GFCI outlet being tested (C) Daniel Friedman Safe Electrical Inspection Procedures GFCIs and AFCIs for Home Inspectors
     


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This article discusses safety procedures for the electrical inspector, home inspector, or other professionals while examining GFCIs and AFCIs. Safe electrical inspection procedures and safe use of volt meters, DMMs, multimeters, and similar electrical test equipment is discussed at the end of the article.

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Inspecting and Testing Electrical Receptacles or "outlets" and GFCI-Protected Receptacles

GFCI outlet being tested (C) Daniel Friedman

Also see AFCIs ARC FAULT CIRCUIT INTERRUPTERS; See FREEZE-PROOF A BUILDING where we describe GFCI protection on heat tape circuits powering heat tapes for manufactured and mobile homes. Similar issues regarding building water entry control are discussed at Sump Pump Inspection. Also see Testing Receptacles GFCIs AFCIs. AFCI's are discussed at AFCIs ARC FAULT CIRCUIT INTERRUPTERS.

These electrical inspection suggestions are not a complete inventory of all electrical safety procedures nor of all electrical components that should be inspected; these notes focus on identification of conditions that may present special electrical hazards for the electrical inspector.

8.1.F. [The inspector shall observe] the polarity and grounding of all receptacles within six feet of interior plumbing fixtures, and all receptacles in the garage or carport, and on the exterior of inspected structures

Testing is commonly performed using one of a variety of electrical testers. First perform the visual inspection for overheating, looseness, arcing as noted above for switches. If a device is quite loose we do not test further but report it as a required repair. [See "Electrical Receptacles" in this issue.]

8.1.G. [The inspector shall observe] the operation of Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters.

While manual operation of these devices using their internal test button is possible, experience and information about the construction and operation of these devices and the circuits which they serve suggest that testing using GFI-test equipment adds additional information and will find defects not disclosed by manual operation. See "GFCI's" in the original issue of the ASHI Technical Journal.


Receptacle and GFCI Test Procedure (C) Daniel Friedman

Electrical "outlet" receptacle testers like the ones shown in these two photos are used by most home inspectors to check for proper wiring at electrical receptacles as well as to check the function of GFCI's.

An electrical receptacle which has been wired 'downstream' from a GFCI or AFCI will be protected by that device provided that the wiring has been connected properly.

We find often that these devices were not wired correctly. For example, reversing the "line" and "load" wiring when installing a GFCI will prevent it from functioning properly even though the installer may test it and think it's fine.

We provide details about using receptacle testers at Electrical Tools Every Homeowner Should Have

Testing GFCIs on Un-Grounded Knob and Tube Electrical Circuits

Knob and tube wiring example (C) Daniel FriedmanA ground fault circuit interrupter can provide shock protection for an electrical circuit that has no ground present, such as a knob and tube electrical circuit.

The GFCI device will still work if it detects a current leak to ground - say if an occupant drops their hair dryer into the sink (which is full of water grounded via the building plumbing system).

But can you test the GFCI protection feature of a GFCI receptacle installed on a knob and tube circuit

There are two "answers":

  1. No: the GFCI test device or internal GFCI test exercised by the test button depends on being able to produce a small internal current leak to ground. Since there is no electrical ground wire present, the test feature won't work.
  2. Yes, sort-of: you could rig your own test of a GFCI device on a knob and tube or other un-grounded circuit by making a connection from the hot lead of the receptacle to a known ground such as a water pipe or radiator. We've demonstrated this procedure using a test instrument as well as a bare wire. DO NOT DO THIS unless you are specially trained and equipped to do so. It is dangerous for various reasons including the chance that you or a bystander will be killed by electric shock.

There have been some recalled GFCI devices that would not work reliably. If you had the bad luck to try your amateur test on one of these, the results could be a disaster. See SQUARE-D RECALLS.

