Do you check the wall plugs?

By
Home Inspector with McGarry and Madsen Home Inspection
http://actvra.in/n2D

We call them electrical receptacles. Some people call them electrical outlets and, yes, we do check them. Not every single one because receptacles are often behind furniture or stored items that are not readily movable; but we spot-check at least one in each room.

   Two circuit analysis tools, one low-tech and one high-tech, are used: a simple 3-light tester that checks wiring configuration, and also a more sophisticated circuit analyzer that checks voltage, voltage drop under load, resistance to ground, plus tests GFCI and AFCI receptacles.

   Before we go into what defects the electrical receptacles are tested for, let’s review the basics of receptacle wiring. A modern receptacle that accepts a 3-prong plug has a specific designation for each opening: the shorter of the two narrow slots connects to the “hot” wire (the one that can shock you), and the taller slot is the “neutral” (which completes the circuit), and the round hole is the “ground” (an alternate safety route for electricity that has gone astray, not found in pre-1960 2-slot receptacles). Each of the three wires in a typical 120-volt electrical cable must be connected securely to the right receptacle terminal for it to function correctly.

 Here’s some typical defects we find:

 Reverse Polarity
   If the wires going to the hot and neutral terminals are switched, you have reverse polarity. While this defect does not affect the operation of simple appliances like a lamp, it can make them more dangerous. In the correct wiring configuration, the hot wire is connected to the button at the bottom of the light socket and the neutral is connected to the socket threads. When replacing a bulb in lamp that is connected to a receptacle that is wired properly, it is difficult to be shocked by the small button at the bottom of the socket. But a reverse polarity receptacle electrifies the threaded socket, making it more likely that you will be shocked when changing a light bulb.

 Older 2-Slot Receptacle
   Two-slot receptacles, the ungrounded type that were typical in homes before 1960, are considered safe and we do not list them as needing repair. However they are noted, because 2-slot receptacles will not accept the 3-prong plug on the cord of many new appliances, that require a ground connection to work properly, and this may prove to be an inconvenience.
   Homeowners in older homes sometimes succumb to an easy, but unsafe, solution to plugging the 3-prong cord on their new refrigerator to the 2-slot receptacle behind it. They use a conversion gadget we call a “cheater plug.” It has 2 prongs on the back side and three-slots on the front, along with a short wire for connection to the screw at the front of the receptacle box cover--although the receptacle box is rarely actually grounded. We always call out cheater plugs for repair.

No Ground
   Another shortcut for upgrading older homes to accept 3-prong plugs is replacement of 2-slot receptacles with 3-slot receptacles, even though there is no ground connection available. This is a typical defect in older homes that have had a quick, cheap remodeling to be “flipped,” and it is a serious safety defect.

 False Ground
   Yet another shortcut to installing 3-slot receptacles in an older home is a “false ground,” where the ground slot is connected to the neutral terminal of the receptacle. Again, no ground connection exists and we call it out for repair.

 No Neutral
  When our circuit tester indicates no neutral connection, it usually a loose wire in the receptacle box or the main panel.

 High Resistance to Ground
   In order for the ground to work properly as a safety device, it must have a low resistance to the flow of electric current so that a breaker is tripped quickly when electricity starts flowing to the ground. Electrical resistance is measured in ohms, and 1.0 ohms is the recommended maximum resistance.

 Low Voltage
   The nominal voltage for household receptacles is 120 volts, but between 110 and 130 volts is acceptable. We note if the voltage at receptacle is outside this range.

 Excessive Voltage Drop Under Load
  Voltage is a measure of electrical force, which is comparable to water pressure in a plumbing system. When a standard 15-amp load (approximating a large household appliance or several smaller ones) is applied to a 120-volt household  circuit, the voltage drops somewhat. The maximum acceptable voltage drop is 5%. More than that indicates poor wire connections, damaged, or undersize wires.

 Non-Functional GFCI-Device
   We “pop” and reset GFCI receptacles and breakers to test them. Like any mechanical device, they begin to fail as they age.

 Non-Functional AFCI-Device
   We “pop” and reset AFCI-breakers to test them. They also begin to fail with age and, occasionally, we find defective new ones.

 Dead Receptacle
   Any receptacle that is not supplying current is marked for repair.

