Burning up electric meter and main switch (C) DF SSElectrical Safety Hazards
When Should an Inspector Shut Down Unsafe Electrical Equipment

  • SHUT DOWN EQUIPMENT, WHEN TO - CONTENTS: Discussion of the circumstances under which an inspector should turn off or shut down unsafe equipment. When should an inspector, contractor, or repair person, or for that matter a home owner or occupant shut off electrical service or individual pieces of electrical equipment at a building? How do we balance the risk of harming a building (or occupants) by turning off electricity vs. the risk of harming them by leaving it turned on when conditions are unsafe?
  • POST a QUESTION or READ FAQs about how to decide when to turn off electrical systems or equipment for safety reasons

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Electrical hazards that mean TURN IT OFF!

This article discusses safety hazards at residential electrical systems that may lead an inspector to turn off or shut down equipment, even if there is risk of collateral damage such as loss of heat. There are also circumstances in which an inspector should not turn off electrical equipment during testing because doing so may create a greater hazard.

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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. Contact Us by email to suggest changes, corrections, and additions to this material.

When to Shut Down Unsafe Electrical Equipment

Heating equipment stack relay switch (C) Daniel Friedman

ASHI Home Inspector Educational Seminar Proceedings: ASHI-NE Chapter Annual conference September 22-23, 2008, Randolph, MA. -- Daniel Friedman. This is the full text version. A powerpoint presentation version of this class is also available.

Original text - Daniel Friedman, as ASHI Technical Journal Staff, January 1992,updates February 2006, September 2008.

This is the full text version. A powerpoint presentation version of this class is also available. Readers of this article should also see these other building inspection safety articles:  Safety for Building Inspectors and  Septic Inspection Safety and also STAIRS, RAILINGS, LANDINGS, RAMPS - INSPECTIONS, CODES

Some inspectors, with adequate training, exceed the requirements of the standards and will actually shut down extremely dangerous equipment themselves.

Even the simple task of pulling the cover on a marginal bimetallic stack relay switch on an oil-fired heater can result in failure or inadvertent shutdown of the equipment.

Stack relays (shown below) have a stepping lever which is reset by the service person if the switch, often fragile on old systems, is disturbed.

Be warned that whether you touch a building component or not there are grave responsibilities. 

Touching a building component: if you precipitate a catastrophe, will of course be viewed as a mistake.

Not touching a building component: Failing to act effectively to protect occupants of a building you inspect will, of course, also be viewed as a mistake. If you failed to inspect, detect, report a hazard in a building you may bear liability if later an event occurs.

Disclaimers: A simple disclaimer "not inspected" is in adequate. An adequate disclaimer that meets ASHI standards makes sure that the client understands the significance of an observation [or of steps to omit making an observation].

The last man in rule: Trade and professional education classes concerning mechanical systems, which can involve life-safety concerns, commonly teach the "last man in" rule. Home inspectors know this problem as well. The last "expert" to set foot on the property is vulnerable to blame for any ensuing failures, even if s/he acted entirely correctly and even if s/he never touched the component later in question.

Heating equipment stack relay switch (C) Daniel Friedman

During an electrical inspection, it's your judgment call. Document your judgment

In the final analysis then, the precise safety steps to be taken are up to the judgment of the inspector at the scene. The inspector should also document his or her action. Failing to do anything and failing to even serve notice may be viewed as very dangerous and seriously irresponsible.

With proper training, knowledge, and procedures, electrical inspections can be done safely and accurately. Be careful.

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.


Continue reading at TOUCHING ELECTRICAL EQUIPMENT or select a topic from closely-related articles below, or see our complete INDEX to RELATED ARTICLES below.


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

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