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Aging Home Electrical Safety

May 13, 2017

Brown House

The age of the wiring in an old home is not the only part of the electrical system that can fail or become unsafe. It is a system that has numerous workings that have different functions. Many of the comments that we hear seem to suggest there are some misconceptions about what the term “updated” implies when an aging house has had some recent electrical work.

 We see many real estate listings describing that the “electrical is completely updated.” What we usually find is the old fuse box has just been replaced with a circuit breaker panel. We also intermittently see property disclosure statements that say “old knob and tube wiring replaced.” Close examination often reveals that most of the easily accessible old wiring in the basement was replaced, but is then spliced into the old wiring, just before going up into the walls. It’s fairly common to find the knob and tube wiring still active throughout the rest of the house, with many safety concerns still imminent.

 Here are some of the most common problems that we find regarding aging electrical systems:

 Service Entry Cable

The line from the overhead wires to the meter and from the meter to the main panel has a protective sleeve that is always exposed to the elements. Older systems have a cloth covering that is often frayed or totally worn through. Some early vinyl sleeves crack and crumble when frequently exposed to direct sunlight. These conditions can allow water to enter the service cable, which then drains into the electrical equipment enclosures. Enough deterioration of the cable covering can expose the individual conductors inside to become damaged.

 Distribution Equipment

 Fuse boxes are a sign of an old electrical system. We don’t consider fuses to be inferior to circuit breakers. They are pretty reliable at doing their job. The problem is that when fused systems were common, there wasn't as many electrical devices in homes and fewer individual circuits were needed. These small panels are frequently stuffed with more circuits than they were designed for, creating unsafe conditions. When older small panels are stuffed full, there are often one or more subpanels added to accommodate the additional added circuits. We seldom find subpanels wired correctly.

 Branch Circuits

 In addition to knob and tube wiring, there can be issues with newer types of wiring. Early wiring did not have a ground conductor, just hot and neutral. Grounding wasn't required until the 1960's. Think of a grounding system as a safety net of the electrical system. Older wires have been exposed to potential damage and abrasion. Previous changes and remodeling could have caused damage to conductors and connections.

 Fixtures, Outlets and Switches

The frequent plugging in of all of our electrical and electronic devices eventually wears out the contacts in outlets. We sometimes discover that owners try to create the illusion of an updated electrical system by installing new three-slot, grounding type outlets in an ungrounded system. Switches are subject to wear and mechanical failure. Fixtures are regularly changed by homeowners with no professional electrician training and limited skills. These are just a few of the more common issues with a major system. This is when fails can cause severe injury, loss of property and life. The most important thing to contemplate is having the electrical system professionally inspected and any repairs, changes or updates performed by a very experienced, licensed electrician.

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