These tips on home maintenance and safety items are provided as a service by Paragon Home Inspection. We hope you find them useful.
Tips On: Electricity 101: Understanding the Service Panel
by Fran J. Donegan of The Home Depot
Many homeowners who are unfamiliar with construction and wiring are timid when it comes to electrical work. It makes perfect sense to have a healthy respect for electricity—it can be dangerous if you don't understand it.
To give you confidence and a little knowledge to help you discuss electrical problems with an electrician, let’s explore how the service panel (or panel box) controls your home's electrical system.
The Service Panel
After passing through the electric meter, the local electrical utility provides electricity to your house through the service panel (also called the distribution center). The panel, which is usually located in a garage, basement or utility room, distributes electricity through individual circuits that run throughout your house.
The service panel in most homes contains circuit breakers, which look like little switches. Older homes may contain fuses, but they serve the same purpose as circuit breakers—to stop the flow of electricity when there is a problem.
As a homeowner, you need access to the panel for three tasks:
- to shut off power to the whole house if needed (you do this by switching off the large breaker);
- to reset a circuit breaker that trips; and
- to turn off power to individual circuits when you are doing electrical work somewhere in the house.
You can also add new circuits to the panel box if there is room, but this is usually a job for a licensed electrician.
Why Do Circuit Breakers Trip?
If you plug too many appliances into a circuit, the system senses that they require more power than the circuit can accommodate and the circuit breaker trips, shutting off power completely. It’s a safety measure designed to protect the wiring in the circuit, as too great a demand can cause the wires to overheat.
Each circuit has a limit of how much power it can handle. You will find that limit printed on each breaker. The number represents the ampere, or amps, which measure the rate or quantity of electrical flow. The number printed on the main breaker is the upper limit your house’s service can accommodate.
For example, a 15-amp circuit is a light-duty circuit that may power something like living room and bedroom lights and electrical outlets, and there are usually several outlets on one circuit. A 30- or 50-amp circuit is for appliances that use a lot of energy, such as an electric clothes dryer or an electric range. These kinds of appliances are usually the only thing hooked up to the circuit—called a dedicated circuit—and their wiring will have a larger diameter.
Stopping Circuit Breakers from Tripping
Reducing demand on the circuit is the best way to prevent breakers from tripping. Appliances list their energy demands on an identification label on the unit. Most services experience tripping when juggling power demands. For example, if the breaker trips when you use the microwave and the toaster oven at the same time, you will have to move one of those appliances to another circuit. However, if a circuit trips frequently, contact an electrician because there may be a problem in the wiring or a short circuit.
Reset a breaker in the service panel by first pushing it to the "OFF" position and then pushing it back to the “ON” position. Fuses in older panels can't be reset but must be replaced. Always replace a fuse with another of the same amperage. Don't be tempted to install a higher-amp fuse because wiring size corresponds to amps. Wiring that is too small for the new fuse could overheat.
Types of Circuit Breakers
Your home is connected to the electric utility by three wires. Two of the wires are charged with a nominal 120 volts each, and the third wire is neutral. Volts or voltage is the force with which electricity flows. Each of the two "hot" wires is attached to the power bus in the service panel. You can't see the power bus because the panel box should have an inside cover that allows only the circuit breaker switches to be accessible inside the door or cover. As the name implies, the power bus energizes the circuits with either 120 or 240 volts.
The way the circuit is used determines the amount of voltage needed. A 15-amp circuit requires one hot wire or 120 volts. This type of circuit breaker is called a single-pole breaker. An electric range on a 50-amp circuit may need 240 volts, so it has two hot wires. This type of breaker is called a double-pole breaker.
Other circuit breakers include:
- ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs). These breakers can sense the slightest imbalance in the flow of electrical current when a hot wire touches a ground, such as the metal cabinet of an appliance. Any type of abnormal current flow is called a fault. GFCI breakers trip much more quickly than standard breakers. GFCI protection is required by the National Electrical Code (NEC) in wet areas, such as kitchens and bathrooms, as well as in attached garages. GFCI outlets—the outlets with the "Test" and "Reset" buttons on them—offer the same protection.
- arc-fault circuit interrupters (AFCIs). A disconnected hot wire can produce a small arc of electrical current. AFCIs are designed to shut down the circuit before the arc can cause a fire.
Don't be alarmed if your panel box does not contain GFCI breakers. GFCI electrical outlets provide the same protection. The use of AFCI breakers is relatively new, and not every municipality includes their use in local codes. If you are concerned about arc faults, consult a licensed electrician.
Map the Circuits
Make sure that the inside of the panel door has a legend that clearly indicates which rooms and/or appliances are powered by which breakers. Many service panels’ legends are missing, illegible or inaccurate. Make sure that yours is up to date. Work with a helper and methodically go through the house testing the circuits. Don't assume that all of the outlets in a room are on one circuit. Kitchen lighting and outlets, for example, should be serviced by two circuits. A simple rule of thumb is to check all electrical outlets.
Be Responsible and Safe!
Unless a breaker trips or you want to shut off power to do some electrical work, there’s no need to deal with your service panel. But it’s important to know where it’s located and to keep the area around it clear so that it’s accessible in an emergency. It’s also a good idea to store a working flashlight nearby in the event of a power outage.
If the door to your home’s electrical service panel has scorch marks, that could indicate dangerous arcing. If it’s rusted, there may be a hidden water leak. It’s best to call a licensed electrician to investigate such issues further.
