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

When Home Inspectors and Electricians Disagree

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: The home inspectors in my area, myself among them, have an ongoing debate with local electricians. When we see two wires connected to a circuit breaker, we report this as “double-tapping.” As far as I know, only Square D brand type QO breakers are approved for use with two wires, but the electricians say it’s OK with other brands as well, such as Cutler-Hammer type CH breakers. But when I checked the Cutler-Hammer website, I found nothing about double-tapping being OK with their breakers. To make matters worse, some of the electricians in my area seem openly hostile toward home inspectors and say that we are clueless on this and other issues. Could you please provide some clarity on this point of contention? Stephen

Dear Stephen: Disagreements between home inspectors and contractors are common, occurring not only with electricians, but with experts in plumbing, roofing, fireplaces, furnaces, framing, etc. Sometimes home inspectors are correct, and sometimes they are not. All participants in these debates should therefore be open-minded, mutually respectful, and humble in their approaches to one another.

In determining when double-tapping is or is not acceptable for a particular circuit breaker, a simple rule of thumb is to check the design of the connecting hardware at the breaker. If the hardware is specifically shaped to accommodate two separate wires, as with Square D type QO breakers, then the connection is acceptable and should not be cited as double-tapping in a home inspection report. But if the connecting hardware is a simple screw or lug, it is reasonable to assume that the manufacturer of the breaker intended there to be one wire only at the connection. In that case, double-tapping would be the proper disclosure for a home inspector. The only way to connect two circuits to a single breaker in that instance would be by indirect means. The accepted method would be to connect a short wire (known as a “pigtail”) to the breaker and to join the other end of that wire to the two circuit wires with an appropriate connector, such as a wire nut.

To avoid future disagreements over double-tapping issues, it may be necessary to change the wording of your disclosures. For example, if you find what appears to be a faulty double-tap, your report might say, “Double-tapping was observed in the main breaker panel. These breakers may not be rated for double-tapping. Therefore, further evaluation by a licensed electrician is advised.”

This wording allows you to report a possible defect and to recommend attention by a qualified expert — in this case an electrician. You haven’t said the condition is definitely defective but simply that it is questionable and warrants further evaluation by a specialist. If the electrician determines that the connection is acceptable, he assumes future liability for the correctness of that verdict. And your disclosure would be no worse that that of the family doctor who recommends a heart specialist to evaluate an cardiac symptom. If the specialist concludes that the heart is perfectly healthy, the patient will be relieved and unlikely to fault the general practitioner for erring on the side of caution.

Aluminum Wiring – Is this a Fire Risk?

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: Our house was built in 1972, with aluminum wiring for all the outlet and light circuits. Recently, we learned that aluminum wire is a bad thing and puts our home at risk for fire. Since we have had no problems for the past 35 years, we’re wondering if what we’ve heard is true? If so, is there a fix besides rewiring the entire house? Also, if we sell the house without rewiring it, will we be liable for future problems? Kris

Dear Kris: Aluminum wiring was installed in many homes from the late 1960s through the early 1970s, particularly in mobile homes. When used for 110 volt circuits, it is commonly recognized as a potential fire hazard. Fortunately, the solution does not involve rewiring your home. The problem exists at the connections only, requiring localized upgrades, rather than replacement of the wires

Aluminum wire ends can become loose at connecting hardware, and this can cause overheating of the connections, resulting in house fires. This does not mean that the aluminum connections in your home are definitely faulty, but there is the potential for overheating, even if you’ve never noticed a problem. In some cases, where no evidence of any problem was apparent, burnt wires were found inside the walls during a remodel, after the drywall had been removed.

The common solution is to install special connectors, commonly known as “pigtails,” at outlets, lights, and switches. This should be done by a licensed electrician who is familiar with aluminum wire issues.

As for future liability when you sell the home, just be sure to disclose to buyers that the house is wired with aluminum and include documentation to show that the wire ends were retrofitted.

Electrician Blows Fuse Over Home Inspectors

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.

Homeowner Fearful of Aluminum Wire

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: My home was built around 1970 and the electrical wiring is aluminum. I’ve never noticed any of the danger signs commonly associated with aluminum wire, such as warm face plates on outlets and switches, flickering lights, etc. I may soon be selling the home and am wondering what to do. Since I’ve gone this long without any problems, would you recommend that I upgrade the wire ends? If I do nothing, do you think the aluminum wiring may be a deal breaker? Michael

Dear Michael: You have raised two separate issues: the safety of aluminum wiring and the effects that aluminum wire could have on a real estate sale. Let’s take these in order.

