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The Critical Eye!

Michael Leavitt’s professional inspection related blog.

Electrical Panels - Why Are Home Inspectors So Picky!

Electrical Panels - Why Are Home Inspectors So Picky!

Orem, Utah Home Inspector Michael LeavittFellow Home Inspector Scott Neimann from Bay City, Oregon shared a great photo and asked, “Is this an acceptable method of installing the service conductors? IF not... what are the potential issues?”

As Home Inspectors, the issues found behind the electrical panel covers are usually some of the most important finds during our inspections. Many of the agents and sellers complain about the findings, but we all have to understand that electrical issues cause fires and electrocutions; neither of which is desirable for new home buyers and their loved ones.

CASTING JUDGEMENT - There is no way to avoid seeing the craftsmanship, or lack thereof, of the installer once we remove the cover of the main panel and subpanels. Electrical panel workmanship is something that few ever get to see, yet it speaks volumes to the level of professionalism of the electrician doing the work. The question we routinely ask ourselves is whether or not the work was performed by a licensed residential electrician. If not, then what level of wannabe sparky did the work.

NORTHERN UTAH BASEMENTS - Unlike some other parts of the country, the majority of Northern Utah homes are built with basements, most of which are unfinished. This means that one electrician does the wiring during the initial construction with the building permit oversight. Then comes along the homeowner who prides themselves as knowledgeable and they finish off the basement rooms without the benefit of a licensed electrician or building permit. The differences between the two wiring jobs is like night and day. If you don’t believe me, then take a look at this recent Tooele, Utah subpanel...

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Looking at the panel you immediately see some very neat work in about 80% of the panel. Click on the image and open it up to the larger view and you immediately start to cringe.

Now take a closer look at the upper portion of the panel...

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How many different things do you notice? Let me take a moment and diagram the photo and then comment specifically on the most pressing issues...

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RED - These two areas show dangling exposed wire ends inside the panel. This was probably an added and then aborted circuit. Loose exposed ends are not allowed and they should be capped off for safety.

GREEN - When the added wires were brought into the panel they failed to install wire securing clamps. These secure the wires and protect them from being cut into by the sharp metal edges of the panel holes.

YELLOW - The plastic Romex casing should be trimmed to within about an inch of the entry into the panel. This electrician brands his sub par workmanship and it very easily allows you the ability to see what was added.

PURPLE - Instead of running the bare copper ground and securing it with a set screw at the terminal strip, they decided to just loosely wrap it around another secured bare copper wire.

COPPER WIRES - Look how neat the original electrician was with straight bare copper wires and 90 degree bends at the turns. Now look at the spaghetti style wiring of the added circuits.

JUDGEMENT - How comfortable do you feel with the added wiring in this panel? How do you feel about the skill set of the second electrician? And even though the home inspector is not supposed to indict the worker and just comment on the workmanship, can you see how it is completely justifiable to state something like, “The workmanship of the added wiring is unsafe and amateur. I recommend that you get a licensed master electrician to evaluate all of the added circuits and make the needed repairs to restore the safeness to the electrical system to help prevent shocks, electrocutions, and fires.” After 18 years I still get some who complain when I make a statement like that, but the complainer is NEVER my client. Why? Because they know I am looking to protect their life and the lives of their loved ones. The complainers are the ones who either own the property or have a commission at stake. I understand their positions, but I did not create this mess.

DON’T SHOOT THE MESSAGE BEARER - I often have to remind the sellers and the agents that I did not create the issues reported. The person they should be mad at is the wannabe electrician. I then explain that if the permit process had been followed, then this would have been resolved long before my arrival. It is not my fault that the owner decided to economize and avoid the expense of a licensed electrician during the basement completion. It would have been much better if they had paid the money during completion and were able to enjoy the safeness of the electrical system since the completion, instead of living with unsafe conditions and having to invest the money now to get it right. Don’t shoot the message bearer. I did not create these issues. Instead, I document the evidences left behind by those who did the work... Hold them responsible to raise the installation to a modern level of safeness. As long as these conditions remain, then there will continue to be a greater risk for shocks, electrocutions, and fires.

