The month of July newsletter is the third of a three part series on Residential Electrical Wiring. This months article will discuss Top Ten Electrical Wiring Hazards that Threaten Life & Property

“Top Ten” Electrical Wiring Hazards that Threaten Life & Property
The general guideline of information is provided by the Copper Development Association

As a home inspector, the electrical portions of a home and/or of a home inspection do not receive the attention from clients and real estate agents that they are due. Electrical issues are the sleeping giants that are potentially life threatening and can be overlooked, or their importance can be diminished until it is too late. Electrical problems can be, and are a life threatening concern. Please don’t let this issue find you unaware. Read this list and more appropriately, use this list as a guideline for action points to be addressed in your home. The items identified on this list should only be addressed/repaired by a licensed and qualified electrician.

10. Improper use of extension cords. Too many electrical devices plugged into an extension cord present a risk of overheating the wire and/or the receptacle that the extension cord is plugged into. Damaged extension cord wires may also have exposed wiring present that are both a risk of shock and fire. It is also possible to have a damaged wire “insulator” surface that allows the hot and neutral wires to come into contact with each other. This condition presents a risk of shock and circuit faults at the electrical panel. An improperly sized extension cord wire (a wire that is too small for the item receiving the electricity), can overheat the wire and again present a risk of an electrical fire. Overloaded, damaged and improper wire sizes are common cause of electrical fires.

9. Excessive summer attic heat. The combination of attic temperatures, that can reach upwards of 150 degrees, and the normal flow of electricity passing through a wire may put the electrical wiring at risk of exposure to too much heat. Larger than recommended diameter wires should be installed to accommodate, adjust for, hot summertime attic temperatures. It is also recommended that wiring should not be “bundled” together because wiring that is in contact with, or in close proximity too, other wires will transfer its heat to those other wires, and vice a versa. Attic wiring should take into consideration the “hot” summertime conditions that will exist, and wiring installation should be implemented that provides for the greatest dissipation of heat as possible.

8. Failing aluminum wiring connections. Many homes built in the 1960’s and 1970’s
are exposed to this hazard. Please refer to the aluminum section of “Residential
Electrical Wiring” Newsletter for additional information.

7. Missing or inoperable GFCI (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter) outlets where prescribed. GFCI outlets protect against electrical shock and should be located wherever it is possible to have electricity and water present at the same time. GFCI outlets should be located within 6 feet of all sinks, basements, in garages, exterior outlets, near pools and hot tubs. Don’t assume that because a GFCI outlet is present that it will fault/trip as designed when you are at risk of shock. Many GFCI outlets that I test in the course of an inspection do not work as designed. These receptacles have undoubtedly saved the lives of countless individuals. GFCI’s should be tested regularly to insure that they are operating as designed.

6. No AFCI’s (Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters). Though very new in their implementation, AFCI’s are now required for all new construction and should be located at all non GFCI locations (there are exceptions). These circuit breakers are designed to prevent fires that are caused by electrical arcing. Arc Fault Breakers should be strongly considered at all homes where the wiring is over 40 years old. Please refer to the Newsletter on “Arc Fault Circuit Breakers” for additional information.

5. Insufficient quantity of branch circuits and outlets. The ever increasing number of electricity consuming devices and appliances that man has invented has placed a great strain on the wiring inside the walls of older homes. These homes were designed to meet the electrical needs of the time that the homes were built and do not keep up with this ever increasing plethora of electrical inventions. The wiring in our homes has not kept pace with this burgeoning list of devices and we ask for more electricity to pass through this wiring to feed our needs and we thus stand the chance of over heating the wiring that is present in our homes walls. We compound this issue even further by using adaptors and extension cords which places an ever greater strain on house wiring. An insufficient number of receptacles, and branch circuits, are a major source of electrical fires in homes.

4. Fuse or circuit-breaker misuse. Larger than designed ampacity fuses in fuse holders is a major electrical safety issue. Ex: A fuse in an electrical panel keeps faulting so the homeowner, out of frustration, replaces the fuse with a larger than intended amperage fuse. Now, a safety condition exists. The wiring in the wall is more susceptible to damage (overheating which can lead to a fire) because the fuse will no longer fault at the same level that the original fuse was designed for. The replaced fuse is now larger and able to handle more electrical current than the original fuse that was present in the panel, and the wiring is now the weakest portion of the electrical system. It should be noted that almost all insurance carriers will no longer insure homes with fuse systems because of this ability, possibility, on the part of a home owner to replace or increase a fuse size, which makes the wiring in the wall the weakest portion of a residential electrical system

Other dangerous conditions may exist when a circuit breaker and the corresponding branch circuit wire are not of the same intended size. It should also be noted that just because your house has circuit breakers does not mean that the breaker will trip or ”fault” when you expect it to. Circuit breakers should be tested periodically to insure that they will “fault,” trip as they are designed.

3. Ungrounded or improperly wired plugs and outlets. At many homes built before 1964 (the first year the federal government required grounding of outlets/receptacles) it is still very possible to find outlets that are the ungrounded, two-prong variety of receptacles. Ungrounded outlets can put you and your family at risk of shock/electrocution. When an electrical malfunction occurs, with a device, the electricity will seek the ground (soil). If you are grasping or holding onto this electrical device, (ex; a hair dryer) the errant electricity will now seek you.

Numerous other improper wiring conditions may also exist. The most common I find is called “reverse polarity.” This is a condition where the installing electrician crossed, or reversed, the hot and neutral wires (the white and black wires). This condition can damage electronic devices because it sends electricity through the appliance in a path that is opposite of the manufacturers designed pathway. Basic wiring has three wires and there are many possible combinations to install these three wires. THERE IS ONLY ONE ACCEPTABLE METHOD OF WIRING.

2. Incorrect wire Gauge Wire (Incorrect Wire Size) In the over than 125 years since Edison’s first light bulb lit up Menlo Park, NJ man has determined/established a standard for the correct size, diameter, of a current carrying device, wire, for an intended use. Electricians are responsible to insure that the correct size wire matches the correct application. When incorrect wire sizes are not followed the wiring in walls gets hot and has the potential for starting a fire. You can always increase, or use a larger gauge of wire, BUT you cannot go smaller.

1. Old Wiring Not enough can be said about the potential safety issues of having older
electrical wiring. The key here is that nothing lasts forever, and that advances in technology have made available a safer product that can replace the “old” wiring in our homes with something newer and safer. These concepts are particularly important if your house is 40 years old or older, and no upgrades have been made on your electrical wiring. If not, we recommend that a licensed electrician evaluate your homes wiring further to insure you and your family is safe. Please refer to the “Residential Electrical Wiring” Newsletter for additional information.

The important thing to remember is that older residential wiring was insulated by a “rubber insulator” that was not as able to handle the electrical temperatures that current wiring products are capable of handling, with the increased demand through usage that we have also asked for. Second, would be that the older rubber insulators will dry out and become brittle. As the insulator dries out and cracks the actual wire may become exposed and create an electrical fire issue.

To learn more about electrical, visit our website's Anatomy of a Home section.  View part I or part II

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