Aluminum wiring has been the cause of numerous house fires. This is because the wire connections at outlets, lights, switches, and breakers can become loose, and these slack fittings are prone to overheating. The recommended upgrade for aluminum wire connections is to add copper wire ends, commonly known as “pigtails,” and to secure these to the aluminum wires with connectors that are specifically designed for this purpose.

Aluminum wire was commonly used for outlets, lights, switches, and other branch circuits from the late 1960s through the early 1970s. When aluminum connections were recognized as a significant fire hazard, this practice was abandoned.

Many homes with aluminum wiring have shown no apparent signs of loose or overheated wires, but it should not be assumed, in such cases, that all is OK. Overheated outlets may not be located where discovery is likely. A hot cover plate behind a bed or refrigerator, for example, might go unnoticed for years, until a wall fire suddenly occurs. In some homes, removal of drywall during a remodel has revealed wire insulation that was charred to a blackened crisp. With aluminum wire, the potential for disaster is always present, and one never knows when a loosened connection could cause a fire.

For these reasons, a retrofit of all aluminum wire ends by a qualified electrician is highly recommended. In matters of electrical safety, it is best to err on the side of caution; to weigh the risks in terms of potential consequences, rather than the seeming unlikelihood of an occurrence. A fire might never happen, but if it did, what are the potential results? From that perspective, it is always wise to play it safe.

As for the effects of aluminum wiring in a real estate transaction: a qualified home inspector will definitely identify aluminum branch wiring as a safety hazard and recommend upgrade. Prudent homebuyers will take such disclosures very seriously. Instead of waiting for “red flags” to disrupt a purchase transaction, have the wiring addressed prior to listing the home for sale.

As a final note: Aluminum wiring is still used for 220 volt circuits and is regarded as safe for that use if the connectors are rated for aluminum wiring and if the wire ends are treated with an antioxidant compound to prevent corrosion.

Home Inspector Didn’t Open Electrical Panel

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: I recently purchased a home from an investor who renovates and then resells old houses. Everything was going well until our main circuit breaker started tripping. An electrician told us that our new 100 amp service panel is connected on a 60 amp service line. He speculated that the seller installed the new panel himself, without a permit and without hiring an electrician. None of this was reported by our home inspector. In fact, he didn’t even remove the panel cover during the inspection, and now he claims that anything that was not visible is not within the scope of the inspection. Who is liable, the home inspector, the spec seller, or both? Chris

Dear Chris: Your home inspector should have removed the panel cover to inspect the breakers and wiring within. This is standard procedure for a competent home inspector. Inspection of the electrical system, if the inspector does a thorough job, should also consider the relative capacities of the service lines and the service panel. For the inspector to dismiss these oversights as conditions that were “not visible” is baseless denial.

When home inspectors correctly disclaim electrical defects that are not visible, they are referring to conditions that are concealed within the construction, hidden by personal property, or buried underground. But this disclaimer does not excuse blatant failure to remove the cover from a breaker panel. Inspectors who overlook this essential part of an inspection are professionally negligent.

The seller, of course, was also negligent, but this may have been a matter of electrical ignorance, rather than ill intent. On the other hand, replacing a breaker panel without a building permit is illegal, and a professional real estate investor should have known this. If a permit had been obtained, the municipal inspector would have required an upgrade of the service line, consistent with the capacity of the new panel. To address this issue now, an as-built permit should be obtained from the local building authority, and the power company should be notified that the service line needs upgrade.

But before you commence any repairs or upgrades, the home inspector and seller should be notified of the problem and given an opportunity to respond. Both are individually liable for lack of disclosure. If neither will take responsibility, you can provide them with formal invitations to small claims court. If you do this, be sure to have plenty of photos of faulty conditions and some written reports from electricians and other professionals.

As a final thought, a home inspector who did not remove a panel cover probably missed other issues in the course of his inspection. Therefore, a second inspection of the property is warranted. Find out who is the most thorough inspector in your area and get a second opinion on everything. You may find that additional defects should be addressed with the seller and with the first home inspector. If it becomes necessary to take legal action, consult an attorney for procedural advice.