inspection approval sticker (yellow and red at top of panel cover door) does not make the panel safe. The state electrical inspector has no authority to reject a UL listed product installed in a proper manner. The panel cover also has uncapped openings which exposed live components.
The breakers are also labeled and can be readily identified by their red handle markings and their non-standard ON position pointing to the outside edges of the panel.
Field research on FPE panels and breakers is extensive and many experts have detailed the history of the failures of FPE panels and breakers. We agree with the concensus recommendation that FPE panels and breakers should be REPLACED.
More information is available by clicking the following links:
Sources of Moisture in Electrical Panels
ABSTRACT: The intrusion of moisture at electric service panels has the potential to cause corrosion and water damage to electrical equipment. While the design and installation of most systems keeps them dry, roughly 10% of residential systems suffer from moisture intrusion and corrosion.[i]
Home inspectors are tasked with examining electric service panels, typically in existing homes, for potential home buyers. This article discusses moisture movement methods, provisions of the National Electric Code intended to reduce the potential for intrusion, and three home inspections of wet electric service panels, each with a different method of water entry: 1. flow along an overhead service drop, 2. flow through an underground conduit, and 3. condensation induced by humid air entering a panel in an air conditioned basement.
Photographs are included to illustrate the causes and paths for the moisture intrusion. References to other cases are included, along with references to further information on the movement of moisture in buildings and corrosion in electrical panels.
[i] Rust & Corrosion in Electrical Panels, D. Friedman, IEEE-Holm Conf. on Electric Contacts, Oct. 1991. See article at www.inspectapedia.com/electric/Electrical_Panel_Moisture.htm
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Uncovering the unexpected
In 2010 we inspected a large suburban home with both a main electrical panel and an additional panel located in the laundry for several branch circuits including some large electrical loads such as water well pump, clothes dryer, and oven. The seller's disclosure document indicated that the main panel had been repaired after a lightening strike, and the seller had a letter from an electrician describing a repair to the panel in the laundry. The seller stated that this repair was done after a prior inspection found some damage in the laundry panel. The electrician's letter indicated that the main feeder conductors in the laundry panel had been repaired by placing insulating sleeves on the conductors.
The electrician's repair letter was less than one year old, so one might assume that there was no reason to open the laundry panel to inspect the wiring.
Our inspection practice is however, to examine all readily accessible electrical panels, even if they have State of Minnesota Electrical Inspection approval labels. In this case, close examination of the panel in the laundry revealed that overheating damage had occurred AFTER the repair mentioned in the electrician's letter.
The feeder conductors labeled A & B are the wires that the electrician repaired by adding insulation sleeves. The recent overheating has melted the insulation sleeve and portions of the aluminum wire at B1. Our report recommended ADDITIONAL corrections to this panel by a qualified electrician. The key point here is that while repair documents are useful maintenance records, qualified home inspectors take the time to determine and report CURRENT conditions. Repair records are not a substitute for ASHI® Standard inspections.
The Electric Shower
While this 20+ year old photo may seem preposterous to some, it illustrates an unfortunately frequent installation of a basement bathroom without consideration of the surroundings. In this case, the white box on the rear wall next to the electric meter is the main fuse panel. As you can see from the soap holder, the shower was used occasionally. While the electric service, including the fuse box, is old it was not improperly installed. The shower, however, should NEVER have been installed so as to place the electrical components in a wet location. The lesson here is to obtain the services of a qualified plumber whenever a new fixture or bathroom is to be installed. Return to topic list
This beautiful fireplace surround was built as part of finishing a previously unfinished basement. The cabinet maker did not understand that the electric service panel (in the left cabinet) needs to be always accessible, not hidden behind a television and bookcase shelves. We advised our customer to have a finish carpenter modify the cabinets to make the electric panel readily accessible. Click here to learn more about our services.
