Electrical

Grounded outlets, GFCI’s, seatbelts and airbags

It is very common for me to inspect homes that are older than 1960’s that have three prong outlets that are not grounded.

Originally these outlets would have been a two prong, with one side acting as the “hot” and the other side acting as the “neutral.”  The hot is, for the purposes of my discussion, the supply of power and the neutral is the return.  When well meaning home owners try to “improve” their original two-prong outlets with three-prong outlets they very rarely think about the third prong and what its purpose might be and the fact that there is no wire for the third hole in the outlet.

Often, when I start to describe what is going on, my client’s thoughts jump their electrical devices not functioning properly.  Proper function of electrical devices is not really what we are dealing with when a ground wire is missing.  The ground wire is merely a backup for the neutral/return, and its purpose is to protect the occupant (you) from shock/electrocution and has very little to do with proper function.  

There is a slight caveat when referring grounds, computers and some newer televisions.  Surge protectors take excess electricity and dump it into the ground leg.  If no ground is present the surge protector will not function.  I have also heard that some newer televisions will not function at all without a ground.  This is a liability protection for the TV manufacturer that is built into some newer TVs.car

To put this in a more understandable analogy I compare this situation to a car.   Ground wires are kind of like a seat belts.  They protect the person from injury and older homes (just like vehicles and seat belts) didn’t have them.  Grounds/seatbelts really don’t effect the way the car drives/electrical device operates.  They are merely a safety device that will protect you from injury.  Grounds are not required on a 1950’s or older home, just like seat belts aren’t required on that age car.  Vintage two prong plugs are relatively safe because it is obvious that there is not a ground and you cannot plug in a device that wants the ground prong.

The three prong adapter is screwed into a box that is not grounded.  This is not a safe ground

Three prong adaptors are devices that allow you to plug a three prong plug into a two prong outlet. When three prong adaptors are used it is VERY important that the electrical box is grounded.  You might be wondering what in the world is a grounded box?   In the early to mid 60’s the nonmetallic wiring changed from a strickly two wire (one hot, one neutral) to a three wire (one hot, one neutral and a newly added ground).  The wiring changed but many of the plugs (two prong) did not change.  The only way to verify if the box is grounded is with a tester.  Plug one side into the hot and touch the other to the screw in the center of the outet.  If the outlet is grounded there will be a completed circuit and the light will glow.  This type of grounded box is the ONLY time that the three prong adaptors should be used on a two prong plug! 


 

 Now lets say the home we have interest in was pre 60’s and none of the outlets are grounded, what do you do now?   Always, always, always talk to a licensed professional electrician.  The conditions I describe are totally gerneralities and your specific sitiuation may have special circuistances that make these general recommendations less than ideal or even DANGEROUS!  Now with that disclaimer out of the way……..        

Grounds are especially important around water sources.   Kitchens, bathrooms, garage and exterior plugs should all be grounded at the least.  These areas are the places that you are most likely to become a great source for electricty to try to jump to ground through you.

  • The ideal way to ensure these shock/electricution prone areas are protected are by running a new, properly wired circuit from the panel to the plug.
  • Boot-legging a ground may be an option but TALK TO YOUR ELECTRICIAN FIRST!!  Boot-legging a ground is where you run a single conductor (wire) from the outlet to a bond (clamp) on a cold water pipe.  Boot-legging is not ideal and you may not be able to find a licnesed professional electrician that will help you out with this (that should tell you something!)
  • The installation of GFCI’s on the ungrounded circuits.  This is kind of like installing an airbag in a car with no seat belt.  It is safer than no seat belt, no airbag but it is not as safe as a properly installed seat belt and airbag.  The installation of GFCI’s on ungrounded circuits will not provide an equipment ground and should be labeled as such.  This means that surge protectors will not protect equipment from surge and your surge protectors are usefull only as paper weights.

I have used this analogy for a few years and it seems to hold up pretty well when describing this electrical theroy.  If you have any questions on how the electricity working in your home please contact your local electrician or of course your favorite home inspector!


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Not everyone knows about the Old Cadet fire hazards that lurk in Salem Homes.

