When Systems Age, Electrical Systems

Home Inspector with NCW Home Inspections, LLC

When Systems Age, Electrical Systems- Chelan and Leavenworth Home Inspection Services.

As home inspectors we are always evaluating major systems of a home. It is pretty common for a home inspector to state a hot water tank is at the end of it life, or a roof, HVAC etc…

It seems pretty clear to everyone for these systems because we are used to the notion that these systems wear out and need replacement.

But one major system that does not come up in this conversation as often and should is the electrical system. This includes the service panel, overcurrent devices and any associated wiring and outlets (receptacles and luminaries). These systems wear out just as anything else but there is one additional major concern here. Overcurrent protection, associated wiring and outlets are major safety items.

Most electrical circuits are designed to be operated at only 80 percent of their rating. While operating above this level may not cause the overcurrent device to trip, it may result in long-term degradation of the circuit wiring and overcurrent devices.

                                                     Zinsco Breaker

Circuit breakers (overcurrent devices) of some specific manufacturers may be subject to unique problems (example: Zinsco and FPE).  I have contacted several recertification and redistributors of circuit breakers and though they do not keep statistics on specific circuit breaker failure rates they did indicate that Zinsco and FPE breakers did fail their recertification process at a higher rate than other manufacturers.

Cutler Hammer has this statement about the warranty of their two major residential breaker lines. “The CH style branch breakers carry a lifetime warranty.  The BR style branch breakers carry a life of 10 years.”

BR circuit breakers with the 10 year warranty are used for Cutler-Hammer BR, Westinghouse, Challenger, and Bryant load centers.

Circuit breaker can also wear out from repeated overcurrent tripping or malfunction.  Overcurrent is defined as any current in excess of the rated current of equipment or the ampacity of a conductor. This may be the result from overload, short circuit, or ground fault.

                                          Improper Bend Radius of Service Conductors in old service panel

Another concern often associated with older electrical systems is the service panel (load center). Many of these older load centers have small enclosures (gutters). Due to the confined space the bend radius of the wiring is less than what we would accept by today’s standards. Over bent wiring causes excessive heat at the bend of the wires. Wiring is often crowded and has many modifications. Double lugging (two or more wires under a screw) of neutrals and hot conductors is often found.

One more issue that is very common in older homes is over-lamping of light fixture. This is the use of light bulbs that exceeds the rating of the fixture. Over time the increased heat causes an unsafe deterioration of the components and wiring of the light fixture.

The NFPA has this statement from the report listed below -

“Although many homes have had their electrical system upgraded or expanded over the years, many also have not.  The electrical wiring within the home may be the most vulnerable to aging, as it is often buried in walls or ceilings, or installed in attics or crawl spaces that are often not used.  In addition, these non-climate controlled areas, like attics and crawl spaces, can be subjected to extreme temperature conditions and changes, as well as dampness and moisture.  All of these factors can contribute to, or even accelerate, the effects of aging.”  

NFPA report on aging electrical systems- http://www.nfpa.org/assets/files/pdf/research/resareport.pdf


Electrical systems have built in redundancy and safety measures. As these systems age the safety factor is most likely being reduced and there is an increased chance for an electrical fire and shock.

                                                       Unsafe Wire termination in bedroom

Buying a home is usually a very large investment for most people. Understanding the major components of the home is essential for protecting that investment.

Hiring knowledgeable and conscientious Realtors and Home Inspectors should be a top priority when looking for a home to purchase.

“If you think it's expensive to hire a professional to do the job, wait until you hire an amateur.”

Red Adair

NCW Home Inspections, LLC  is a Licensed Washington State Home Inspection service located in Wenatchee Washington serving Chelan County, Douglas County, Kittitas County, Okanogan County and Grant County Washington and the cities of Wenatchee, Leavenworth, Cashmere, Orville, Cle Elum, East Wenatchee, Quincy and many more…  

Your Wenatchee and Chelan Professional Real Estate, Home and Structural Pest Inspection Service


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James Quarello
JRV Home Inspection Services, LLC - Wallingford, CT
Connecticut Home Inspector

Electrical can be hard to judge as far as age degradation. As the posts states, much of the wiring and receptacles are hidden. 

Jul 27, 2012 01:32 AM #1
Donald Hester
NCW Home Inspections, LLC - Wenatchee, WA
NCW Home Inspections, LLC

Jim, This is so true. But as you know many times the clues may be there. Well if you got to see more crawlspaces that is ; )

Jul 27, 2012 02:37 AM #2
TeamCHI - Complete Home Inspections, Inc.
Complete Home Inspections, Inc. - Brentwood, TN
Home Inspectons - Nashville, TN area - 615.661.029

Good evening, Don. My old Sylvania is a classic example of having small gutters and overcrowding. I had to put in a new ground bar because the old neutral/ground was crowded and overloaded. The sad thing, is that it would cost over $1200 to put in a new panel...

Jul 27, 2012 11:08 AM #3
Jay Markanich
Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC - Bristow, VA
Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia

This is probably one of the most overlooked aspects of buying an older home.  And then everyone wants to install all new appliances and such.  Let's upgrade the house, and forget the panel box!

Jul 27, 2012 12:14 PM #4
Donald Hester
NCW Home Inspections, LLC - Wenatchee, WA
NCW Home Inspections, LLC

Michael, Yeah that sounds about right. I tell people it cost around $1500. But heck that is cheap compared to a new HVAC system or roof.

Jay, These systems where designed for there times. But all of that has changed with all the electrical demands we need now.

Jul 27, 2012 12:33 PM #5
Jim Mushinsky
Centsable Inspection - Framingham, MA

Great topic Donald.

Many homes for sale are advertised with an "upgraded electric system - 200 amps", which may sound great to the typical home buyer.   An experienced home inspector looks beyond the nice new panel and circuit breakers and sometimes finds many of the aged wiring systems still in use.

The old 60 amp service limits the current/heat to those old wires and splices.  The new 200 amp service just might be a fire waiting to ignite.  Buyer beware, the upgrade may be to the risk of fire.

Too many times I see 200 amp service connected to K&T or solid core aluminum.


Aug 11, 2012 11:13 AM #6
Donald Hester
NCW Home Inspections, LLC - Wenatchee, WA
NCW Home Inspections, LLC

Jim, So true a new panel does not mean the system overall is in good shape or completely releived from issues.

Aug 14, 2012 07:02 AM #7
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Donald Hester

NCW Home Inspections, LLC
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