More Blog Posts About Electric Panels and Distribution:

  1. My circuit breaker won’t reset. What’s wrong?

  2. What is the life expectancy of a circuit breaker?

  3. Why does my homeowner’s insurance want a four point inspection?

  4. Is the electric panel big enough for this house?

  5. What is a double tap at a circuit breaker?

  6. The electric panel is marked “Trilliant” and it’s all grey plastic. Is it alright?

  7. Why does that wall plug have push-buttons in the middle?

  8. How do the new tamper-resistant electric receptacles work?

  9. How come my generator hookup got tagged as defective by the home inspector?

  10. What is a three-way switch?

  11. Does this place have one of those “bad” electric panels I’ve heard about?

  12. I heard that aluminum wiring is bad. Do you check for it?

  13. My bathroom electric receptacle/outlet is dead, and there is no tripped breaker in the electric panel. What’s wrong?

  14. What is a “missing twistout” at an electric panel?

  15. What is an “open junction box”?

  16. Is an ungrounded receptacle/outlet dangerous?

  17. Are carbon monoxide alarms required to be installed in Florida?

  18. What is reversed polarity at an outlet/receptacle? Why is it dangerous?

  19. How far apart should kitchen counter receptacles be placed?

  20. What is the switch on the wall with only two pushbuttons for?

  21. What is a lock device on a circuit breaker for?

  22. Will the electric company remove branches rubbing against the overhead service lines to my home?

  23. Can multiple neutral or ground wires be secured under the same terminal in an electric panel?

  24. Why are Zinsco and Sylvania-Zinsco electric panels a problem?

  25. What is the life expectancy of electrical wiring in a house?

  26. How can adding wood paneling or a wainscot create an electrical safety hazard?

  27. What is a false ground, bootleg ground, or cheated ground receptacle?

  28. What are the most common electrical defects found in a home inspection?

  29. What is an open electrical splice?

  30. Why is an old fuse panel dangerous?

  31. What does it mean when a wire is “overstripped” at a circuit breaker?

  32. What is the difference between “grounded” and “grounding” electrical conductors?

  33. What is the difference between a Combination Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter (CAFCI) and an Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter (AFCI) circuit breaker?

  34. How can I tell if a receptacle/outlet is tamper resistant?

  35. What is a Dual Function Circuit Interrupter (DFCI)?

  36. Will a GFCI receptacle that is not grounded still function properly?

  37. Does a home inspector remove the electric panel cover plate and examine the inside of the panel?

  38. Can an electric panel be located over stairs?

  39. Is a house required to have outdoor electric receptacles?

  40. What are the code requirements for NM-cable (nonmetallic-sheathed cable or Romex®) in an attic?

  41. How can I change a 240V circuit to a 120V circuit?

  42. Can old electrical wiring go bad inside a wall?

  43. What could cause an extremely high electric bill?

  44. How do I trace and identify each circuit breaker in my electric panel to make a circuit directory?

  45. What is the difference between GFCI and AFCI circuit breakers?

  46. What causes flickering or blinking lights in a house?

  47. Why are some electric receptacles/outlets upside down (ground slot up) in a house?

  48. Why is undersize electric wiring in a house dangerous?

  49. Why is a fuse box an insurance problem for homebuyers?

  50. What is a “backstab” receptacle outlet?

  51. What electrical hazards does a Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) not protect against?

  52. What are the right words for talking about a house electrical system?

  53. What does “listed” and “labeled” mean for an electrical component?

  54. What does it mean when I find buried yellow "CAUTION" tape when digging a hole in the yard?

  55. How can I tell if the electrical service is 3 phase or single phase?

  56. What is the building code requirement for receptacle outlets at stairs and stair landings?

  57. Can a home surge protector be installed loose in the bottom of an electric panel box?

  58. Can a bare bulb “lampholder” light fixture be installed outdoors?

  59. Should I buy a house near a high-voltage power line?

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   Also, the lack of wall receptacles in an older home, due to the low level of use of the era, contributes to the problem. Often there is just one receptacle in a bedroom and none in the dining room, for example. So homeowners make do by using extension cords strung around the perimeter of rooms or, even worse, under rugs to get power to where they need it.

   Plus, the average electric service in a 1950 home is 100 amps. An amp, short for ampere, is a measure of the working power that can be delivered to the home through its electrical system. Most new homes require 200 amps, double the old standard.

    The undersize electric service of an older home is safeguarded by circuit breakers that are supposed to trip when too much current is flowing through any circuit, but circuit breakers are mechanical devices with an approximately 40-year life. When they cease to functional properly, circuit breakers don’t shut down or give any outward sign of failure. Instead, they simply no longer trip when the wiring is overloaded. Many older homes have the original electric panel and breakers still in place.

   Then, add to this mix a few badly-done homeowner electrical repairs over the years and the likelihood of a problem soars. While we note many of these defects during a home inspection, some safety issues—such as whether the circuit breakers are still functioning properly or the condition of wiring inside the walls—are beyond the scope of our inspection. But there are a number of things you can do, short of replacement, to make the electrical system of your older house safer:

  1. Extension cords are meant for temporary use only. Ditch them anywhere they are permanently installed, and have a licensed electrician run wiring to additional new receptacles.

  2. Replace any damaged switches and receptacles. Also, change out any receptacles that can no longer securely grab the prongs of an appliance cord. This is most likely to occur at  locations where cords are repeatedly plugged in and out, like at the kitchen counter. A loose connection between receptacle and cord can cause arcing. Any receptacle where an electric cord can be pulled out with no resistance should be replaced.

  3. Consider replacing the 100-amp panel with a new 200-amp one. The change-out will require an electrician to run new service wires to the home. Because new panels are required to have special AFCI breakers for most circuits, you gain an added level of protection for the aging wires still in the wall. Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter breakers sense when any wiring in the circuits they protect is frayed or otherwise damaged  and arcing/sparking is occurring between two disconnected pieces of the same wire or two adjacent wires in a cable—and they cut off the power to the circuit.

  4. If replacing the electric panel is more than you can afford, think about having an electrician replace the breakers in the panel. The panel box typically has a longer life than breakers anyway, and you will get AFCI-breaker protection for the 120-volt general purpose circuits. The only problem with this strategy is that it’s hard to find replacement breakers for some old panels.

  5. Shut off the circuit at the panel and call an electrician at the first sign of an electrical problem, such as lights that blink, appliances that work intermittently, breakers that keep tripping, or the acrid, burning smell of a short circuit.

  6. Look for evidence of amateur electrical repairs and have a professional electrician fix it. To learn about how to recognize shoddy electrical work, go to our blog “What are the most common homeowner electrical wiring mistakes?”

   Insurance companies are concerned about the safety of electrical systems in old homes too, and almost always want a 4-point inspection report by a licensed contractor or home inspector, that includes an evaluation of the electrical system, before issuing a policy. Some insurers even want a separate electrical inspection, signed off by a licensed electrician, in certain circumstances. If the electric panel has screw-in type fuses (like in the photo at the top of this blog), you will have replace it with a new circuit-breaker panel in order to get homeowner’s insurance nowadays.

    But don’t let electrical safety worries scare you away from considering the purchase of an older home. One third of the homes in America are over 50 years old, and they are often located in desirable neighborhoods. Many are also a good value. Just be sure to get it evaluated by a licensed home inspector and make any recommended electrical safety upgrades once you move in.

While we hope you find this series of articles about home inspection helpful, they should not be considered an alternative to an actual home inspection by a local inspector. Also, construction standards vary in different parts of the country and it is possible that important issues related to your area may not be covered here.
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