A few years ago a little company was producing a neat little electric wall heater that was easily installed, relatively inexpensive and allowed wonderful zonal heating (read-“energy efficient”)!

Things were wonderful for sometime but like most things there were a few issues with the first models. The little electric heaters were made by the Cadet corporation and after the release to the general public it was discovered that if housekeeping was not top notch these little heaters had the tendency to overheat (read-“catch on fire” and there could be “flames, sparks or molten particles spewing through the front grill cover of the heaters into the living areas”)!

The problem arose at the heat exchanging point. This is the point in every heating device where the heat that is produced in the heating device is transfered or “exchanged” to the medium that will carry heat to the home. The little wall heaters used fans to transfer heat directly to the home’s air through convection.Heat transfer of convection to describe problems with cadet heaters

The more surface area that the heating device can have exposed to the house air the better the transfer of heat. The more volume of air flows through the device the better transfer as well. There is a point between these two conditions where a balance between the two is chosen.

The little wall heaters that were brand new, met both of those expectations very well. Lots of heating elements (red hot wires) exposed to the air and the little fans did a very functional job of moving a large volume of air over the heated electric coils.

To prevent the red hot wires from getting dirty, which would insulate the heater elements from the air, hampering the exchange of heat, a small screen was placed in front of the fan. The little screen did a good job of keeping the elements clean, too good of a job.

The screens, especially in dusty areas or homes with pets became plugged very quickly. Even with the label on the side stating, “clean the heater fins every month,” these screens and heaters got neglected.Recalled cadet wall heater showing the vulnerability to over heating and fire in during a Salem Home Inspection

Although the heaters had wonderfully clean elements, the flow of air had been destroyed by the plugged screens. The thermostats didn’t know about the restriction of air and kept asking for heat. The elements got hotter and hotter as very little house air was able to flow over the elements to absorb the heat. This occurred over and over until the unit or the wall or both caught fire.


This is not new information as the CPSC noted the recall in Jan 1999. However, I still see the dangerous units in homes that I inspect around the Salem area.

The moral of this tale is; while we are in our friends, family and neighbor’s homes this holiday season we should keep our eyes open for these dangerous units. We should mention the recall to our hosts if we notice the electric wall heaters.

The way to determine if the units are dangerous is the model number.  You should look for: models FWFXLXTKZAZRARKRLXRXRW and ZC

The model number should be on the inside of the unit and behind the front panel.  At the risk of being like me, “that annoying home inspector guy,” you should try to locate the serial number without removing the panel.  I have learned that it is rude to take out a screw driver and start removing panels during a dinner party!  Also there is that little thing of high voltage live wires behind the panel…..

At the very least, you have a conversation starter for those awkward moments during the parties……..Where to find the cadet wall heater model number for the recall verification on a Salem Oregon home inspection

This outlet was more than it appeared!

A large part of my job is learning. Learning about materials, techniques and styles allows me to be a resource when questions arise. it is important for home inspectors to be “know it alls” about most things relating to homes. Just as important as knowing about stuff is realizing that there is always new stuff to learn about. I am never surprised when I discover something completely new and that is one of the best parts of my job.
The video below was taken on a re-inspection. I had griped about the lack of power to the second outlet in the bathroom on the initial inspection. The sellers enlightened me on the more secretive purpose for this particular outlet!

Aluminum Wiring

Written by:  Jim Allhiser President/Inspector
When I trained to become a home inspector I went to a national school and learned about all sorts of things that good home inspectors should be aware of when inspecting homes.  Over the years of doing inspections in Salem, Oregon I have noticed real patterns in building materials that were not reflected by the home inspector schooling.
Bricks for one thing are very popular in other parts of the country.  My schooling spent hours on the issues that can be noted with brick siding.  We have brick siding here, but at a very small percentage compared to the east and the south.  Most of this difference has to do with the shale that composes bricks.  We do not have shale mines on the Pacific coast and so if you want brick it has to be shipped in from the south or east.

