Photographs of branch circuits found during home inspections.
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Type Of Wiring
Most homes use copper, but aluminum wiring can be found in Houston. The problem with aluminum is connected with fire safety. Aluminum wiring heats up more than copper, which can lead to fires; however, aluminum is not considered bad when coming from the power lines into your breaker box (service panel).
GFCI stands for ground fault circuit interrupter. These outlets turn off the power to an appliance when there is contact between water and electricity. The classic situation was the radio falling into the bathtub. When this safety feature was first employed, circuits were protected by a special GFCI breaker, but now we have GFCI outlets. These outlets should be in areas where an electrical device could come into contact with water: outside, garages, bathrooms, kitchens, and wetbars are examples.
Tamper Resistant (TR) and Weather Resistant (WR) Outlets
Since late 2009, you began to see this safety feature in new homes, the tamper resistant (TR) outlet. In Texas, a home inspector should be reporting on the presence or lack there of. Some TR outlets have the marking stamped on the face of the plug. In the picture on the right, there is no mark, but you do see the plates which prevent children from sticking items into the outlet. Taking the coverplate off, you will see the TR stamped on the tab of the plug.
Loose Outlets, Switch and Outlet Issues
outlets can cause problems for plugs. You do not want paint in the
an outlet is loose, the cover can be removed to tighten the two
screws on the tabs. This will secure the outlet to the junction box, which can prevent wiring problems.
the outlet away from the box. Black wires are hot, while whites are
neutrals. The bare copper is the ground (this can also be green, but there are times when you may see this ground wire as brown, which is the standard in Europe).
You see a light fixture in the room, but you look at the wall plate, and there are two switches. This is not a problem by itself, but I wanted this here, because people do not understand what is happening. The builder has a set of general plans for this house, which shows that each room will have a light and a fan. The buyer decides not to have a ceiling fan, so the builder simply places a light fixture. If you want, you can replace this fixture with a ceiling fan and light, and you can have them operate on their own switch, since the wiring is in place. There can be another reason for the second light switch though. Look for an upside down outlet in the room (an outlet where the ground hole is above the slots for hot and neutral). If there is one, the switch controls either both plugs or the top plug of that outlet. This is meant for a lamp.
Home inspectors check the wiring of an outlet to see that it was done properly, but we also check the condition of the outlet. In the picture, we see that the lower plug has been damaged by having pieces broken off. Broken covers and broken parts of the plug are safety concerns. We also check for burn marks. Once a problem is noted on the surface, the outlet cover is removed for further investigation.
This problem may be listed under the Branch Circuit section or the Hydro-Therapy Equipment section. The outlet in my hand is not attached to any framing. This is a GFCI outlet for the motor of the hydro-therapy tub. A common problem is that the junction box for the outlet is left to dangle from wiring. Like all outlets, this should have been secured to the framing.
Homeowners love to hate smoke alarms in my opinion. Batteries are often not changed out (suggested replacement batteries should be done twice a year with the time changes). Batteries are removed. Wires are cut, or as in this picture, the unit is removed from its base. This smoke alarm was connected to others via the wiring of the alarm system. This interconnection is the best set up. You also want smoke alarms to be in each bedroom, and then you will want a general unit outside of bedroom areas for each floor.
Fixtures and Wiring
This was the best picture that I could take of a knob and tube style of wiring. This is the knob. It is a porcelain fixture attached to a rafter in the attic which holds the bare wire in a groove. This one was not active. On older homes, this wiring system is sometimes left as part of the wiring system, which does not meet current safety standards.
With exterior fixtures, you have to think about how they can be effected by the weather, and are there safety issues. As long as the fixture was designed for outdoor use, we are probably good with the fixture. However, further problems can arise. This fixture was meant for outdoor use, but the bulb is not meant for this location. When the light is on, this incandescent bulb will become hot. If there is rain, the bulb can explode. We need a lamp designed for exterior use in this location. This bulb could be used in a covered fixture. In that case, we have to ensure that the fixture has glass protecting the bulb.
Sometimes I think this is done by electricians taking shortcuts in areas where people may not notice (detached garage and attic), and sometimes maybe this is done by a do-it-yourself homeowner who may not know the proper way to handle the repair. In both photographs, we are seeing wiring that needed to be connected. Wiring nuts were used. Electrical tape was used in one situation. Both are improper. There is still the possibility that these connections points can become damaged, so any wiring connection should be inside of a junction box (j-box).
In the attic, we can also look at the wiring of fixtures which are recessed into the ceiling. This home was built in the early 1950s, and it is still using the original wiring (notice the white-grey cloth sheathing on the wires). A new light fixture was installed into a frame for an older fixture. The problem is that the older fixture had a housing to protect the wiring connection, while the new fixture was adapted to fit in the old opening. The wiring should be protected as well as the fixture below.
Once inside a junction box, the box itself should have a cover. Most new construction will have j-boxes made from a blue plastic, but there are ones in different colors and different materials. Most often we see these open boxes in attics, but as in the picture on the left, you may find them in a wall. In this case, the homeowner created a panel to access the box to work on the wiring here. I did want to point out something in the picture on the left. The blue tube in the picture is not a conduit for the electrical wiring. This is a cold water pipe made from PEX. I mention this, because there was a type of conduit used in the 1980’s that was a blue plastic, and some people mistake the PEX for that material.
This is one of those moments where I wonder what they were thinking. I have seen this in garages and other more out of the way places, but this was in the dining room of a home. The remodeler placed the j-box on the wall surface. Alright, it was secured to the wall, but this looks bad, and this can still be damaged by movement in the room.
When looking at fixtures, we want to see that they work and that they have all f their parts. On the left, we see that the ceiling fan is missing the fan blades. On the right, we have another problem. A roof leak damaged the ceiling, causing sheetrock to fall away from the area where the ceiling fan is located. This allows the ceiling fan to wobble when in use, which can cause further damage.
Light fixture attachment does not always seem to make it onto the repair list for homeowners. The light works, and there have been no other problems. With this exterior light, a problem will eventually happen though. Rain does not come straight down. During windstorms, rain can be traveling in any direction. This gap will allow water to come into contact with the electrical wiring, so we do want this sealed.
All light bulbs generate heat. How much heat depends upon type of bulb and wattage. In areas like closets, stored items can come close to the light fixture. If those stored items can burn, the heat from the bulb may cause a fire. The other problem with the uncovered light bulb in a closet is that you can burn your hand or arm when reaching up and removing a stored item. Older fixtures for closets are designed not to have covers, so a new fixture is needed.
These are not typically included in a home inspection, because many homes in the general area do not have them. There are a series of rods placed around the roof. These are connected by the cables, which run down the side of the home. The problem in this photograph is not the system, but how it was installed. The cable on the left is loose between rods. During a windstorm, this cable can sway across the roof surface, causing damage to the shingles. This also happens to be a problem with television cables running along the roof. Cables should be clamped, and the fastener heads should be caulked. Not pictured is that these cables run down the side of the home to a grounding rod. These cables should be fastened to the home as well to prevent damage to the siding.