Internachi certified professional inspector
I am definitely not an electrician, nor do I play one on TV (at least not yet....) but if there is one area where I can confidently say I have a strong knowledge it is electrical systems. Electricity is a very complex subject, and while my knowledge is nowhere near that of an electrician or an electrical engineer, I certainly know enough to advise my clients whether or not they need the services of a professional. Today I thought I would share with you Ohm's Law, one of the backbones of electrical theory and the importance of understanding it as home inspectors.
In its basic form, Ohm's law states that power (Watts), current (Amperes), resistance (Ohms) and voltage (Volts) are closely related. If you treat the vertical lines as multiplication and the horizontal lines as division, you can solve for lots of variables just like in Junior High and/or Middle School! Here are some examples:
What's the Relevance to Homes?
This likely seems like good information, but not information you will ever need. The truth is this is important information to note and to help you understand more about your home. The first thing we will look at is power, which is measured in Watts just like on lightbulb labels. Looking at the pyramid above you can see power is a measure of current multiplied by voltage. From a home inspector's point of view, a house with a higher amperage means more power is available. We can generally ignore voltage because as much as we complain about Nova Scotia Power, we have a very stable electrical system that is almost always around 120-125 volts, with 99.9% of homes having two of these feeds (120x2=240 volts). Three phase systems work a little differently, usually at 208 volts, but we'll focus on single phase residential homes for this blog post.
Understanding Power Bills
Simply put, the power bill is measured in Kilowatt hours used (kw/H). One kilowatt hour is equivalent to 1000 watts used over a one-hour period and while the rates fluctuate, it usually runs around 16 cents. Our home is pretty typical and usually consumes around 30,000 watts a day in summer and 70,000 watts in the coldest weeks of the year. Doing simple math, we spend roughly (30,000/1000) x 0.16= $4.80/day on electricity in the summer and (70,000/1000) x 0.16= $11.20/day in the coldest days of winter.
Since we have a 125-amp system at home, looking at Ohm's law this means we have 125A x 240V = 30,000 watts available. With an upgrade to 200-amp service, we would have 200A x 240V = 48,000 watts. This means we don't have enough capacity, right? Of course not! The 70,000 watts we use in the winter for example is spread over an average of 24 hours while the 30,000 is our capacity at a specific point in time. In simple terms, unless we ran the dryer, oven, air conditioner and heaters all at once we should have more than enough capacity to handle the electrical load.
Any electrician would point out I am ignoring the fact that electrical systems are designed to run at approximately 80% capacity, but this further proves my point: electrical systems are both very basic AND very complicated at the same time and should be left to the experts.
Reality is a Wee Bit More Complicated
My example above is only an approximation because real life power systems use Alternating Current (AC) rather than Direct Current (DC). Any electrical engineer could give us a long lecture about how the Power Factor (basically an efficiency rating from 0 to 1, ideally 0.95 or higher) needs to be accounted for. Although it is far more important in industrial settings it does mean that some of the Apparent Power received is known as Reactive Power (useless) rather than Real Power (useful). This is yet another reason why, although it seems very simple to just attach a few wires to a box, electricity is complicated, dangerous and needs to be left to the pros.
At this time of this writing in the fall of 2022, housing prices are beginning to fall in Halifax. That is of course good news but the simple fact is that, when factoring in higher interest rates, housing remains unaffordable for far too many people in Nova Scotia. Rightfully, some people are looking for alternatives to the sky-high cost of housing and one such up-and-coming trend is that of shipping container homes. Sounds like a great way to build a home at a great price, right? Not so fast!
It certainly sounds appealing: a disused shipping container can be purchased for only a few thousand dollars and is constructed mainly of solid steel. They have literally been around the world multiple times in all weather conditions and are built to last. This however does not mean they necessarily translate to a solution to the housing crisis.
What’s Wrong with Shipping Container Homes?
The biggest issue is that they are small. They are a decent height for those not over 6’6” (like almost everyone but me) at 8.5 feet and are plenty long (usually 40 feet) but are a mere 8 feet in length. That doesn’t sound terrible until you consider that….
