Electrical Inspection Safety

As Home Inspectors, we cannot do our job without putting ourselves at some physical risks in order to properly serve the client. For example, during any given inspection, home inspectors may:

  • Operate and Climb ladders
  • Walk on slopped roofs
  • Enter crawlspaces which may have air quality issues
  • Enter attics with possible asbestos insulation
  • Discover live electrical system deficiencies

The Home Inspection industry has a very good track record for safety however Home Inspection forums are full of cautionary stories about falls, ladder failures, inspectors trapped in crawl spaces or attics, and accidental electrocutions. Creating a comprehensive home inspection involves inspectors taking some personal risk for their clients however home inspectors also need to take all reasonable precautions to keep themselves safe.

Changes in Electrical Safety Procedures

The BC Safety Authority, along with Work Safe BC, have told the Home Inspection Industry and Electricians that they want some safety changes in how electrical inspections are done in home distribution panels. This safety change will require inspectors shutting off the main home power for a short duration while the main distribution panel is opened and inspected.

Home Inspection training materials and past industry practices have discouraged home inspectors from shutting of the main power as it creates some failure risks to home electrical equipment and it can be a nuisance for home occupants. However, with the government safety authorities mandating this safety change, these equipment risks and home occupant nuisances are secondary to inspector safety.

Do Home Inspectors Really Need to Inspect the Distribution Panel?

Home inspectors are expected to report on the electricity supply, safety devices, grounding, wiring types, and wiring methods in a home. Inspection of the electrical distribution panel is critical for home inspectors to be able to identify the materials and methods in place and also to look for electrical deficiencies that clients are paying us to identify. As the distribution panel is the central point for electricity in the home, this is typically where home inspectors can tell if the electrical system has major safety issues which commonly occur when amateurs make changes to the original wiring in a home or incorrectly add new circuits.

In addition to deficiencies, clients also typically need to know the type of wiring in the home during the purchase process as insurance companies want to know if there is higher risk solid core aluminum wire circuits in the home. As every correct circuit in the home originates and terminates in the distribution panel, inspectors can quickly visually identify the wire material present in the home during this inspection.

If home inspectors are unable to inspect the interior of an electrical distribution panel, the electrical portion of the home inspection will be largely poor for the client.

What are the Complications with Shutting Off the Whole Home Power?

There are a few arguments against shutting off the main power during a home inspection:

1. It will be a nuisance for current home occupants to reset clocks or timers

True, however, shutting of some power is not new during home inspections. Both GFCI's and AFCI's have test buttons on them and home inspectors have been expected to test these safety features for many years. As AFCI's are most commonly found in bedrooms, home occupants have already had to deal with the inconvenience of resetting bedside clocks and other devices. Extending the shut-off for the whole home will now also mean home occupants will need to reset clocks and timers on equipment like microwaves and stoves. This inconvenience is part of the home selling process.

2. Older Breakers or Switches May Not Correctly Re-Set Leaving the Home Power Off

First, this should be a rare circumstance as a correctly functioning main home shutoff is intended to be used for electrical maintenance. With home inspections being performed in an individual home quite rarely, there is a poor argument for any wear and tear being caused by inspectors on this equipment. Second, in the event this situation happens, the home inspector will have discovered a latent defect for their client which is part of the reason of the home inspection. The downside is that the home power may be offline until the seller/occupant can have it serviced by an electrician.

3. Shutting Off Power May Damage Home Electrical Equipment

This is a valid concern, however, shutting off the main power to the home is no different than a random power outage that a home may encounter at any time. As all electrical equipment in homes should be able to withstand these normal random power outages without damage, home owner/occupant equipment should be able to withstand a power outage and reset during inspection.

Notifying Home Owners/Occupants of Power Shut Down

There is a clause in some home inspection associations contracts that the home power cannot be shut down without the owners permission (this clause was from when shutting down power was optional for inspectors). While this sounds ideal for sellers, there are a few reasons this is just not practical with safety requirement that inspectors shut off power to inspect the distribution panel:

  • Home Inspectors rarely meet the home seller or occupant in order to gain this permission first hand and relying on clients or realtors to obtain this consent raises issues of documented proof for the inspector of this permission.
  • The Seller is not always the occupant. Even if the seller gives permission, the occupant of the home may not be aware of this shut down and it is the occupant who may be at an inconvenience.
  • Home Inspectors already shut down other mechanical equipment, GFCI's, and AFCI's in the course of a 'normal' home inspection without owner/occupant permissions. Home sellers/occupants are largely not aware of what is 'normal' is in a home inspection which means while a shut down may be a nuisance, it will likely be tolerated by sellers as part of due process in selling their home.

Final Thoughts

While a whole-home electrical shut-off may be a nuisance to home sellers/occupants and there are small risks to electrical equipment, a home inspection is not substantially complete without an inspection of the interior of the distribution panel. As inspector safety takes prescience over any occupant nuisance, home inspectors and the real estate industry as a whole will need to adjust to accept a whole home power shut down as part of a normal home inspection going forward.

By James Bell - Owner/Operator of Solid State Inspections Inc.