Inspecting Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters - Safe Procedures

Arc fault interrupter circuit breaker - US CPSCAFCIs: The requirement to inspect and test AFCIs is already in some regulations for home inspectors. It seems likely that remaining home inspection associations and state or provincial inspection standards-writers will soon update their electrical inspection standards section to address the new requirement for AFCI's.

See AFCIs ARC FAULT CIRCUIT INTERRUPTERS for details of the electrical code changes regarding the requirement for arc fault interrupters in homes.

AFCIs can be properly tested only by using the test button on the device itself. External tool tests are incomplete and therefore unreliable.

There have been some recalled AFCI devices that might not work reliably. If you had the bad luck to try your amateur test on one of these, the results could be a disaster. See this Federal Pioneer AFCI recall issued by Schneider Electric.

ELECTRICAL INSPECTOR SAFETY PROCEDURES describes important basic safety procedures, clothing, and equipment for home inspectors and electrical inspectors.

Using a DMM or VOM to Check for Current

VOM in use measuring live voltage (C) Daniel Friedman A simple volt ohm meter volt-ohmeter (VOM) such as the TriplettTM 310 or our little mini digital multimeter (DMM) shown at left can be used to test for unexpected and unsafe voltage at a component.

  1. Set the VOM in the highest AC-voltage range.
  2. One probe is used to contact the surface of the electric panel (or any component to be examined)
  3. The other probe is touched to a reliable ground source, or in the example shown, to the neutral side of the circuit.

NOTE: Once having tested at the highest voltage range, greater accuracy may be obtained by choosing more sensitive ranges which permit readings to be taken in the upper portion of the scale. Disconnect the test probes (or shut off the voltage source) before changing the voltage range setting on the VOM.

Details on safe use of DMM's and VOMs are at DMMs VOMs SAFE USE OF.

For example, if the meter indicates more than 1or 2 volts between a service panel cover and ground, there's a safety problem. Most low-cost analog-type meters such as the one described provide additional ranges used to read lower voltages with more sensitivity.

Some VOM models provide alligator clips for the ends of the test probes. These clips permit measuring high voltage without handling the probes. Always shut off the power before connecting the alligator clips.

Safe Use of Electrical Test Equipment: DMMs & VOMs

8.3 During an electrical system inspection the inspector is NOT required to
8.3.A. insert any tool, probe, or testing device inside the panels


SAFETY for ELECTRICAL INSPECTORS
  Shock Risk Statistics
  OUTDOOR ELECTRICAL INSPECTION SAFETY
  Electric Meter & Service Entry
  Local Electrical Grounding
  ELECTRICAL PANEL INSPECTION SAFETY
  REMOVE ELECTRICAL PANEL COVERS
  ELECTRICAL PANEL COVER SCREWS
  ELECTRICAL PANEL INTERIOR HAZARDS
  TEST MAIN BREAKERS & FUSES
  Inspect Breakers, Fuses, Circuits
  Testing Receptacles GFCIs AFCIs
  When to Shut Down Equipment
  Touching Electrical Equipment
  Guide to Electrical Test Equipment
  DMMs VOMs SAFE USE OF
  VOLTS / AMPS MEASUREMENT EQUIP
  ELECTRICAL INSPECTOR SAFETY PROCEDURES
  ELECTRICAL INSPECTION CLIENT SAFETY

Using a DMM or VOM to Check for Current

VOM in use measuring live voltage (C) Daniel Friedman A simple volt ohm meter volt-ohmeter (VOM) such as the TriplettTM 310 or our little mini digital multimeter (DMM) shown at left can be used to test for unexpected and unsafe voltage at a component.

  1. Set the VOM in the highest AC-voltage range.
  2. One probe is used to contact the surface of the electric panel (or any component to be examined)
  3. The other probe is touched to a reliable ground source, or in the example shown, to the neutral side of the circuit.

NOTE: Once having tested at the highest voltage range, greater accuracy may be obtained by choosing more sensitive ranges which permit readings to be taken in the upper portion of the scale. Disconnect the test probes (or shut off the voltage source) before changing the voltage range setting on the VOM.