SCOTT NEIMANN’S PHOTO - So let’s return to the main blog entry photo shared by Scott Neimann. Scott runs 4 Corners Home Inspection LLC in Bay City, Oregon and he can be found online at www.tillamookhomeinspection.com. I diagrammed the photo to highlight the major questions. Click on the image and look at the markings and see if you can figure out

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Did you figure out the issues? Click on it and open the larger view. Remember, you are taking this at face value. The only clues are that this is a main panel and not a subpanel. Since neither you nor I were at the home, we don’t know the rest of the details. Here are the descriptions...

ORANGE - Three wire splices look to be made with electrical tape instead of wire nuts. Splicing inside a panel is allowed as long as the appropriate wire nuts are used.

YELLOW - There is rust on the bottom of the panel box. Where did the water come from that caused the rust? Notice that it sits right below the main conduit that brings in the feeders from the meter base that is probably located on the outside of the home. The good news is that there is no current water and it looks like the dripping water did not run down the breakers themselves. Should it be fixed to prevent further water entry? Absolutely!!!

GREEN - Did you catch that the white wire is wrapped with black tape, while the white wire just below it is not. The double throw breaker clip is installed so both the black and the white wires are carrying live power. Look at the difference in the neatness of the two white wires. This would indicate that the circuits were probably installed at two different times. NOTE: The white wire without the black tape should have black tape to indicate that it is a hot conductor. My guess is that both of these are for electric baseboard heaters.

PURPLE - Saving the best for last, the 90 amp breaker is being back fed to supply power to the panel. This is allowed with most panels IF the breaker is secured (screwed) to the panel so that it does not become dislodged when the panel cover is removed. This breaker is NOT secured and this raises a bunch of questions...

  • 1) Was this panel installed by a licensed electrician?
  • 2) Is this a retrofit panel or an original install?
  • 3) Was a permit pulled for this panel’s installation?
  • 4) Why isn’t the main breaker on the home’s exterior at the meter?
  • 5) If this was a retrofit, was it new when installed in this home?
  • 6) Why didn’t they just use the 200 amp main disconnect breaker at the top of the panel? My guess is that this was a retrofit and the leads from the main meter were too short to feed the top 200 amp breaker, so they went with the 90 amp breaker alternative.
  • 7) Would anybody fault Scott for deferring this panel to a licensed electrician? I think not!

It is also interesting to understand that electrical main panels and subpanels with miswiring issues always manifest themselves with electrical issues somewhere throughout the house. The types of issues may be miswired or dead outlets, light switches that don’t work correctly, and remodeled rooms with inadequate outlet placements. As for the repairs, sometimes major requiring is needed, but usually the same wiring is used, but the end connections are sorted out and the proper connections made. So the bill for the electrician is usually much more for labor rather than parts.

Scott followed up with a couple photos after I did this write-up.

Why is there moisture in the panel? The panel clearly shows the exterior issues.

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Was the panel labeled? Take a look at the next photo. At least part of them were identified. It is also interesting to note that the city permit was placed on the inside of the cover door. Was this for all the breakers in the panel? Or was it just for the breakers that were labeled? We’ll never know.

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Scott also shared this was a 1962 home with electric heat and the panel was most definitely a retrofit model. It is obvious that circuits were added after this panel was signed off. How it was signed off with this main breaker installation is beyond me. But we do know that repairs can be employed to increase the safeness inside the main panel. Thanks again for sharing the photos and information Scott.

IN SUMMARY - Home owners that think they are saving the expense of using a licensed electrician will eventually have to open up their checkbook and pony up for the master electrician’s endorsement. It is better to do it right the first time and enjoy the peace of mind that a safe electrical system provides. Remember, few things make a new home buyer more nervous than electrical issues.

Make it a great day!!!

Michael Leavitt - Orem, Utah - www.TheHomeInspector.com

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