Homes Need Utilities!
A home is a complex system of interdependent components: electrical, plumbing (both supply AND waste) and heating, ventilation & air conditioning (HVAC) pipes that run behind the walls in all homes (and are required by all building codes)! This means that a significant portion of the interior space needs to be dedicated to these items, further reducing the living space. Speaking of HVAC…..
Metal is a Conductor of Heat AND Cold
When I was a teenager, I occasionally helped load shipping containers that were bound for various projects in Northern Africa. On one hot day, we measured 51 degrees Celsius inside the container! It was like being in an oven and while I wasn’t loading anything that day, I tried to see how long I could last. It was less than a minute before I started sweating uncontrollably and I had to leave.
Metal is a conductor both of heat and cold and we certainly get both extremes in Nova Scotia. Neither air conditioning nor high R insulation are required in our province, but I don’t see how one can survive without them in a shipping container That’s not even getting into….
Shipping Containers are (Not) Really Strong
Shipping containers are strong and heavy, right? Think about it: they are stacked 9 high on ships and face countless treacherous weather conditions in the open sea. However, unlike goods, people need windows and doors. You might think that it’s as simple as cutting a few holes in the steel, but the fact is that these containers are designed to transfer all the weight to the ends, so cutting a hole for a window requires structural reinforcement. Furthermore, many Engineers, Architects and Contractors refuse to work with shipping containers as they are not familiar with them (and that goes for home inspectors too!) and consider them too high a liability to work on.
An Important Disclaimer
I am NOT an expert on construction and shipping container homes and there are some advantages that I did not touch on. As well, you may be reading this in the future and this type of construction might go mainstream with improvements in construction techniques. I am just pointing out that in 2022, the cost savings can be quickly wiped out with all the expensive modifications required to make containers habitable.
I am in favor of anything that can make housing affordable to everyone on the planet but while on the surface this seems like the ideal solution there are too many disadvantages to this type of construction to consider it a viable option at this time.
Recently we have been doing a little spring cleaning in the summer and trying to do some organizing. I must admit I have a hard time letting go of items “just in case” although I certainly cannot be considered a hoarder in any way. There are several TV shows that cover the topic of hoarding and while they are informative, they tend to show the worst examples of a hoarding disorder.
What is Hoarding?
The generally accepted definition of hoarding is someone who has “persistent difficulty with getting rid of possessions, especially with little or no value”. Like many other issues, it is not an all or nothing condition and various stages of hoarding exist. Generally, for a home inspector this means a hoarded home has items stored outside the normal expected areas in a house such as in stairways, in the middle of living room floors and an excessive amount on kitchen counters.
The Main Problems with Hoarding
The most obvious one to home inspectors is that an unusually large number of belongings in a home makes it difficult to do our jobs. We don’t have the ability to move a significant amount of homeowner belongings, and this can conceal signs of water damage or mold growth. The biggest concern however is safety.
Hoarding and Emergencies
When you think of emergencies, most people think of needing a clear path to escape in a fire or for paramedics to enter. Even with a path cleared that doesn’t mean that fire safety can be ignored. It takes very little time for toxic smoke to overwhelm someone, often in seconds rather than minutes. The more obstacles to walk around, the higher the chances of a tragic outcome.
From a home inspection point of view, there is another potential emergency that few new homeowners think of: access to shut offs. All homes should have at least 2 and possibly 3 or more: they are usually located:
Burst plumbing in particular can do devastating amounts of damage in only a short period of time. Electrical arcs can cause fires if not immediately de-energized and electrocution can occur by touching even a single live wire if the electrical source is not stopped immediately. Some outlets in a home are protected by GFCI (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters) but this is not universally required on all receptacles, particularly in older homes and, like an airbag or a seatbelt should not be 100% relied on to save your life.
