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Electrical Service Panel

Photographs of the electrical service panel found during home inspections.

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mast head
masthead where the power cables come to the home when they are
overhead. There is not much of one here, but the cables have a little
slack at the end to allow water to drip off.

service entrance cables
service entrance cables (electrical power cables) are going through a
tree. If the branches fall, they can take the cables with them.

power line in treeThe power line is laying on the branch in this example. The power line was still hanging low to the ground, but the tree branch managed to lift is up some. Still the power line needs to be repaired, and the tree branches should be pruned.

 cable height above gradeAt first glance we might not realize that there is a problem, but walk under the service entrance cable, and you will see the issue: height above grade. Power lines to the home should be high enough off of the ground to not easily interfere with normal activities. I could stretch my arms up to touch these lines. The higher the cables the better, but you at least want them to be ten feet above the grade.

FPE panel box
you look close, you can see the “FPE” symbol. Federal
Pacific panel boxes
are not safe, but this one has been on the home
for forty years without issue. The real problem comes with the
breakers not staying in place. This causes arcing, which can lead to fires.

inside the panel box
is the service panel after the interior cover has been removed. The
bottom right breaker almost fell out on me. Otherwise, there are no
burn marks on the wiring, but there is a problem.

two wires on the same breaker
the bottom breaker, two wires are going into the same spot. This is
called double lugging, and it can lead to problems. The solution is
to have another breaker installed for this circuit, but FPE breakers
are hard to come by now.

grounding electrode
An electrode bar is hammered into the earth to provide grounding for the home. They are eight feet long. The problem can be the tops which rust off or are knocked off by lawnmowers, so then the system is no longer grounded.

unattached ground wirecut ground wireIn these two photographs, we see that the ground wires are not attached to the electrodes. On the left, the clamp which is meant to go onto the electrode is off. I am not sure why this happens (did someone forget to install it in the first place?), but you can find this situation a few times. More common will be the picture on the right. The ground wire was cut, so it is no longer attached. Yard crews are often not careful, causing damage to the home that no one will realize until too late.

loose grounding terminationNew devices in the electrical system can be problems due to installation. When I first saw these grounding termination boxes being installed in new construction, everyone was leaving them loose. I was told that this was acceptable practice. I pointed out that the device had the holes in it set up to be attached to the wall. I said that we have to think of this as we would any other junction box. Now I see builders installing it attached to the walls as normal installation practice, yet sometimes you still find them loose.

 unmarked panelThere are a few things to mention in this picture, but I want to focus on panel labeling. By the breakers on the right side of the panel cover, we see a few breakers marked with black marker. Many panels have labels that can be filled in to indicate what the breakers are for, but these labels can wear out over time, so the black markers are used. The problem is that only a few breakers are marked. Home inspectors do not check for accuracy of labeling, but we do check to see that it is complete.

pointed screws for the interior panelWhen taking the interior panel cover off, check the fasteners holding that panel in place. I have seen this once in new construction, but this seems to happen more on older homes: inappropriate fasteners. The most common mistake is using sheet metal screws instead of the panel screws. Sheet metal screws have a pointed tip. The electrical panel screws have a flat tip. The concern is that the pointed tip of a sheet metal screw could bite into a wire, causing electrocution.

double lugged neutralsmissing anti-oxidant

We saw black wires (hot) double lugged, but here we see white wires (neutrals) double lugged in the picture on the left. Look on the strip behind the breaker to see them. This situation is just as bad as the having the hot wires joined together. In the picture on the right, we see two thick aluminum cables. These are the service entrance cables (power lines) as they attach to your panel. The problem is that aluminum cables need to be protected from rusting, so they need a paste called an anti-oxidant paste. This paste is frequently black.

panel height above gradepanel in closet

Location of the service panel (breaker box) can be an issue. Some people have told me that panels cannot be outside of the home. This is a common practice in Houston, and there is no rule against this location. What we do see in the picture on the left is a problem of placement on the wall. The main switch for turning off the power in this box is over seven feet off of the ground (grading).  This makes it hard for a technician to work on the unit, but the height becomes problematic if the homeowner is trying to turn off the power quickly. If this panel were a little more than a foot lower, we would have a position that is acceptable. The location of the panel in the picture on the right was an idea that began in the 1970s (in the 1960s, they were inside the garage, but I cannot remember seeing this scenario before the 70s). One reason for this move was to protect the homeowner from having to go outside in a dangerous situation. Closets were thought to be a good location. Then we had fires occur. If the panel had loose wires or another problem that caused overheating, items placed against the panel could catch fire. Current practice sees this location as being unsafe, so panels are moved out of the closet.