Details on safe use of DMM's and VOMs are at DMMs VOMs SAFE USE OF.

For example, if the meter indicates more than 1or 2 volts between a service panel cover and ground, there's a safety problem. Most low-cost analog-type meters such as the one described provide additional ranges used to read lower voltages with more sensitivity.

Some VOM models provide alligator clips for the ends of the test probes. These clips permit measuring high voltage without handling the probes. Always shut off the power before connecting the alligator clips.

Safe Use of Electrical Test Equipment: DMMs & VOMs

8.3 During an electrical system inspection the inspector is NOT required to
8.3.A. insert any tool, probe, or testing device inside the panels

How to Test digital volt meter DMM or Volt Ohm Meter VOM meter condition



In some circumstances ASHI inspectors may elect to make current and voltage measurements. For inspectors who elect to use these tools, make sure that the tools themselves do not become a source of damage, or injury.

Use only DMM's (digital multi meters) or VOMs (volt-ohm meters, the analog predecessors to DMMs) designed for high energy measurements.

Details about safe use of VOMs and DMMs are provided at DMMs VOMs SAFE USE OF.

These electrical inspection suggestions are not a complete inventory of all electrical components that should be inspected; these notes focus on identification of conditions that may present special electrical hazards for the electrical inspector. Contact Us by email to suggest changes, corrections, and additions to this material.

General Safety Suggestions for Electrical Inspectors

Pay attention, look carefully, move slowly before opening or exploring electrical equipment. Learn to recognize indications of a problem, such as but not limited to the examples in this article.

Do not assume anything when performing dangerous tasks such as inspecting electrical equipment.

  • Do not assume that electrical power is "off" without confirming that using proper test equipment and methods
  • Do not assume that system grounding is complete and correct
  • Do not assume that all circuit breakers and GFCI's and AFCI's will work
  • Do not assume that bystanders or clients won't move suddenly into the path of danger, or push you into it.

Do not touch live wires or connections. Watch your hands and other body parts. Handling live electrical wires without special training and equipment is highly questionable and often fatal.

December 12, 1988 - Madison, WI - Michael E. Hammes, 26, died in an apparent electrocution while working in Madison. Hammes had been hired by CUNA Mutual Insurance Society to change ballasts on fluorescent lights. Authorities said he was replacing a fixture in a fourth floor bathroom while standing on a stepladder when he slumped to the floor.

Hammes apparently was electrocuted when he touched live wire with one hand and a metal partition with his body or other hand, according to Dana County Coroner Ray Wosepka.

Hammes was a first-year electronics student. Wosepka said his investigation showed the light fixture had been properly wired. Hammes apparently replaced a ballast, a [transformer] that controls the electrical flow to the light bulbs, and was attaching the live wire when it electrocuted him, Wosepka said. -- Ibid.

If in your opinion unsafe conditions exist at a property you are inspecting you should notify all parties concerned, including building occupants/management/owners, realtors involved, and other appropriate authorities.

December 18, 1988 - Smyrna, GA - A Smyrna family's troubles with a faulty circuit breaker in their mobile home ended in tragedy when a fire broke out and killed 18-year-old Jeffrey Scott Auton. Auton's family, experiencing problems with the main circuit breaker, went to a home products store to buy a new one for their trailer, said Fire Investigator David Herndon.

The store did not have a circuit breaker to fit the family's needs and a new one had to be ordered. .... Herndon said the fire was started when the circuit breaker shut down completely as three space heaters were running. The family had a history of problems with the breaker, particularly from a load put on it by a large heating unit. Herndon stated that after the fire there was not a trace left of the circuit breaker; it was completely gone from the panel. -- Ibid.

For example, what if the case above had happened the day after the property described had been examined by an ASHI inspector? Were there perhaps clues which telegraph a developing problem? What about anecdotal reports from the occupants of recurrent breaker tripping, visible signs of overheating in the panel, widespread and unusual use of electric heaters, or evidence of work in the panel by untrained people? These risks to occupants are also a hazard to the inspector on several bases.

