Featuring America's Home Inspector: Nationally Syndicated Columnist, Barry Stone

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: Some of your answers to electrical questions reveal that you are obviously unschooled. In one article, you talked about what home inspectors look for in a breaker panel, and your ideas were totally wrong. Here are three examples:

1) You said that home inspectors report when circuits are over-fused. I am a licensed master electrician and have been in the trade for nearly 50 years, but I couldn’t tell from looking if a wire was over-fused.

2) You say that home inspectors check for improper grounding in a panel. How do they do this? Do you measure resistance to earth or simply make assumptions by viewing the wire ends?

3) You say that panels should not be used as “raceways.” In all my years in the trade, I’ve never seen an instance where someone wired a panel that way, nor can I think of any reason for doing so.

Perhaps you need to brush up on the National Electrical Code. Furthermore, I’ll bet you don’t have the guts to publish this letter. If you’re not going to be accountable for what you “inspect” and what you publish, stop picking folks’ pockets. Nicholas

Dear Nicholas: Your letter was just published. That aside, let’s review your three points of disagreement regarding inspections of breaker panels by home inspectors.

  1. As a master electrician of 50 years, you say that you “couldn’t tell from looking if a wire was over-fused.” So let’s take a common example: How about a #12 gauge wire (rated at 20 amps) that is connected to a 50 amp circuit breaker. Would you not recognize that as “over-fused?” If that circuit were to have an overload of 40 amps, the breaker would not trip, and the result could be a house fire. Wouldn’t a home inspector be justified in disclosing that condition and recommending repair by a licensed electrician?
  2. You ask how home inspectors check a panel for improper grounding and whether they do so by measuring resistance to earth. Home inspections are limited to visual observations. They do not involve specialized tests such as measuring resistance. However, there are common grounding violations that are routinely reported by home inspectors. For example, ground and neutral wires that are not separated in a subpanel; a ground bus that is not bonded to the panel; a neutral bus that is connected to a bond jumper in a subpanel; bundled ground wires with a single wire used as a bond; the lack of a grounding rod for the system, etc. Conditions such as these are code violations in most instances and warrant disclosure when discovered by a home inspector.
  3. Finally, you say you’ve never seen an instance where a breaker panel was improperly used as a raceway. We can agree that this is not a common occurrence, but there are instances where a full panel is used as a conduit for unidentified wires. In such cases, further evaluation by a licensed electrician is warranted, and a home inspector would be justified in making that recommendation.

Home inspectors, as you suggest, should be accountable for the conditions they inspect and report. And accountability demands full disclosure of conditions that are inherently or potentially hazardous. A qualified home inspector would be remiss in overlooking conditions such as those listed above. Likewise would a master electrician with 50 years of experience.