The contractor that renovated this condominium kitchen failed to realize that the refrigerator would block access to the circuit breaker panel (on the refrigerator side of the orange wall). Our inspector couldn't find it until he went to the condo one floor below and asked them where the breaker panel was in their unit. Theirs was on the same wall, but not blocked by a refrigerator. We have not heard what remedy was applied to the situation.
More wires ≠ More power
The electric service shown above has been modified with several sub-panels. All the additional boxes were fed from the main terminals at the top of the main breaker panel. (above the white breaker handles.) The main terminals are not intended for multiple wires, and one or more of the five wires jammed into these terminals (detail shown below) are likely to have a poor electrical connection. We recommended that a qualified electrician replace all the boxes with one larger service panel to reduce the potential for overheating or loss of power to one or more circuits. Click here for information about our services.
Our typical inspection of the electric service panel revealed this 1971 house had aluminum wiring in the branch circuits. On a hunch, we removed the cover plate from this switch. The face of the metal mounting strap was marked, "Back wire CU only, Side wire CU or AL." No wires were visible at the side terminals, so we pulled the switch out and found it was back wired with aluminum wiring, in violation of its marking. Aluminum wiring, improperly installed, presents an increased risk of fire. Given this case of improper wiring we recommended that every electrical connection in the house be examined and/or rewired.
It is critical that the attic be carefully examined. In this case we found multiple cases of wiring damage due to squirrels in the attic. Cost to repair wiring and compressed attic insulation was about $5,000. Return to topic list
Why we open the electric service panel. (One of several reasons)
This electric service was found in a 1987 built house, with a partly finished basement. The inspection was done on a very hot humid summer day while the central air conditioner was in use. The basement was very cool, due in part to unsealed return air ducts, which created a negative air pressure zone in the basement. The interior of the panel cover door is covered with condensation. When it came time to examine the inside of the panel, the consequences of the condensation were revealed.
Notice the water dripping off the red wire at the top, and off the bottom of the connections for the white and bare copper wires at the left side of the main breaker. Also the bottom of the panel is rusty, which is consistent with repeated exposure to water.
Our inspection of this electric service revealed that the conduit entering this panel lacked sealant around the main conductors. This allowed warm humid air to be drawn through the conduit from the meter box on the exterior wall. Whenever the outdoor air has a dew point higher than the air temperature of the basement, the first cool surface this air meets is the electric service panel, which becomes a condenser with water draining across the breakers and collecting into the bottom of the box. Our recommendation was to have the conduit properly sealed and drained by a qualified electrician and to have the electrician examine all components in the service for water damage.
Our customer had the repair done and allowed us to take photos of the completed work.
Little Creatures = Big Mess (mouse infestation)
This case is an underground service feeding twin 200 amp panels on the rear wall of an attached garage at a 1994 built residence inspected in December 2010. The service entrance conduit for this panel had pulled out of the elbow leaving a gap of about an inch. The movement of this conduit is consistent with soil compaction and probably occurred within three years of construction.
The interior wall of the garage had large junction box which contained the “Y” connections that fed power to two 200 amp distribution panels and the current transformers that drove the solid state electric meter. The bottom of the junction box had rusty corners. There were stains on the wall between the right panel and the junction box, and corrosion on the panel cover at the main breaker of the right panel.
The gap in the service conduit was large enough to permit mice to enter the elbow and pass into the junction box. Nesting material was found in the bottom of the junction box and the right distribution panel.
The mouse urine had corroded the threads completely off the cover screws in the bottom of the right panel.
The bare copper grounding conductor in the lower right of the right panel had turned green where it was in contact with the nesting material.
Two dead mice were found, one on the left side of the right distribution panel and one in the junction box.
The recommended action was to have a qualified electrician clean out the box and panel as soon as possible, examine all components for damage, and make any needed repairs, including connecting the separated conduit on the exterior to prevent future mouse or insect infestation.