Protect yourself and your client from injury using but not limited to the suggestions we provide here and just below.

Electrical Inspection Safety Suggestions from Rex Cauldwell, a Master Electrician

OPINION-RC: "As a master electrician, here is how I teach opening a service panel in my seminars: "The lucky 7""

  1. Eye protection: Wear safety glasses--electrical panels have been know to explode upon opening.
  2. Insulating gloves: Wear rubber dishwashing gloves--panels have been known to become electrically hot as a screw falls when cover is removed.
  3. Look before touching: Don't approach the panel until you give an overall look of the surrounding area to see if anything looks wrong--such as water on the floor under the panel.
  4. Avoid Shock Pathways: Don't have any part of your body touching items adjacent to the panel.
  5. Insulating floor pad: On a concrete or dirt floor, lay down a thick rubber Welcome mat and stand on it as you open the panel (wear rubber-soled shoes).
  6. Insulating tools: Use insulated handle tools--I use a Milwaukee electric screwdriver.
  7. Panel Door & Screws: Once door is open (in a Federal Pacific panel (and some other models) beware of falling trim and breakers that pop out), set door aside and don't lose the screws

-- Rex Cauldwell

Further Safety Warning--DF: these are helpful electrical safety suggestions from an experienced electrician. No list of suggestions is incomplete and these presume that they are being followed by an experienced, licensed electrician.

For example, there are almost certainly gloves and/or boots specifically recommended for this application; there are specific safety details to look at and for before touching an electrical panel, and procedures for using electrical test equipment to test or examine a suspect electrical panel.

Recommended books on electrical wiring:

Rex Cauldwell's Wiring A House - available online.

Rex Cauldwell's Safe Home Wiring Projects - available online

Electrical Inspection Follow up and Client Safety

A home inspector or electrical inspector who has reported a very unsafe condition, recommended immediate action, and yet may later learn that occupants of the building were nearly killed by work by an incompetent repairman. [NOTE: Port Jervis, NY, AHS Ctl#4658911, 7/10/90.] What can be done to reduce the chance of this terrible consequence?

Recommending action on an unsafe condition can convert a pre-existing problem into an immediate catastrophe if the client or owner calls an untrained person to the property or if he attempts a do-it-yourself repair.

Often a referral to local fire inspector, electrical inspector, or utility company can help assure that repairs are prompt, proper, and safe. If you recommend immediate action for an unsafe condition, where possible you should provide some means for the client or building owner to assure that the action which is taken is proper and safe.

Inspectors are properly nervous and reluctant to prescribe the actual repair that is needed at a property - they may not know the detailed repair procedure, or there may be alternative repairs, or their description may prompt an un-trained person to try to do the work.

The Building Owner or Building Manager Needs to Know About Unsafe Conditions that Need Immediate Action

  • What kind of trades person, utility worker, or other technician is proper to perform the necessary repair?
  • What steps should be taken by the building owner or manager to assure that the repair is proper and safe?
  • Is there an independent follow-up authority such as a fire inspector, utility company representative, or building code compliance inspector who should examine the repair?
  • Are there well-known and common foul-ups in repair, or local inept repair companies against whom the owner should be warned?

The inspector should inform the appropriate parties both orally and in writing any suspected unsafe conditions.

If an area or component could not be fully inspected, the inspector should explain in writing why she or he did not enter or examine an area or component, and what additional inspections or steps should be taken, as well as the general risks that may be present.

Handling Immediate Threats to Life and Safety at a Building Inspection

If in the inspector's judgment equipment is an immediate threat to life and property, such as a boiler whose flue connection has fallen off, we recommend that dangerous equipment be shut down and the appropriate people notified. See Shutting Down Unsafe Equipment. In some cases "appropriate people" includes not only the client and building owner, but also building occupants.

In some instances such as sparking electrical panels, gas leaks, or evidence of a fire, the inspector and everyone else should leave the building immediately and from outside, call the fire department and as appropriate, the gas company, police, or rescue personnel.

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