Home inspection Vancouver WA: Electrical system inspection

When you’re buying a home in the Vancouver WA or Portland OR area, it’s essential to have a competent electrical inspection of the home’s electrical system. Homes of different eras have varying electrical systems installed from obsolete knob and tube to dangerous electrical panels to modern safety features like arc-fault circuit interrupters.

Your home inspection and electrical inspection should include review of the service entrance conductors (where power enters), the electrical panel and any subpanels, circuits, wiring type, lighting fixtures, switches, and receptacles, and ensuring GFCIs and AFCIs are present and functioning.

Here are five common electrical problems found during an electrical inspection:

1. Federal Pacific Electric and Zinsco electrical panels: FPE Panel Vancouver WABuilders in the 1970s installed these like they were going out of style in this era. And, in a sense, they were. These panels both have dangerous design flaws that ended up starting house fires. This eventually led to class-action lawsuits against the panel manufacturers (you can read more about those here). If your home inspector finds one of these panels during your home inspection, know that they will need to be replaced. It is well-known within the real-estate community that these panels are problematic. Often times, when Federal Pacific or Zinsco panels are called out in a home inspection, the sellers are motivated to make concessions to account for this because the issue is likely to be a sticking point for any negotiations.

2. Knob and Tube wiring: If you’ve ever watched any of the popular HGTV shows where they remodel older homes, you’ve likely heard of this type of wiring. It’s an outdated type of wiring that, due to modern building practices, is dangerous. Knob and Tube was installed at a time when insulation was not really a consideration. Homes have since become heavily insulated, which makes installing insulation over essentially exposed, hot wiring, extremely dangerous. And while knob and tube wiring itself is not necessarily dangerous – typically, it took more skill to install, which made it more likely that it was installed by a professional. The problem is that over time, people want to add new electrical features to their house and often times end up performing unsafe electrical work to connect the knob and tube wiring to modern electrical wires and systems. This can lead to house fires. If your home inspector finds knob and tube wiring during the electrical inspection, hire an electrician to evaluate the electrical system and make safe improvements.

3. Double-tapped, multi-tapped circuits: Double-tapped or multi-tapped circuits are generally the result of homeowner repairs or repairs done by someone who is not a qualified electrical contractor. Double, or multi-tapped circuits are just as they sound – two or more wires are clamped in a terminal designed for only one wire. This is a safety hazard because the bolt or screw may tighten securely against one wire, but leave others loose. Additionally, this can overload the circuit and cause overheating. Arcing, sparks, and fires may result.

4. Incompatible or unlisted breakers: This is one of the most common issues I find during an electrical inspection. Usually, the electrical panel is older and its circuits have been “updated” by someone unfamiliar with electrical systems. Circuit breakers eventually age out and need to be replaced. Often times when someone replaces the breaker, they buy whatever brand is cheapest or most convenient. Unsurprisingly, that does not equate to compatibility. In general, circuit breaker brands should match the brand of the electrical panel. For example, an Eaton panel should have Eaton breakers. While some breakers that don’t match the brand of electrical panel may be “compatible” and function without issue, panel manufacturers may not recommend or “list” their installation. And qualified electrical contractors usually will not install them. Incompatible breakers can potentially cause the panel to operate improperly and become a safety hazard.

5. GFCIs/AFCIs: You’ve probably heard these acronyms tossed around and know GFCI receptacles are the ones with “test” and “reset” buttons. But, AFCI (or CAFCI)? Here’s the acronyms spelled out: Ground-Fault Circuit Interrupter and (Combination) Arc-Fault Circuit Interrupter. These are semi-modern electrical system safety features – GFCI requirements began in the early 1970s; AFCI in 1999. GFCIs are designed to prevent the unintentional flow of electricity from an energized source to a grounded surface. Practically, this means that if you didn’t have GFCIs installed in a situation where, for example, you were holding a hair straightener with a damaged cord and grabbed a grounded source, such as a plumbing fixture, you’d get a painful jolt, or worse, electrocuted. GFCIs prevent that by detecting a fault and disconnecting power or “tripping”. This is why GFCIs today are required in all wet locations – bathrooms, kitchens, garages, exteriors. A common misconception is that all receptacles need to have the “test” and “reset” buttons. In fact, using one GFCI receptacle, you can connect multiple receptacles “downstream” and provide the same protection, if installed properly. AFCIs, you might imagine by the name, detect arcing (among other issues). These cause the circuit to trip when it is overloaded with too much current or when there’s a short circuit. AFCIs can prevent house fires and are an important safety feature that have been required in new construction since 1999. CAFCIs are an update to the original AFCI that detects “series arcing,” which could be arcing between frayed wiring or a cord with a loose connection to a receptacle or splice. No matter how old your home is, GFCIs and AFCIs are important safety features that can help prevent injury and house fires. Make sure your home inspector test these systems during your home inspection or standalone electrical inspection and lets you know if they’re not functioning properly or missing.

Please feel free to contact Northbank Home Inspection with any of your electrical inspection or home inspection questions.

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