Too Many Things are a Liability, NOT an Asset
Of course, many of us find that we have accumulated many more items in our house than we had when we moved in but it is vital that we regularly manage our clutter to keep it from impeding the safe function of our home. Too many assets can actually be a liability. Always keep things in designated storage spots so you will have access to everything necessary to maintain your home and be safe. Your local home inspectors and emergency responders thank you!
It’s no secret that 2021 was a tough year in the Home Inspection industry, especially in the Halifax area. With the sharp increase in competition for home buyers, many have chosen to waive the inspection contingency when purchasing a home. Needless to say, skipping the home inspection is a B-A-D idea and while not the ideal solution, I do offer walkthrough consultations and strongly encourage post-sale inspections. If you are a first-time homebuyer, it is especially important to know what to expect in the coming years and plan accordingly as homes require a maintenance plan to avoid costly and disruptive issues.
When I was in the planning stages of starting my company and before the COVID-19 pandemic, I wanted to know the reasons why the services of a professional home inspector were not being considered. I found that many people have had bad experiences in the past with home inspectors that were lacking in either technical or communication skills. There is also much misunderstanding amongst new homeowners as to the value of having a home inspection and what exactly a home inspection entails. Here are a few of the more common criticisms I hear and my thoughts on them.
Home Inspectors are More Interested in Staying on the Good Side of Agents
Ask any inspector and they will deny this conflict of interest, but my experience has shown that this, unfortunately can happen. I have heard other home inspectors openly worry about being labelled a “deal killer” or “alarmist” or otherwise getting on the bad side of an agent or brokerage firm. While I personally am always happy to get positive referrals from anyone, including local agents, the bottom line is that I built our company's reputation as your source for trusted, unbiased and independent home inspections and home related information above all else. Simply put, any real estate agent or organization who expects me to compromise our integrity to push through a deal by writing a "soft" report is looking at the wrong company.
Just Hire an Electrician, Plumber, Roofer, and Structural Engineer
While some inspectors do occasionally come from these various backgrounds, it is safe to say as a general rule, home inspectors are not electricians, plumbers, roofers or engineers. It is true that collectively hiring from 1 of each of these 4 specialties will indeed yield a more in-depth inspection into arguably the four most important parts of a home. Realistically, it is extremely unlikely to coordinate these four separate trades all at the same time, often with short notice, often on the weekend and at a price that is affordable to the average homeowner. A home inspection is the best value for your money as a good overall introduction or assessment of your home. Home inspectors are both generalists and big picture thinkers and see a home as a system of interdependent components that no specialist can match.
I Can’t Trust Nova Scotia Home Inspectors: There Are No Regulations!
Stating that Nova Scotia has zero home inspection regulations is 100% true and has been a topic I have written about previously. There has been no shortage of people who have tried their hand unsuccessfully at home inspections both in our province and across North America. Some of these home inspectors have no recognizable qualifications or relevant experience and are masquerading as experts, hurting the overall reputation of our industry. Home Inspectors have one of the highest failure rates of any profession because it quickly becomes apparent, while a fun and rewarding career, that home inspectors do a job that is mentally and physically challenging, requires wearing a wide variety of metaphorical hats and is NOT, in any way, a path to easy money!
So how do you know you can trust your inspector to do a great job and provide maximum value? While there is no shortage of trustworthy, thorough, and knowledgeable home inspection companies in our area, I can only speak for my own organization. Inside Edge Home Inspections Ltd. was not an idea I thought up overnight but was the result of over 3 years of careful and meticulous planning. I knew nobody should be expected to pay for someone who still has significant gaps in their knowledge base so that is why I made sure I had an extensive knowledge and experience before launching: as the saying goes you only get one chance to make a first impression and I wanted to make sure our company’s reputation was excellent right from the start. Our website details my extensive background and why I am suited to be considered a highly skilled home inspector, with no need to worry about whether calling Inside Edge is the right decision for you.
This picture shows a sample of the common types of wires seen in residential homes. Let’s summarize the data in an easier to understand format and take a look line by line looking at the wires pictured above from top to bottom:
This stands for American Wire Gauge and is a standard designation in North America. It is important to note that the smaller the number, the LARGER the wire and its carrying capacity.