A common oversight on a common DIY project
The installation or replacement of a garbage disposer is a common Do It Yourself task. Both electrical and plumbing knowledge and skills are involved in the task and the typical homeowner often lacks skills and knowledge in one or both of these fields. The disposer shown below has a common oversight: the power cord enters the bottom of the disposer without benefit of a clamp. This clamp is needed to reduce the potential for damage to the cord. Without the clamp, when the disposer vibrates, or the cord is bumped, the cord can rub against the edges of the opening in the disposer.
This disposer also presented a challenge for the installer since it is on a single basin sink. The DIY plumber only had materials for a two basin sink and used a trap connector with an unnecessary opening which we found to be covered with clear plastic wrap (under the white ring) instead of a proper fitting.
Our recommendation was for the disposer to be correctly installed by a plumber and electrician.
When the electrical circuit breaker panel shown here was installed, it was on an exterior wall and was not hidden by the kitchen cabinets. Two additions have been made to the house including a room behind the circuit breaker panel, as well as a new main electric panel which feeds the original panel. The remodeler's electrician was apparently not informed that the old panel would be covered by cabinetry.
Electrical panels need to be accessible, so one remedy for this condition is to have a qualified electrician disconnect the wiring, rotate the panel to face into the room behind the kitchen and reconnect the circuits.
False 100 amp electric service
Occasionally we encounter an electric service on an older house that seems at first glance to have been modernized, but on closer examination has only had a larger panel installed.
There are many clues that a trained inspector uses to identify the service size. The first clue that something is not correct at this electric service is that access to the panel is obstructed even though an old postcard sized note at the left of the panel warns that other items should not be installed in front of the panel.
Determining the service size usually starts with an observation of the service entrance, and meter box.
See photo below.
In this case, the service was a 3 wire 120v-240v overhead service drop which connects to anchors on the eave and descends in a conduit to a small shallow round meter socket. The service entrance conduit is a 1 inch diameter pipe.
All these exterior characteristics are typical for this 1950’s era house, which would have been built with a 60 amp fuse panel, usually with only four 120 volt circuits plus a 240 volt range circuit.
A 60 amp 120-240volt panel typically can only supply one 240 volt load such as an electric range. A 60 amp service could not for example, power both the 240 volt range AND a central air conditioner without risk of overloading the main fuses. (60 amps X 240 volts = 14,400 volt-amps or 14,400 watts which is typically not enough to power both devices and have any power left for other devices.)
The shallow round meter socket is consistent with the relatively small wire size found in these old services. The interior conditions found in this installation were further clues that the service has been altered WITHOUT changing its capacity.
First, the service panel was a modern circuit breaker panel, NOT a fuse box, and had uncapped openings in the side of the box, a sign of non-professional workmanship
The main conductors (wires to the main breaker) were marked #8 gauge TW indicating they were the original service wires sized for a 60 amp panel. A 100 amp breaker requires #4 gauge copper wires or #2 gauge aluminum main wires.
Another clue consistent with non-professional installation is the presence of left over breakers atop the electric panel. See top photo.
The inspection revealed that even though the main breaker was 100 amp and the panel was rated at 100 amps, the electric service is a 60 amp service, overloaded due to the presence of more than one 240 volt load (range and central AC.) Our recommendation was to have the service corrected by a qualified electrician. The electrician may be able to use the existing panel box and breakers, but will need to upgrade the service entrance, meter box, etc. Also, the service will have to have a new mast such that the conductors are either buried, or run at least 10 feet above ground (above the roof eave).
We uncover the service panel, even if it has an inspection sticker.
The panel shown below had a Minnesota State Board of Electrician yellow inspection approval sticker on the cover, and even uncovered, looked fairly normal from about 5 ft away.
A closer view revealed significant adverse conditions and led to a recommendation for immediate attention by a qualified electrician.
The aluminum main conductors have overheated, melted insulation and they are corroded at the main breaker. The breaker has overheated and has melted material which has flowed out of the hole below the 910 number. This condition is consistent with a lack of anti-oxidizer paste on the connections at the main breaker, however, notice that the large black insulated neutral wire left of the main breaker has some paste in its connector.