Be sure to keep compatible replacements available, if your home’s electrical service uses fuses.
And never insert any metal object (such as a screwdriver) into the panel or attempt to remove the dead front or cover behind the breakers. One wrong move could prove fatal.
Do NOT attempt to perform electrical work yourself if you lack the proper experience and training.
Tips On: Central Air-Conditioning System Inspection
- Remove any leaves, spider webs and other debris from the unit's exterior. Trim foliage back several feet from the unit to ensure proper air flow.
- Remove the cover grille to clean any debris from the unit's interior. A garden hose can be helpful for this task.
- Straighten any bent fins with a tool called a fin comb.
- Add lubricating oil to the motor. Check your owner’s manual for specific instructions.
- Clean the evaporator coil and condenser coil at least once a year. When they collect dirt, they may not function properly.
- Inspect the drain line for obstructions, such as algae and debris. If the line becomes blocked, water will back up into the drain pan and overflow, potentially causing a safety hazard or water damage to your home.
- Make sure the hoses are secured and fit properly.
When the cooling season is over, you should cover the exterior condenser unit in preparation for winter. If it isn’t being used, why expose it to the elements? This measure will prevent ice, leaves and dirt from entering the unit, which can harm components and require additional maintenance in the spring. A cover can be purchased, or you can make one yourself by taping together plastic trash bags. Be sure to turn the unit off before covering it.
- Have the air-conditioning system inspected by a professional each year before the start of the cooling season.
- Reduce stress on the air conditioning system by enhancing your home’s energy efficiency. Switch from incandescent lights to compact fluorescents, for instance, which produce less heat.
Tips On: Barbeque Safety
- Propane grills present an enormous fire hazard, as the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is aware of more than 500 fires that result annually from their misuse or malfunction. The following precautions are recommended specifically when using propane grills:
- Store propane tanks outdoors and never near the grill or any other heat source. In addition, never store or transport them in your car’s trunk.
- Make sure to completely turn off the gas after you have finished, or when you are changing the tank. Even a small gas leak can cause a deadly explosion.
- Check for damage to a tank before refilling it, and only buy propane from reputable suppliers.
- Never use a propane barbecue grill on a terrace, balcony or roof, as this is dangerous and illegal.
- No more than two 20-pound propane tanks are allowed on the property of a one- or two-family home.
- To inspect for a leak, spray a soapy solution over the connections and watch for bubbles. If you see evidence of a leak, reconnect the components and try again. If bubbles persist, replace the leaking parts before using the grill.
- Make sure connections are secure before turning on the gas, especially if the grill hasn’t been used in months. The most dangerous time to use a propane grill is at the beginning of the barbeque season.
- Ignite a propane grill with the lid open, not closed. Propane can accumulate beneath a closed lid and explode.
- When finished, turn off the gas first, and then the controls. This way, residual gas in the pipe will be used up.
- Charcoal grills pose a serious poisoning threat due to the venting of carbon monoxide (CO). The CPSC estimates that 20 people die annually from accidentally ingesting CO from charcoal grills. These grills can also be a potential fire hazard. Follow these precautions when using charcoal grills:
- Never use a charcoal grill indoors, even if the area is ventilated. CO is colorless and odorless, and you will not know you are in danger until it is too late.
- Use only barbeque starter fluid to start the grill, and don’t add the fluid to an open flame. It is possible for the flame to follow the fluid’s path back to the container as you're holding it.
- Let the fluid soak into the coals for a minute before igniting them to allow explosive vapors to dissipate.
- Charcoal grills are permitted on terraces and balconies only if there is at least 10 feet of clearance from the building, and a water source immediately nearby, such as a hose (or 4 gallons of water).
- Be careful not to spill any fluid on yourself, and stand back when igniting the grill. Keep the charcoal lighter fluid container at a safe distance from the grill.
- When cleaning the grill, dispose of the ashes in a metal container with a tight lid, and add water. Do not remove the ashes until they have fully cooled.
- Fill the base of the grill with charcoal to a depth of no more than 2 inches.
- Electric grills are probably safer than propane and charcoal grills, but safety precautions need to be used with them as well. Follow these tips when using electric grills:
- Do not use lighter fluid or any other combustible materials.
- When using an extension cord, make sure it is rated for the amperage required by the grill. The cord should be unplugged when not in use, and out of a busy foot path to prevent tripping.
- As always, follow the manufacturer's instructions.
- Always make sure that the grill is used in a safe place, where kids and pets won't touch or bump into it. Keep in mind that the grill will still be hot after you finish cooking, and anyone coming into contact with it could be burned.
- If you use a grill lighter, make sure you don't leave it lying around where children can reach it. They will quickly learn how to use it.
- Never leave the grill unattended, as this is generally when accidents happen.
- Keep a fire extinguisher or garden hose nearby.
- Ensure that the grill is completely cooled before moving it or placing it back in storage.
- Ensure that the grill is only used on a flat surface that cannot burn, and well away from any shed, trees or shrubs.
- Clean out the grease and other debris in the grill periodically. Be sure to look for rust or other signs of deterioration.
- Don't wear loose clothing that might catch fire while you're cooking.
- Use long-handled barbecue tools and flame-resistant oven mitts.
- Keep alcoholic beverages away from the grill; they are flammable!