There are two types visible in the photo: NM and BX. NM stands for Non-Metallic and is frequently referred to by a brand name called Romex. BX (or B experimental. Long story…..) is otherwise known as Armour Coated wire and while more expensive is great at providing protection against mechanical damage.
You might see wires referred to as “14/2” or “12/3”. This is a measure of the gauge and the total number of wires (ignoring the ground wire). At least one conductor is always a hot wire, but the second wire is not necessarily a neutral, even though a circuit needs a neutral to complete the circuit. Yes, on the surface that makes no sense, but we’ll get to that!
Hey, That is Way Too Abstract!
You are probably thinking that you are just an everyday homeowner and not looking to become a master electrician. Fair enough, so let’s spell out in plain English what these various wires are used for.
1)This is a low-capacity wire that is usually for electronics or extension cords. It can be used to power small loads, such as lighting.
2)This is a #14 (very common) wire that has 3 conductors. Two common uses are for 3-way lighting switches and split receptacles, where for example a light switch can turn off just one half of a wall outlet.
3)This is an armour coated BX wire that, in our home is used to power our electric water heater. Since it runs on 240V using both hot lines entering a home, it needs two hot wires (red and black) but since it does not need 120V power the two hots can alternate acting as a neutral. This is why I keep repeating to LEAVE ELECTRICAL WORK TO ELECTRICIANS!
4)Used for 20amp circuits, seen in modern kitchens, which thanks to changes in electrical codes are far more common than in the past.
5)Similar to #3 except it has a plastic rather than a metal cover. Our home uses this type of wire for baseboard heaters.
6)This 10/3 is usually used for dryers and air conditioners. Since a dryer has 120V components, it requires a separate neutral.
My purpose was not to confuse or overwhelm but rather to show you why it is so important to always hire an electrician to modify an electrical system, no matter how minor. Too small a wire can easily lead to a fire (the circuit breaker or fuse provides no protection against this) and while too large is generally okay, it is a waste of money and can be difficult to connect.
A Final Note
I occasionally see extension cords being used as a substitute for permanent wiring in homes that do not have enough receptacles. I cannot emphasize enough that this is a dangerous practice that can lead to a fire, especially if it is buried under a carpet or rug. These type of cords are not designed for more than a month's use and the buildup of heat can easily start a fire. The same principle applies to Christmas lights and why I use them exclusively in the month of December.
It seems like every single home renovation show has a segment where the client expresses their love for having an open concept home. A few scenes later, out come the sledgehammers and within a few minutes we see a wonderfully clear, open room. If only it was that easy! I am a home inspector and not a building contractor, but I certainly can tell you without any hesitation that tearing out a wall is far messier and more expensive and disruptive than any TV show implies. As a general rule, I personally am not a fan of open concept design and here are some reasons why I believe you should think twice before taking part in this type of renovation.
Load Bearing Walls
Contrary to some horror stories you may read of load bearing walls being cut down, in most modern homes the roof is constructed using engineered trusses, which generally do not require support (for the top level of the house only) aside from the exterior walls. However, in Nova Scotia and most area of North America only a licensed engineer can certify a wall is not load bearing. There are lots of articles online about how to identify a load bearing wall, but it is not always as simple as an internet search.
Plumbing & Electrical
When plumbing and electrical systems were originally installed, no thought was given to what the home would look like 30, 40, or 50 years into the future. A lot of these shows make it look like a simple 2-hour job to move some wires and pipes when in reality, it can be a very difficult and expensive task. These two systems have to be engineered carefully and relocating these features is not as simple as simply adding new pipes and wires. There is a very good reasons plumbers and electricians are expensive and it isn't because they are just greedy.
Houses are Designed to Have Zones
Modifying the structure can affect the home’s HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning), as these systems were designed with walls and separation in mind. Not only can energy flow be disrupted and possibly require remediation but there is no longer a way to “seal off” specific rooms. For example, in our home the kitchen heat can be turned low after supper to save energy, but this is not generally possible in an open concept house.
