Electrical Dangers

Bill Bergstedt
Certified Master Home Inspector
Inspecting in California and Nevada
530-577-7811 (office)  

Email:  tahoeinspector@sbcglobal.net 


The use of electricity is probably the most beneficial and also the most dangerous component in our homes.  We take electricity for granted, knowing very little about it and therein lies the potential for hazards.   With the discovery of electricity and how to harness it for the benefit of others, thousands of pleasures, benefits and unfortunately dangers exist and are developed every day.

Hundreds of thousands of lives are saved every year because  systems, instruments and devices which provide surgeries, life supports and expedited assistance are made possible by the proper use of electricity.  Unfortunately thousands of lives are altered even ended when a tragic fire or electrocution occur.  With rare exception these unfortunate events take place because electricial components are used incorrectly, miswired or abused.  In far too many instances these occur in or around homes.  You may wonder how that can be.  That is the purpose of this article, to inform you what can happen and why it happens.  While it is true that squirrels, rats and other chewing animals including your dog or cat can and sometimes do cause wiring to short, arc and cause a fire, the vast majority of these accidents are caused by unskilled individuals, usually home owners or their well meaning friends and family who decide to alter, add or rewire something in the home or garage.

Poorly or improperly attached wires, wires joined together outside of a junction box, insulation removed from wires that then make contact with an item that causes overheating or sparking are some of the common situations.  Overloaded wiring or circuits are very common.  Most individuals do not know anything about the proper gauge of the wire to use or the maximum amperage of the circuit breaker which those wires can be attached to.  They also are unaware of how many switches or duplex receptacles can be attached to a given gauge of wire or the length of the wire run.  The mistakes in these areas can and do cause overheating, eventual charring of the insulation or damage to the circuit breakers, and the end result can be a fire that burns down a home, perhaps in the night while everyone is asleep.


These types of fires are more common in cold climates during winter months.  Electrical space heaters are turned on in the bedroom for warmth, an elctric blanket is turned on, perhaps a night light or two and one or more TVs are at least on standby power perhaps even stay on as you fall asleep.  The DVD or other devices may be in operation as well as the home computer and printer.  Now multiply that by three or more bedrooms and add several extension cords with multiple items plugged into each one of them and you now have the electric meter spinning.  Should all of  these be on one circuit as they often are and if it is the original 14 gauge wire with a replaced higher amperage circuit breaker in the sub panel, trouble is looming. 

Why would a circuit breaker be replaced by a breaker with higher capacity?  Quite simply because the uneducated homeowner goes to the local hardware store or lumber company and buys a larger capacity circuit breaker; after all he is tired of jumping out of bed in his pajamas, hunting for a flashlight in the dark then going outside and tripping the circuit breaker back on night after night when all of the electricity suddenly goes out  as the space heater kicks in.  Further the homeowner may not properly connect the now loose wire into the new oversized circuit breaker which may cause the wire to arc.  I've even seen on a home inspection the situation of the wrong type of breaker being jerry rigged into the panel by cutting the metal cover.  Another method I've seen is to connect the wiring to another already in use circuit breaker because there was no more space to put in an additional circuit breaker for the added lines in the backyard or garage.  This is called double lugging, sometimes the wiring colors are even reversed and now we have a reverse polarity issue.

Years ago before circuit breakers they bought higher amperage fuses and when those blew they put a penny in the socket before they screwed in the fuse, that is if they didn't kill themselves getting the penny in the socket. The situation can and often does get worse, the homeowner loses or sells the house, you decide to buy it and do so without a home inspection or choose the cheapest inspector you can find instead of a professional and knowledgable home inspector to advise you.  You've just inherited a potentially deadly situation that could have been corrected had you made the right choice.  Is this a dramatic  story?  Yes but it happens thousands of times every year.  Properly educated it won't be you.

A skilled and knowledgable home inspector who is trained in electrical panels can be a life saver.  A circuit tester is plugged into every available outlet to determine loads, ground, polarity and other conditions.  The electrical panels are opened with the circuit breakers being examined for dmage, checked for excessive heat and charred wiring.  The gauge of the wires in relation to the amperage of the circuit breakers is observed, proper grounding and bonding is checked.  Infiltration by rodents and wasp nests are a few of the potential hazards sometimes observed.