Recently Chinese Drywall has received quite a bit of media attention.  That stuff is bad news but for all of the newly built homes that I am inspecting, none of the associated issues have manifested.  I have been looking for it and well educated home buyers have been asking about it but it seems that  our area did not receive the supply of drywall from those particular problem vendors.
Aluminum wiring was also a large topic of education at the home inspector training.  It is also another material that, for whatever the reason, we North-westerners largely managed to escape.  From the mid 60s to the early 70s aluminum was widely used for the smaller (15 and 20 amp) branch circuits in homes.  Problems occurred when the small aluminum wires were used with devices that had connections specifically designed for copper.  Aluminum also tends to expand and contract more than copper (which can cause loose connections) and it can corrode (which is an insulator), all bad things when consistent conduction is desired.  These issues lead to house fires and if your wiring is a fire hazard it is a very big deal!  I have seen and heard of small aluminum branch circuits in manufactured homes in this area but I have only seen one stick built home that had aluminum wires in 5 years!
The more experience I gain the more specific my inspections become, relating to the issues with Salem, Oregon homes.  Still, I can’t forget about those nationally recognized issues.  A great home inspector not only needs to know about homes in this area but also about building products that are not generally used in this area.



Jim Allhiser President/Inspector
http://SalemOregonHomeInspections.com
503.508.4321         jallhiser@perfectioninspectioninc.com

“Always on the cutting edge”

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New Child Resistant Outlets In Oregon

The fall of 2008 had some advancements in the electrical code here in Salem, Oregon. Although I am a home inspector and not a code compliance inspector I do pay attention to building practices so that I my educate my clients to the best of my ability.
One advancement in particular is the requirement for new homes to be equipped with a new type of child safe outlet. As of the late fall of 2008 all of the outlets in a new home have small baffles that prevent something other than a two-prong plug from being inserted. I demonstrate the safety feature in the video below:

Appriaser thinks he is an inspector and burns down the home!

This week I had the misfortune of inspecting a home while a piece of appraiser did his “work.”
This excuse for a person spoke to the buyer’s agent about me right in front of me while never bothering to even look in my direction.  He told the poor agent that he would need access to the crawl space, that had a piece of wood screwed in place. (like she could do anything about the screws?)  She asked me if I would be so gracious as to remove the lid for her/him.  I told her that I would be glad to rent my screw driver to the highest bidder.

I save the crawl space till very last so this appraiser was all done with his work way before I was ready to go in the crawl space and again, although I was standing right there, he looked right past me and asked the poor agent, “…can we could get this panel off of the crawl space.”   She looked pleadingly at me and I looked at the dude and pretended like I didn’t know what was going on.  Finally he asked me if I could open the panel for him.  I told him that it is a real bummer when you don’t bring the right tools to work with you and that I knew where he could rent a screw driver…….

After the appraiser left the inspection continued and at one point the agent mentioned that he had said that although the attic had insulation there was very little and that the owner could add insulation.  That is typical on a 1920 house until I opened the attic access panel…..

The picture shows knob-and-tube wiring that is in contact and covered with cellulose insulation.  Knob-and-tube (KT) is the original type wiring that was run in this 1920s home and it can be prone to heating up while it is under load.  Covering this wiring with insulation can cause heat to build and is a very really fire safety concern.  So the moral of the story is: Appraisers please don’t comment on things you do not know about.  If I hadn’t been there to tell my client why insulating the attic was a bad idea who knows what would have happened.

I don’t mean to gripe, but I get a bad taste in my mouth when a total stranger feels it is necessary to be rude to me.  Get to know me first.  Then if you must be rude to me, at least you have a good reason!

Jim Allhiser President/Inspector
http://SalemOregonHomeInspections.com
503.508.4321         jallhiser@perfectioninspectioninc.com

“Always on the cutting edge”

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Thermal Imaging/Infrared sees electrical issues before problems occur on a South Salem Home Inspection

I was doing a home inspection the other day on a very nice, and newer home here in south Salem today.  The home had very few minor issues but one thing popped out when I used the thermal camera to scan the master bedroom.

The circuit did not appear to be hot enough to cause a fire however there was no significant load on this circuit and it should not have been heating-up.  As it turns out there was a loose wire in the heated outlet in the picture.  The heat was produced because of the looseness/resistance of the connection.