unsecured conduitunsecured wiring

Service panels seem to become messy with wiring from cable and telephone companies, but also wiring may be added in conduits for new circuits. In the picture on the left, we see two conduits coming out of the panel. One is going down. One comes out, and then it goes up. The problem is that they are not secured to the building, so the conduits can become damaged, leading to damage to the wiring, which can lead to fires. What we see in the picture on the right should be placed under the branch circuits section, but since we have unsecured conduits here, we may want to consider unsecured wiring here. There are more problems in this photo than the wiring, but let us focus on the wiring. This is in an attic. Wiring should be attached to the framing, but simply running it loose in an attic was a common building practice at one time. Who goes into the attic? You never know (in this attic quite a bit of work was being done). Loose wires can be pulled causing damage, so securing them here is as important as having them secured in other areas.

AFCI breakersA safety feature that has been added to service panels is AFCI breakers. You may have heard of GFCI, which there are breakers that are ground fault circuit interrupters, but this is mainly used on outlets now. AFCI stands for arc fault circuit interrupter. The breakers sense when an arc is occurring, and then it shuts the power off. An arc could heat a piece of metal, which can cause a fire. The breakers are marked with “AFCI”, but the easier way for you to recognize them is the test button. Here we see a yellow tag, but the tag can be different colors from different manufacturers. These breakers should be used for bedrooms, commonly used living areas, or where wiring runs through a conduit.  You have to push the button to test them (inspectors are not required to test these breakers when the home is occupied). If the breaker trips when the button is pushed, the breaker is working as intended.

solar panels
are some solar panels that have been set up on the lion’s house at
the Houston Zoo. I have not seen these on any home yet, so I thought
I would share these with you.

wrong wire sizes

One problem that arises on older homes is the updating of the electrical system done in stages. This can be done correctly, but sometimes you will see work where someone has used what is available for a new job, and they did not do things correctly. Inside your panel, you have to look at the wiring and the breakers where they are attached. In this photograph, you will see a thicker white wire and a thicker black wire hooked into breakers. The breakers are rated for 30 amps, and this wire is for 60 amps. If you are not sure about wire sizes, look at your panel to see that the wires going into the breakers with the same amperage look to be the same thickness. If you notice differences in sizes, you may have a problem.

cable on ground

One of the additional circuits needed for older electrical boxes is often for a shed or outdoor spa. This wire had been severed, but there were more problems than being cut. To run the cable from the house to the shed, the installer brought the wire out of a conduit tube in the soffit. The other half of the wire was dangling. The wire in the picture runs to the shed by being buried under the ground. At this location and near where the shed had stood, we have the wire only barely under the surface. Yard equipment or digging can chop into this line. First, the wire needs to be in a properly secured conduit attached to the house. Once going underground, we should continue that conduit, which should be buried below the frost line for your area. Do not think because the wire is in a conduit, so I do not need to worry about the depth. You want this deep enough to avoid problems.

missing knockout coverMost people may never open up the cover for their electrical panel. Some homeowners may not know that there are any problems, or they may not recognize that something could be a problem. This situation happens more often than some may know. The open space between the breaker and the inner panel can allow pests to enter, allow someone to poke a screwdriver into the interior which could then touch a live wire, or cause loose breakers to disengage which can lead to arcing and fires. A knockout cover fixes this problem.

loose conduitcnduit wire damage

Unattached conduits at their ends and conduits not attached to the walls are also problems which go unnoticed by many homeowners. The problem here is that the wires can become damaged. Damaged wires are potentially dangerous for electrical shocks and for causing fires.

Conduit in the groundConduits bringing electrical lines to out buildings need to be buried under the ground. Moving more of the leaves after this picture was taken found most of this conduit not really buried at all. Different areas have rules on how deep the conduit should be buried, but at least two feet would be standard. Lawn equipment or other items can damage this conduit, so it is not protecting the wires well, and this can become a safety issue.

© Frank Schulte-Ladbeck Professional Home Inspector Houston, Texas
Frank Theodor Schulte-Ladbeck
home inspector, TREC# 9073
Houston , Texas , 77063 United States
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