Missing Receptacles
   Sometimes they just aren’t there. For example, pre-1960 homes often had a 2-slot receptacle built into the base of the wall light over the bathroom sink, and it was the only power source in the room. Those combination light/receptacle fixtures aren’t made anymore. When the bathroom gets modernized with a new light fixture, the sole convenience receptacle is lost--unless the remodeler spends the extra money to have an electrician install a wall receptacle. Having a receptacle in the bathroom wasn’t a big deal 50 years ago, but it is today.

Too Few Receptacles
  
You can sit a lamp with a 6-foot cord anywhere along the walls of a newer home and it will reach to a nearby wall receptacle. Kitchen counter receptacles are placed even closer. But it wasn’t always that way. Homes from the 1930s sometimes have one wall receptacle per bedroom, one receptacle for the kitchen counter, and widely spaced receptacles in the other living areas. The tell-tale extension cords snaking along the wall behind the furniture are always a clue.
   While this is not a defect that may require repair, since it met the standards of the era in which the home was built, we still note it in the report as a likely inconvenience for the homebuyer.

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electrical outlets
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Rainmaker
692,520
Clint Mckie
Desert Sun Home, commercial Inspections - Carlsbad, NM
Desert Sun Home, Comm. Inspection 1-575-706-5586

Hi Guys,

I have run into the two slot receptacles a lot.

They are ungrounded and don't really have a problem. The problem is when the home has a new addition, they add the new service but never upgrade the existing service to the home.

 I generally check all recep's I can get to. Even the ones outside the home. Most don't have any "GFI" protection.

See my post today on Federal Pacific Panels and breakers.

Information for anyone in the Real estate business like us.

Best, Clint McKie 

Nov 13, 2011 12:11 PM #27
Rainmaker
692,520
Clint Mckie
Desert Sun Home, commercial Inspections - Carlsbad, NM
Desert Sun Home, Comm. Inspection 1-575-706-5586

Hi Guys,

I have run into the two slot receptacles a lot.

They are ungrounded and don't really have a problem. The problem is when the home has a new addition, they add the new service but never upgrade the existing service to the home.

 I generally check all recep's I can get to. Even the ones outside the home. Most don't have any "GFI" protection.

See my post today on Federal Pacific Panels and breakers.

Information for anyone in the Real estate business like us.

Best, Clint McKie 

Nov 13, 2011 12:11 PM #28
Rainmaker
1,274,153
Gene Riemenschneider
Home Point Real Estate - Brentwood, CA
Turning Houses into Homes

Great Post.  I often see electrical issues pop up on inspections.  This is an important part of an inspection.

Nov 13, 2011 12:50 PM #29
Rainmaker
544,866
Cynthia Larsen
Safe Haven Realty - Cotati, CA
Independent Broker Serving Sonoma County, CA

I don't check them, but my inspector does. GFCI's are always called out with older homes. Either they don't exist or they aren't working properly.

Nov 13, 2011 12:55 PM #30
Rainmaker
146,052
Marshall Brown
Mid America Inspection Services, LLC - Fargo, ND
BSEE, CHI

That's my kind of post! Informative no matter what your background or experience and we all need to be reminded from time to time. Thanks

Nov 13, 2011 01:36 PM #31
Rainer
289,518
Kimo Jarrett
WikiWiki Realty - Huntington Beach, CA
Kimo's Lifestyle Solutions

Great post and thanks for the information. This is the kind of information many including me are ignorant about, so it makes a great resource about this topic.

Nov 13, 2011 02:11 PM #32
Anonymous
Anonymous
Carol

Wonderful information.  Here in New Hampshire we have so many older homes it is hard to explain it all when i'm not and electrician and buyers aren't knowledgable in this area. May I paa your article along?

Nov 13, 2011 02:23 PM #33
Rainmaker
148,037
Cheryl Dickson
RETIRED - Realtor, GRI - Grand Junction, CO
Grand Junction

Great post guys! Very useful info.

Reverse polarity in an outlet also can damage small appliances with motors, such as blenders, blow dryers, and your computer's cooling fan. (Oh No! Please not the computer!) It will cause excessive wear on the little motors and eventually burn them up.

Items that have a polarized plug (where one prong is larger than the other) will likely be damaged when the outlet has reverse polarity.

By the way, it's chilly and raining off and on today, I bet the weather's great in sunny Florida! Take care guys!

