Be honest: What is the part of your home that scares you the most? The part that you understand the least? There are a few possible answers, depending on your life experience, but I think most people would say, “Electricity”. That’s why we shove those plastic covers into every outlet the moment our children are conceived. It’s why we buy surge protectors for our valuable electronic “babies” like our computers and our gigantic televisions. It’s the system that we use the most and understand the least.
In my experience, I would estimate that, overall, electrical issues rank #2 in home buyers top concerns when buying a house. First would be structural issues. No one wants a house that might fall down around their ears. But frankly, people find electrical issues to be, well… scary. And with good reason. Between fires and shock hazards there’s a lot of potential for problems. But not every electrical issue should be a panic inducing deal breaker.
Following are the five most common electrical items we find during the home inspection process and what to do about them.
Outlets with Reversed Polarity (or “Hot and Neutral Wires Reversed”)
This is an extremely common issue to find in a home inspection report, particularly when a non-professional has been installing outlets. What does this mean? An outlet is meant to be wired in a very specific way. The hot wire is attached to the outlet in one place and the neutral wire is attached in another place. Reversed polarity occurs when these two wires have been installed in the wrong places on the outlet. While this is common, that does not mean that it is safe. In some situations there is the potential of a shock hazard, even though the outlet will still operate in this state. You should have an Electrician sort it out for one very good reason: The swapped wires may not be at every outlet that has tested as having reversed polarity. It may just be on the same circuit as an outlet with this issue. So let the professionals handle it, just to be safe.
Electrical Junctions Outside of Junction Boxes
When two wires, or conductors as the Electricians call them, are connected, they are supposed to be connected with a wire nut (the small yellow plastic cap you see in the photo to the left) and be inside a junction box. In addition, this junction box should have a cover. Many times my husband, Robert, will go into and attic or a crawlspace and find electrical connections that have been joined together with wire tape and nothing more. There are couple of problems with this. First, this does not meet code, so there is a chance the work was never inspected. Second, a junction in this condition can easily be pulled apart if someone is working in the attic and catches the conductor on their clothes or shoes. Then not only would you have an electrical item in your home that stops working, but you potentially have live, loose conductors in your attic.
The solution is easy. All electrical connections should be in junction boxes with covers and junction boxes cost about a dollar at most home improvement stores.
Low Service Lines
In many older homes, the service lines, or the lines that bring your electrical service from the alley to the house, are much lower than what is required today. Many times they are also running through tree branches on the way from the house to the alley. Current requirements dictate that these lines be a minimum of three feet above the roof, or ten feet above the ground, so as to be out of reach to a person in the yard. Sometimes there is confusion about who is responsible for remedying this situation. Some people feel it should be the utility company’s responsibility, but the utility companies are only responsible for the lines at the alley. From the alley to the house, the maintenance of these lines is the homeowner’s duty. And keep those branches trimmed away from the lines! One falling branch can cause a world of problems for a homeowner if it takes out your service lines.
No GFCI Outlets
GFCI stands for “Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter”. Here’s the way a GFCI outlet works: It detects very small changes in electrical currents, as small as 6 milliamps. So, for example, if you are holding an appliance that is plugged into one of these outlets, and that appliance comes into contact with water, a GFCI outlet will, as it’s name implies, interrupt the circuit and cut the power to that outlet, saving you from a nasty and possibly fatal shock. The power is easy to restore when conditions are safe: simply press the “reset” button and the outlet should be functioning again.
These types of outlets are required in kitchens (above a counter top and within 6 feet of a water source), bathrooms, on the exterior of the house and in the garage. Many homes built prior to the enforcement of this requirement do not have these outlets, however, they are not expensive. They can be purchased at home improvement centers or online for as little at $7.00 and for someone with the proper skills, they can be easily swapped out with non-GFCI outlets on grounded electrical systems. Ungrounded systems would require a consultation with and Electrician.
Missing Knockout Covers at Electrical Boxes
Anytime there is a gap at an electrical panel or junction box, it should be sealed to keep out pests and/or water depending on it’s location. I can’t tell you how many crispy critters Robert has found after removing a panel cover. You also don’t want water in your panel for any reason, whether it’s from rain or from a poorly aimed sprinkler head. These are cheap (less that $5.00 for a three pack at home improvement centers) and simple to install.