Electrical Perceptions and Reality

By
Home Inspector with JRV Home Inspection Services, LLC HOI 394

A sub panel found in a Connecticut house that has been incorrectly wiredWhat is the most common electrical problem found during a home inspection? Many in the real estate business would probably answer double taps. I have come to this conclusion after being asked more times than I can possible count by the agent while I am inspecting the electric panel, "any double taps?"

While double taps, two or more wires on a circuit breaker, are a common defect and do not only apply to just the breakers, I have also come to the conclusion they are not the only common defect.

Second or sub electric panels are quite common in many houses. People add on or remodel and in doing so require additional electric circuits which the current main panel can not accommodate. Instead of replacing the entire main panel, not a terrible idea by the way, a second electric panel is added. The problem begins with who actually installs this new panel.

In my experience I would say about half the time the new service has been installed by the contractor or homeowner doing the construction, not a licensed electrician. The motivation is I'm certain cost savings. Professionals with knowledge and a license are after all expensive. And necessary.

An unskilled person will almost certainly make errors that render the new system unsafe. Further the work is undoubtedly not permitted, never inspected and ultimately completed with everyone believing everything is hunky dory.

While the double tap seems to reign as the most common electrical defect, it is not by far as dangerous as an entire electric panel wired incorrectly by a non professional.

Posted by

James Quarello
Connecticut Home Inspector
Former SNEC-ASHI President
JRV Home Inspection Services, LLC

 ASHI Certified Inspector

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1,334,156
Charles Buell
Charles Buell Inspections Inc. - Seattle, WA
Seattle Home Inspector

Jim, I agree, while double lugging is pretty common, the mixing of grounds and neutrals in sub-panels has to be a close second.  It is baffling to me how this happens as hardly anyone would think of connection the ground wire to the neutral wire at a switch or receptacle.  A very large percentage of sub-panels get done wrong.

Nov 12, 2012 11:24 PM #8
Rainer
278,100
Kathryn Maguire
GreatNorfolkHomes.com (757) 560-0881 - Chesapeake, VA
Serving Chesapeake, Norfolk, VA Beach

One thing that I would think no homeowner should approach as a DIY effort is anything to do with the electrical panel. I am wondering what would happen with their insurance if a fire resulted by their unlicensed effort.  I would not want to test that.

Nov 12, 2012 11:27 PM #9
Rainmaker
1,849,772
Jay Markanich
Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC - Bristow, VA
Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia

The fact that people install subs without the understanding that grounds and neutrals cannot be mixed means they don't understand wiring.  So, what else is wrong?

Nov 12, 2012 11:47 PM #10
Rainer
158,244
Anthony Daniels
Coldwell Banker - San Francisco, CA
SF Bay Area REO Specialist

I see double tapped breakers all the time, including my current transaction.

I've also seen secondary panels, tapped into the rear of the meter, in order to bypass the additional energy consumed for organic growing activities.

Never any shortage of creativity in this area.

Nov 13, 2012 01:13 AM #11
Rainmaker
126,582
Will Handley
Progressive Inspection Service - San Juan Capistrano, CA
Certified Master Inspection Services

White, green, black, red, yellow and purple color coated wiring in use? When I see this, I'm thinking a couple of different things. #1 is this a commercial structure, if so the multi-colored wiring maybe correct. #2 if this is a residential structure, a non-professional with some background in commercial wiring has been involved in the installation of this panel. #3 I'm also guessing no permit was pulled on the installation and or alteration of the panel.

Time to call an independent licensed electrical contractor for further inspection/service as needed to ensure safe, hazard free, code compliant systems integrity prior to close of escrow...

Proceed at your own risk:-)

Nov 13, 2012 02:08 AM #12
Rainmaker
126,582
Will Handley
Progressive Inspection Service - San Juan Capistrano, CA
Certified Master Inspection Services

I find the shared neutral/ground issues almost exclusively on older homes. I'm guessing because it was a common practice when two conductor wiring systems were the normal electrical system protocol, as these older panels get replaced and or service upgraded inexperienced contractors continue the shared buss into the new panel installation. I never find the issue in newer tract home development.

Nov 13, 2012 02:20 AM #13
Rainmaker
1,560,731
Carla Muss-Jacobs, RETIRED
RETIRED / State License is Inactive - Portland, OR

HA!  My first thought was "double tapping" . . . which is so common.  Also, reverse outlets, no grounding, etc.  I've not seen only one extra panel though. Maybe it's a CT thing?!?

Nov 13, 2012 02:52 AM #14
Rainmaker
335,388
Kim Peasley-Parker
AgentOwned Realty, Heritage Group, Inc. - Sumter, SC

I see very few double panels, but lots of double tapping and bad GFCIs.  

Nov 13, 2012 05:03 AM #15
Rainer
284,418
Steven Cook
No Longer Processing Mortgages. - Tacoma, WA

James -- one house we lived in had a side tap - for the added room air conditioner -- it had fuses, while the main panel was breakers!

