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C O M M O N   P R O B L E M S :   E L E C T R I C A L


ELECTRICITY is not something to play around with. Electrical problems can burn down your house, they can shock you and people you care about, and they can damage your equipment. Because all electric work is supposed to be done by a licensed electrician in most states, fixing wiring flaws can be expensive; unless you want to be a handyman outlaw you will probably want to include the electrician's cost in the true cost of your fixer-upper home. Of course we reccomend that you fix all electrical problems right away. So that you understand the dangers involved, here are the risks associated with some of the more common electrical problems you may see on your report.


       
                      Open Ground:  


Some older equipment uses the metal case of the gear as a ground by connecting it up to the neutral lead (this is called 'chassis ground'). Guess what can happen when the hot signal makes its way to the case, then you touch it? If your body is grounded enough, you become the electricity's favored path, and you get a potentially fatal shock. You're really asking for it if you have two outlets, one of which is reversed and the other is not, and you plug a chassis ground device into each and subsequently touch the cases of both- your body becomes a dead short in the system- ouch! At least your fingerprints will be harder to identify.

A less dangerous but more irritating problem can result from reversing hot and neutral- fried computers! It seems that at least some computer power supplies like to have the AC waveform coming in the proper way- not the upside-down sort of juice the PSU gets when plugged into a reversed outlet. If your computer doesn't fry after a few months, you might instead have the joy of random software crashes from internal undervoltages.
 

       
        Reversed Hot and Neutral:  
Plugs with a third, round, hole are supposed to be grounded. There ought to be a path for electricity to flow through all the way to the nice, moist, and electrically neutral dirt outside your house. This keeps you safer, because shocks due to various failures are more likely to flow into the ground than through your body. A proper ground also helps your computer and other shielded equipment work properly. Modern shielding tries to conduct excess radio noise from the shield into the ground. Without the ground, the shielding becomes an antenna, directing radio noise back into the system instead! That's why transmitting CB radios can cause ungrounded computers to reboot, for example. Sources of radio energy like other computers, motors, and older car ignitions can lead to problems like damaged computer RAM.

Open Grounds are very common in older homes where the previous owner has swapped out two pronged outlets with newer three pronger outlets without adding a true ground wire. It doesn't make a home any more dangerous to do this than it was when it was new, it's just misleading. One resolution is to install old style, two prong, ungrounded outlets so that everyone knows what they are getting when they plug in.
 

       
        Grounding and the Driven Rod:  
All of that careful work running ground wires throughout your home won't help much if your main electrical box is not grounded to the earth. Today, the typical method is to drive a length of copper coated steel rod into the earth and connect it to the box with an unbroken heavy gauge wire. There are also other acceptable methods, including connecting to iron water (but not gas) pipe that leads to the ground, or connecting to appropriately placed rebar in your building's foundation.

references:
The California Real Estate Inspection Association on grounding
 

       
                 Knob and Tube Wiring:    
This isn't always a problem, but it is a little dangerous primarily because people don't recognize it for what it is, and don't know how to treat it properly. It is common for homes built prior to the 1950s but very occasionally is found in later homes.

In contrast to the rubber jacketed bundles of copper wire (AKA 'Romex') we all know and love today, knob and tube uses a small gauge, solder tinned, typically cloth covered wire. Most people don't realize that knob and tube wiring is actually rated to carry higher current than typical gauge romex wire! Because the wire is suspended in the air for the most part, it can cool down very quickly- much more quickly than tightly wrapped romex sandwhiched into a closed wall. For this reason, however, it is not advisable to cover up working knob and tube wiring in any way. It is also important not to set anything on it, trip on it, or stretch it out, any one of which could break a soldered joint or dislodge a ceramic tube seperating wires that cross each other. These tubes were taped in place, and in many houses we inspect the tape crumbles very easily.

If you plan to keep your vintage Knob and Tube wiring, make sure that all attic users understand what it is. If needed, add fresh electrical tape to wire crossings to keep the ceramic in place. With the breakers switched off, check carefully for bare wire where old sheathing has worn away. Do not touch your eyes, nose, or mouth after handling antique wiring! It might contain asbestos. Don't add new outlets to existing knob and tube wiring, especially for high current devices like air conditioners. Despite the rating, it is best not to use high current devices like power tools on knob and tube circuits; I can tell you from experience that an electric saw can fry the ends off knob and tube! However, as long as you are careful, this classic wire is quite usable and is actually more true to the history of antique homes than modern wiring would be. references: an excellent, detailed description of knob and tube wiring
 

       
                      Exposed Wiring:     
If romex wire not rated for the outdoors is inappropriately exposed to the weather, and especially if it is buried, salts can actually wick through the inside of the cable and rot it from the inside. If you have ever stripped wire from a boat trailer, you will have seen the way the copper is oxidized all through the bundle, well beyond the point at which the wire was exposed to water. There is a kind of wire approved for burial, but even this wire should be protected in some way when it is above ground. Animals can chew through exposed wire, potentially creating home-burning-down conditions.

Interestingly (or sadly really) this wicking effect in romex has been a big issue for flood victims. Even if a home was only flooded a few feet, we may suggest replacing all wiring in the structure, as the salty consequences may be found on wire as far up as the second story. If you see this problem in your inspection report, consult with a professional electrician.
 

                                                                                                                                                                                                               
            Samuel H. Sahagian : TREC 7669 - 832.453.2766 - sam@vitalinspections.com - 2104 Sprite Lane - Pearland, Texas 77581            

 

 

 


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