Just another issue that can be easily resolved with the help of thermal imagining/Infrared.


Jim Allhiser President/Inspector
http://SalemOregonHomeInspections.com
503.508.4321                   jallhiser@perfectioninspectioninc.com

“Always on the cutting edge”

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Multi-wired circuits

A material and man-hour (read MONEY) conservation technique I have noticed more and more recently is called multi-circuit wiring. The purpose of this technique is to save money on wires and man-hours by pulling only one wire for two circuits.

Seems like a good idea and there are definitely a fair amount of contractors that agree. During normal operation of most circuits no significant problems will be noted. However if too many watts are added, the circuits could be prone to overheating.

The issues come from the neutral wire. With a single circuit wire there is a black wire for the hot, and a white wire for the neutral. For simplicity sake let’s look at these as the supply=hot(black) and the return=neutral(white) for the current respectively.

A 15amp circuit should use a 14 gauge wire for supply and return. That means that if the maximum amount of power (allowed by the breaker) is called for, the wire on the supply and on the return are both thick enough to hold all of 15 amps or 1800watts at 120 volts. [(15amps)x(120volts)=1800watts]

Now let’s save some time and materials during installation by running a multi-circuit wire. This wire has two supplies and only one return. Remember each one of the 14 gauge wires are designed to hold 15 amps but now you have two wires that could be called on to hold all of 15 amps and only one 14 gauge return/neutral wire for 30amps! (15+15=30amps) Normal alternating current modulation will prevent the neutral from having to carry both loads at the same time but if something goes wrong and the neutral does experience over current in this manner the breaker will not trip, because breakers only protect the hot/supply wires.

The deal is the authorities that say this is ok are betting that there will never be a situation that causes both wires to call for the entire load at the same time. As a home inspector here in Salem, Oregon I am paid to be a “worst case scenario,” guy. It is my job to alert my clients to not only issues but also potential issues and educate them as best I can.

If it was a snake….it would have been too late.

Ah, the hazards of poking around someone elses home. We do get a fair amount of rain during the winter months in western Oregon. All of that precipitation can sometimes lead to a high water table. That is one reason there are so many crawlspaces in this area. If water does come up out of the ground it is hopefully safely covered with a nice plastic vapor retarder, instead of wreaking havoc with finished surfaces.
It can be very common for inspectors to see standing water when it comes time to crawl around with the spiders. I am not afraid of water, however when water is present with electricity that is a different story.

 

I came upon this deadly little coiled booby trap the other day.

 

This wonder piece of homeowner electrical handiness was currently energized, thank goodness the crawlspace was dry.

 

Have you Inspected your Salem, Oregon home’s GFCI’s lately?

Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters: They are a wonderful safety item that has been required around water since the ’70s and according to the CPSC could prevent over two-thirds of the approximately 300 electrocutions still occurring each year in and around the home. Installation of the device could also prevent thousands of burn and electric shock injuries each year.

GFCI’s continually monitor what goes out, through the hot side and what comes back through the neutral side. Power always flows in a loop so these devices can tell when there is leakage, ie. ground fault.

Ground Fault: Is where the loop of electricity, instead of properly running out the hot side (into the thing that’s plugged in) and back in to the wall on the neutral side, gets shorted.  In other words the power jumps out of the loop / you might get shocked.

That jump/shock is very likely to happen when you are handling your mixer, weed trimmer, curling iron, etc…. that has an electrical problem (internal loose wire maybe) and you reach for something that can allow a direct flow of electrons to go right in to the ground (faucet, water pipe).

"Test Monthly"

So how and how often should you test my GFCI’s? If you look closely on the GFCI it will say, “Test Monthly.” To properly test you should plug something in that you can see is on, like a lamp. Then press the test button. The buttons should ‘pop’ and the lamp should go off. Then reset the button and the lamp should come back on.

If the test doesn’t happen like that, it may be time to replace your hard working GFCIs.

If that is still to much work I would be happy to come and inspect the function of the GFCI’s in your home.