Nov 13, 2012 10:16 AM #16
Rainmaker
233,697
Reuben Saltzman
Structure Tech Home Inspections - Minneapolis, MN
Delivering the Unbiased Truth.

Funny, I've heard similar comments made while I'm inspecting panels.  Double-tapped circuit breakers are also usually a simple fix... provided it's not done to half of the breakers in the panel.

Nov 13, 2012 10:36 AM #17
Rainmaker
1,766,882
Tom Arstingstall, General Contractor, Dry Rot, Water Damage Sacramento, El Dorado County - (916) 765-5366
Dry Rot and Water Damage www.tromlerconstruction.com Mobile - 916-765-5366 - Placerville, CA
General Contractor, Dry Rot and Water Damage

You bring up good points James, we need to be aware of the importance of doing things correctly.

The fact that it is common, means that many still need to be informed of the risks.

Nov 13, 2012 11:41 AM #18
Rainmaker
690,134
James Quarello
JRV Home Inspection Services, LLC - Wallingford, CT
Connecticut Home Inspector

Gary, I think that is exactly the same standard. 

Clint, Yep all those things.

Sharon, How nice of you to say.

Fernando, It's where they are connected that is the issue, not the number of them in this case.

Michael, Good idea, the professional and the dedicated line.

Fred, I was speaking of a common defect in those sub or four wire feed panels like the one in the picture. 

Richie, Sorting it out is thankfully not up to us. 

Charlie, A good example and one I have used for years. The sub is basically another circuit from the main. 

Kathryn, Or heaven forbid a serious injury. 

Nov 13, 2012 08:58 PM #19
Rainmaker
690,134
James Quarello
JRV Home Inspection Services, LLC - Wallingford, CT
Connecticut Home Inspector

Jay, Obviously they do not, but they think they do. Dangerous combination. 

Anthony, Grow houses use a lot of electricity. The people that perform the electrical work for these houses are monumentally stupid. 

Will, The colors are not necessarily a red flag. The vast majority of electrical contractors here do commercial / industrial work in addition to residential. Also the age of the home has little to do with the shared ground / neutral issue here. I will say it is more common on older structures before it was codified. For example I know of certain older condo complexes where this issue is present. 

Carla, Really, just one? Very common to find a second electric panel out here.

Kim, Again I am surprised.

Edna, Tape, hmmmmm.

Steven, Fuses really are not bad. In fact they are preferred in many industrial applications.

Reuben, Yep, quite easy and not really a major issue.

Tom, Agreed. Stick to what you know.

Nov 13, 2012 09:23 PM #20
Rainmaker
217,102
Rob Ernst
Certified Structure Inspector - Reno, NV
Reno, NV-775-410-4286 Inspector & Energy Auditor

The number one problem is probably unskilled installation. If it's double taps or anything else. Lots of times if there is one amateur generated issue there is like to be more. Some of my favorite one are what some people do with extension cords.

Nov 13, 2012 11:27 PM #21
Rainmaker
690,134
James Quarello
JRV Home Inspection Services, LLC - Wallingford, CT
Connecticut Home Inspector

Rob, True. When an amateur gets into the electric system, there is often more than one issue. 

Nov 14, 2012 08:25 PM #22
Rainmaker
490,673
Donald Hester
NCW Home Inspections, LLC - Wenatchee, WA
NCW Home Inspections, LLC

Jim, The number times I see distribution panels done correct are quite few. They must be part of those items like decks that are almost rocket science.

Nov 14, 2012 10:13 PM #23
Rainmaker
688,100
John Juarez
The Medford Real Estate Team - Fremont, CA
ePRO, SRES, GRI, PMN

Unpermitted construction modifications are great until they are not great. When are they not great? How about when a fire destroys the house because the homeowner made a modification and he did not know how to do the work correctly and safely. Not only is the house lost but an insurance claim may be denied if the cause of the fire was due to a improperly, unpermitted modification of the house’s electrical system.

Nov 15, 2012 11:46 AM #24
Rainmaker
690,134
James Quarello
JRV Home Inspection Services, LLC - Wallingford, CT
Connecticut Home Inspector

Don, Like I said, I estimate about half of the ones I inspect are wrong.

Juan, Yep, every things fine until it isn't. 

Nov 15, 2012 07:25 PM #25
Rainer
171,130
Robert Butler
Aspect Inspection - Montreal West Island, QC
Montreal Home Inspector | Aspect Inspection

That photo would certainly make my OMG file. A very good poit to make Jim. The worst set up I've seen was a small commercial building where there were 8 cascading sub panels (A sub panel branching off of a sub panel, branching off of a subpanel, etc.)

Nov 15, 2012 09:21 PM #26
Rainmaker
690,134
James Quarello
JRV Home Inspection Services, LLC - Wallingford, CT
Connecticut Home Inspector

Robert, That sounds interesting. 

Nov 17, 2012 08:40 PM #27
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