Nov 13, 2011 06:20 PM #34
Rainer
36,190
Ken Anderson
Apex Results Realty Inc., Brokerage - Burlington, ON
Broker in Burlington, Ontario

Nobody has mentioned knob and spool wiring.  It is a problem here in older homes, more specifically, with getting insurance on older homes.  Have one of these problems right now, inspection is on Tuesday.  Homeowner says that wiring was changed, has new breaker panel, but touching one of the old lines he said was 'dead' gave a jolt.  So now to find out how much hasn't been upgraded, and if the upgraded portions are up to snuff.  Having the devil's own time getting an insurance company to bind even on the promise of remedying the problem as soon as practicable after closing.  Anybody have fun with this problem in your area?  No insurance  = no financing!

Nov 13, 2011 06:59 PM #35
Rainmaker
658,648
Evelyn Kennedy
Gallagher & Lindsey, Alameda, California - Alameda, CA
Alameda, Real Estate, Alameda, CA

Greg:

Useful information for me.  I am bookmarking your blog and printing it for easy access.  I need to have some knowledge of this stuff.

Nov 13, 2011 07:00 PM #36
Rainer
6,517
Theresa Bonin
RE/MAX Valley Properties - Green Valley, AZ

Awesome blog - thanks for all the information.

Nov 13, 2011 08:12 PM #37
Rainer
19,771
Greg Madsen and Richard McGarry
McGarry and Madsen Home Inspection - Gainesville, FL

Thanks, Cheryl, for the note about reverse polarity causing damage to certain kinds of small appliances. You are absolutely right! Wish I could cover everything about this subject, but the post would get long and pedantic-sounding. There's actually several different kinds of reverse polarity; hot-neutral-reversed is just the most common.

Yes, the weather is balmy and nice tonight in North Florida, but it dipped down to 29 degrees a couple of nights ago, our first freeze of the season.

Nov 13, 2011 09:42 PM #38
Rainer
19,771
Greg Madsen and Richard McGarry
McGarry and Madsen Home Inspection - Gainesville, FL

Thanks for the notes, Clint. Will check your post on Federal Pacific panels.

Nov 13, 2011 09:44 PM #39
Rainer
19,771
Greg Madsen and Richard McGarry
McGarry and Madsen Home Inspection - Gainesville, FL

Thanks, Carol. You are welcome to pass the article along as you want.

Nov 13, 2011 09:53 PM #40
Rainmaker
641,570
Stephanie/Bob The Ruiz/Miller Team
Keller Williams Cornerstone Realty - Ocala, FL
The Ocala Dream Team

Hi Greg and Richard.  Thanks for the great post.  Very educational for most of us!

Nov 14, 2011 06:09 AM #41
Rainer
104,153
Christian de Almeida
Bal Harbour, FL

One thing that I've encountered in the past is blank covers that look like there's an outlet but realistically there's nothing behind it.

Nov 14, 2011 01:01 PM #42
Rainer
107,330
Ric Mills
Keller Williams Southern Az - Tucson, AZ
Integrity, Honesty, and Vast Real Estate Knowledge

Great information and we see a lot of the older homes that are fine but need some minor repair for safety.  The fix is relatively inexpensive but few have actually done anything about it.

Nov 15, 2011 01:34 PM #43
Rainmaker
58,396
Margaret Hickman
Keller Williams Realty - Cenla Partners - Alexandria, LA
REALTOR, GRI, ABR, SRS

Thanks for a very informative article.  I'll also reblog if you don't mind.  Buyers who want to "do it yourself" inspections to save money don't know how extensive home inspections by licensed inspectors cn be.  As I tell my clients, that inspection is the best investment you can make in your new home.   Even if it results in your withdrawing from contract due to major issues, it kept you from buying a "money pit."

Dec 23, 2011 07:37 PM #44
Ambassador
1,096,923
Charles Buell
Charles Buell Inspections Inc. - Seattle, WA
Seattle Home Inspector

Greg and Richard, I realize the post isn't about the picture specifically but I have noticed that plugging both types of testers into a receptacle, or either one into a receptacle with some appliance plugged into it at the same time, can result in erroneous readings on one or both of the testers.  For example, a common instance, is when the washing machine is plugged into an ungrounded three prong receptacle---the three bulb tester will test as "grounded."  Unplug the washer and it will test as "ungrounded."

Dec 23, 2011 07:51 PM #45
Rainmaker
363,738
Sylvie Stuart
Keller Williams Check Realty 928-600-2765 - Flagstaff, AZ
Home Buying, Home Selling and Investment - Flagstaff, AZ
This is very useful information to me. I'm going to bookmark it because we are always seeing one of these on home inspections. Thanks for the detailed list!
Jan 15, 2012 10:33 AM #46
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