Which brings us to why home inspectors like us are so darn picky about small defects that seem more annoying than dangerous. The one shown above seems  harmless enough: an electric panel box (shown with the dead front cover plate removed) that is set back a little behind the surrounding wall.

    It is a recessed type panel, meaning that the panel box sits inside the wall with a dead front plate that screws to the font of the box to seal it. The dead front is wider and taller that the box dimensions, to cover up any small gap in the wall opening around it. It also has tightly-fitted openings in the center (called knockouts) for the breaker switches to peek through.  The dead front is supposed to mount flush with both the front of the panel box and the adjacent wall when closed. This is because the electric panel assembly needs to be inside a fireproof box that will contain any arcing or sparking that might occur, thereby preventing a fire from spreading to the flammable wood around the box.

    No gap is allowed by the National Electrical Code between the front of a panel box and the wall surface that the dead front of a recessed panel will sit against in a regular wood stud (combustible) wall structure. Also, the NEC says the gap around the sides of the box cannot exceed 1/8” (NEC 312.3 and 312.4). This panel enclosure above fails on both counts: it is almost an inch inset from the wall surface and the drywall was also cut back too far around the box. When the dead front snugs to the wall, there is an opening between it and the box all the way around the panel perimeter. Any fire in the box has a quick route to escape.

    Okay, maybe this is not a horror by itself. But combine it with a couple of the following other defects and you have the makings of a house fire:

Paper tags labeling the circuits, or other flammable material in box.

Aluminum wire connection at service lug with heavy oxidation and getting super-hot, as shown in upper photo with an infrared overlay.

                       Loose wires near breaker connections.

Wires overstripped at breakers

    There’s plenty more, but these are just the first ones that come to mind. Douglas Hansen lists another example in his excellent book Electrical Inspection of Existing Dwellings (Code Check, 2013): reversed polarity plus a false ground at an receptacle outlet. Individually not such a big deal, but deadly in combination for an electrical shock.

    All of the citations in the NEC are there to prevent electrical mishaps, and we try to catch as many of the seemingly small defects as we can during an inspection.

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.
© - McGarry and Madsen Inspection.*


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More blog posts about electric service and distribution:

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

  2. How can I tell if the electric outlets are grounded?

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

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

  5. Why do you pay so much attention to electrical safety?

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

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

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

  9. How dangerous is old electrical wiring?

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

  11. What is knob-and-tube wiring?

  12. What are the most common homeowner wiring mistakes?

  13. What is a split bus electric panel?

  14. What is the right electric wire size for a home?

  15. How far apart should the electrical receptacles be placed?

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

  17. Is a bare bulb light in a closet alright?

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

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

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

  21. What is an “open junction box”?

  22. Is an ungrounded receptacle/outlet dangerous?

  23. Where are smoke alarms required to be located?

  24. How can I figure out what a mystery wall switch does?

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

  26. What are those strange looking wall switches in houses from the 1950s and 1960s?

  27. How far apart should electric receptacle outlets be placed in a garage?

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

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

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

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

  32. Can wiremold be used at an exterior location?

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

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

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

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

  37. What is an open electrical splice?

  38. Why is an old fuse panel dangerous?

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

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

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

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

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

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

  45. Can an electric panel be located over stairs?

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

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

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

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

  50. What could cause an extremely high electric bill?

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

  52. Why are extension cords dangerous?

  53. What problems does having too many electrical outlets on a single circuit cause?

  54. How can I find out the size of the electric service to a house?

  55. Why are electrical outlets and plugs polarized?

  56. Why does painting an electric receptacle (outlet) make it unsafe?

  57. When were GFCI receptacle outlets first required?

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

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

  60. What is a “backstab” receptacle outlet?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  68. What is the maximum number of circuit breakers allowed in an electric panel?

  69. Which house appliances need a dedicated electrical circuit?

  70. Is it alright to just put wire nuts on the end of unused or abandoned NM-cable or wiring?