Common Electrical Problems Found by Home Inspectors

Common Electrical Problems Found by Home Inspectors

The electrical system is one of the more complicated systems in your home which demands great respect because it is the most dangerous. Home inspectors find any safety issues, and then the best way to solve them through recommendations, repairs or other advice. Please do not attempt to work with any electrical equipment unless you have been adequately trained to do so. It is best to contact an electrician first.

Essentially, your electrical system starts when it comes to your home from the city transformer via overhead wires or underground. It travels through the main service panel, then possibly a sub panel and on to various circuits within the home until they reach the outlets. Older homes or homes where renovations have taken place may contain hidden electrical issues behind the walls which cannot be diagnosed by a home inspector.

Every home is different and since electricity is complicated, there are several potential issues for discovery. To keep this article in perspective, I will only focus on some of the more common electrical problems found by home inspectors. They are listed below.

  • Obstructed entrance wires/no drip loop – We look to see how the wires enter the home, and if they are likely to be hazardous. For example, trees can get in the way of service lines, which can ad to stress on the wires. The service wires must also have a “drip loop”. This loop or a dip in the wires is installed just before wires enter service mast outside the home. This is important as it allows water to  drip to the ground instead of running into the home, causing rust at the service panel or other safety implications. We want the wires to have a clear, safe, unobstructed path to the home.
  • Outdated knob and tube wiring – With the updates to the electrical codes, “K & T” wiring has been phased out because it does not have a safe ground wire, was allowed to be spliced (connected points) in the walls without a junction box and became an expensive way to continue. At times, I see existing knob and tube wiring mixed with newer wiring. This is a serious safety hazard.
  • Also, today we demand more branch circuits in each room… Something not required when knob and tube was mainstream. Older homes built before the 1930’s are more likely to have Knob & Tube wiring and fewer outlets in each room, with their 60 amp service. Today, the minimum would be 100 amps. So upgrading should be considered if you live in an older home.
  • Missing or faulty GFCI outlets – Simply put, these outlets are safety devices that will protect someone from an electrical shock by tripping the breaker when it senses an imbalance in the amount of current flowing from the hot (live) wire to the neutral. They are necessary at all water sources, such as kitchens, bathrooms, outside locations, garages, and service panels. Home inspectors check to see if (a) they are installed at these locations and (b) test them to see if they are working as intended. You will recognize them for their two buttons in the middle. One says “test” and the other says “reset”. They should trip when tested and reset when you press the reset button. If they don’t have them replaced.
  • Exposed/damaged electrical wires – Exposed wires, (their ends not spliced and protected) can cause an electric shock or fire. All wires must be properly spliced and protected within a junction box. I often see exposed wires in unfinished areas, typically after renovations. Related to this issues are wires that are unsecured, also usually in unfinished areas. They must be attached to the structural members with special straps or staples, so they don’t get damaged or trip people, etc.
  • Aluminum wiring issues – For reference, it was primarily used in the 1970‘s and also during the 1960s. The wire on it’s own is actually safe. The installation methods can be problematic, especially at the connection points. Aluminum acts differently than copper. Aluminum wires that carry the same current as copper are larger, and silver in colour. When it heats up it expands, and as it cools down, it contracts , more than copper. Each time this happens, the wire will loosen up at the connection points. Furthermore, aluminum has a tendency to corrode if it touches other metal. Over time the wire will get very hot. This, in combination with loose connections is what has caused so many fires. If you discover it in your home, or plan to buy a home that already has it, I recommend that you contact a licensed electrician to check out the following:  (a) It is safe at all outlets and switches and connection points – you want to see “CO/ALR” stamped on the fixture, when spliced with copper. Anti-oxidant paste must be applied at the connections. (b) Only screw connections are used, not push-in terminals, (c) There are not burn marks, melted insulation, etc. (d) Clean workmanship with properly stripped, and stapled wires where appropriate. Covering each detail surrounding aluminum wiring is an article on it’s own, so if you want further details on this topic, let me know or speak to a licensed electrician.
  • Service panel problems – Many common electrical problems found by home inspectors are found in and around the service panels. There is a lot going on here, so I will just give a brief explanation of some of the clues we look for. Inspectors look at the wire sizes in relation to the breakers they are connected to, where wires are coming and going. We check for the arrangement of the wires, crowded wires, evidence of melted, burnt or exposed wires. The sheathing condition/amount, protection by grommets as they come in to the panel, easy panel access and properly secured and stapled wires around the panel, just to name a few.
  • Improper use of permanent wiring/extension cords – All permanent wires have to be properly protected in sheathing or covered in conduit. It is a common sight to see extension cords feeding lights or powering other devices. Worse still, I see extension cords outside as permanent wiring. These cords are not properly protected and could cause a shock, especially if you touch them with wet hands.
  • Missing smoke alarms – Smoke alarms must be installed on each floor of a home. Ideally, on the ceiling just outside of the bedroom(s). I do not recommend having them in the kitchen as smoke and heat may set them off, which can be a nuisance. They typically last between 6-10 years, depending on the brand. it is a good idea to test them every 4-6 months to ensure that they are functioning properly.
  • Missing/burt out light bulbs – Kitchens and bathrooms are commonly where I notice them. It surprises me that when I see this easily preventable and inexpensive issue over and over again.
  • Missing covers for receptacles, light switches, junction boxes and lights – All of these components must have proper, undamaged covers. I usually see these conditions after renovations as people may  not get around to adding them upon completion.

The majority of these conditions can be fixed at a reasonable cost. It can however, get expensive to rewire an old or improperly wired home. So, if you are planning on buying a renovated home, or plan more changes, ensure that the previous owners had their electrical work done by a licensed professional. Ask to see the paperwork and permits for approval.

Overall, correcting these issues will keep your home safer and will ease the process of selling your home. Stay safe and keep informed…