If you’ve ever considered skipping a home inspection as you search the market for the right property, we’ve got an important message for you:
As a home-shopper, there are many solid financial reasons to hire a certified home inspector to perform a comprehensive foundation-to-roof checkup, pointing out everything from missing roof shingles to a furnace that won’t kick on. Why invest in a possible money-pit that may end up costing you a fortune in repairs and replacements when a home inspection can spare you the grief?
While the money-saving aspect of having a professional home inspection performed is huge, there is another reason that makes this service even more invaluable—it could save your life. It is part of the home inspector’s job to report on defective systems and conditions that pose a potential or immediate risk of injury or death, including loose or absent handrails and the subject of today’s blog post, electrical-related fire and shock hazards.
Here is a brief checklist of some fire and shock threats that have been discovered by the home inspectors at A-Pro after having inspected many thousands of homes over the last 27 years:
Receptacle Issues: Your home inspector will check wet areas of the home (kitchens, bathrooms, garages, exterior areas near water, etc.) for the presence of Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters (GFCI), an outlet-integrated device that rapidly shuts off electrical power in the event of an interruption in the flow of current from hot to neutral. Since gaining widespread popularity, the prevalence of GFCIs has proven to significantly reduce the number of injuries and fatalities caused by shock in the home (e.g., the GFCI will sense an imbalance when current leaks through a person, shutting down power as a result). Ground faults can be caused by a number of factors, including moisture and damaged/aging wiring. The inspector will test each GFCI to see if it is functional. It is recommended that homeowners periodically test all GFCIs, which have a life expectancy of up to 25 years, though they can fail much sooner.
When there is arcing or sparking in home branch wiring, Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters (AFCIs) are designed to trip the circuit and prevent electrical fires. Like GFCIs, homeowners should regularly test AFCIs for functionality. Per International Residential Code Requirements for AFCIs, they are recommended to be installed at 15- and 20-amp outlets on branch circuits in living rooms, bedrooms, closets, hallways, kitchens, rec rooms, and other living spaces.
It is not uncommon for a homeowner to use extension cords as permanent electrical installations because the home has too few or improperly spaced receptacles. Extension cords which run under carpeting will be of particular concern to the home inspector, who will note that walking on the cord can damage it over time and lead to a possible fire. Additionally, undersized, higher-gauge extension cords, when subjected to heavy loads, have a greater potential to overheat and cause a fire than thicker, lower-gauge wires. Further, older receptacles that do not sufficiently hold plugs present a serious defect that can lead to arcing and possible ignition of combustible material.
Your inspector may also make you aware of the presence of ungrounded receptacles and the use of adapters that allow three-pronged appliances (grounded) to use an ungrounded (two-pronged) receptacle. These setups have been known to pose a risk of shock. Grounded outlets have been required in new construction since the early 1960s. A final tip: Be sure to put safety plugs in unused outlets if you have young children in the home!
Outdated Wiring: If it’s a pre-1950’s home that hasn’t had an electrical upgrade, your inspector may find outdated installations such as knob-and-tube wiring (often visible as wires running through porcelain tubes in wooden floor joists). Knob-and-tube wiring presents a series of concerns, including possible melting of its soldered connections. Solid conductor aluminum branch-circuit wiring doesn’t measure up to superior copper wiring in terms of durability, often losing its effectiveness over time and turning into a fire hazard. Even worse, aluminum wiring is known to rapidly overheat, increasing its potential to cause an electrical fire.
Amateurish Wiring: There are many home projects that are perfectly suited for the casual handy-homeowner. Electrical wiring isn’t one of them. Just because you own a fully-equipped tool belt doesn’t give you license to have your way with a home’s electrical system. Dangerous wiring caused by substandard installation practices will end up in the home inspection report. Defects include the following fire hazards: unsecured cables entering an electric panel; double-tapping (two wires under the screw of a neutral bar or circuit breaker that’s only designed to handle a single wire); improperly secured wiring in attics, basements, and crawlspaces; unprotected electrical cables that are within reach (8 feet above ground); and uncovered junction boxes.
Other observations regarding potential fire hazards include outdated electrical panels with questionable breakers that put the home at greater risk after a short-circuit or overload, stray wires in an electrical box, frayed appliance cords, wiring that has been chewed through, overloaded wall sockets, tree limbs touching outside conductors, and insufficient service drop clearance.
We’ll take a look at more fire/shock hazards in the home in next week’s blog post.