There is also the issue I see in some flipped houses where the stove is moved from an exterior wall towards a more central location. Rarely is the ventilation factored in and while it actually is NOT required by any building codes, it won’t take long for the lack of a kitchen fan to become unpleasant.
We always have a child and sometimes more than one in our house. As great as kids are, there can be no doubt they are noisy. With an open concept house, the sounds of children (or their favourite shows) can travel throughout the home.
Any home built before the 80s almost always has asbestos in it. While generally harmless if left alone, it becomes very dangerous when disturbed. Always assume any home built before the 80s has asbestos in the walls until proven otherwise.
For these reasons and many more, it is important to think twice before knocking down walls. TV shows are designed to provide a WOW factor but as a homeowner, unforeseen issues can develop after the sledgehammers are brought in and the walls come down.
It’s a common horror movie cliché that a fuse blows and needs to be replaced in a dark, cold basement. In reality, however, most of what I and other local inspectors see during inspections are circuit breakers, an example of which is pictured below and looks like a series of light switches. There are two basic types of overcurrent protection: fuses and circuit breakers.
If I see fuses in a service panel, I will always advise getting an electrician to evaluate the system and recommend it should be replaced with circuit breakers. What’s wrong with fuses? There are several concerns:
Fuses Have to Be Replaced
While a tripped circuit breaker can simply be switched back on, a fuse must be replaced. This can not only be expensive, but often requires a trip to the hardware store at the most inconvenient time.
Fuses Are Usually Interchangeable
This means that different fuses (such as 15 vs 20 amp) are the same size. The problem with this is that homeowners frequently replace a repeatedly melting fuse with a larger size. While on the surface this is a very dangerous practice, and it allows a circuit to carry more current than can be safely handled which can lead to an electrical fire.
Fuse Panels are (Generally) Obsolete
If you read my previous blog post on Knob & Tube wire, you would know that K&T is dangerous mainly because of how old it is. Fuses have not been used in homes (except in rare conditions) since the 1970s and nearly all are past their expected lifespan.
Many insurance companies look negatively on a fuse box, mainly for the last two reasons I just stated. While beyond the scope of a home inspection, I have heard plenty of stories of insurers demanding electrical systems be upgraded to a modern circuit breaker as a condition of writing a policy on a home.
It’s not as simple as saying fuses = bad and circuit breakers = good. In fact, fuses are better at preventing over currents and, while very reliable, circuit breakers still are not 100% foolproof. Our heat pump (installed in 2020) also uses a fuse for one simple reason: they react much faster to a power surge and can protect the unit from catastrophic damage far better. This is why a home inspector will recommend an electrician: I’ve said it before, and I will say again that electrical systems can be very dangerous and more complicated than they appear.
There are two main types of safety devices that inspectors look for: Arc-Fault Circuit Interrupters (AFCIs) and Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters (GFCIs). Both provide different types of protection: the AFCI generally protects against fire and the GFCI against electrocution.
Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters
AFCIs work by continuously monitoring the electrical waveform and promptly interrupting the circuit if a wave pattern that is characteristic of a dangerous arc that can cause a fire. The best way to think about them is like they are small lightning bolts. Much like lightning, arcs create a large amount of heat that can ignite a fire behind the walls of a home.
AFCIs can be found in both the receptacles on the wall and inside the electrical panel. They can usually be identified with either the term “AFCI” written on them or by a white curly wire in the panel. Starting in 2002, bedrooms were required to have AFCI protection, and it has been expanded multiple times to include most electrical circuits. There are several exceptions that any licensed electrical contractor is aware of (such as bathrooms), and I won’t bore you with quoting the long and confusing Canadian Electric Code. Bottom line is that AFCIs are expensive but serve a valuable role in preventing electrical fires.
Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters
GFCIs can look very similar to AFCIs (and to make it more confusing it is possible to have GFCI AND AFCI protection in the same area) but serve a different purpose. A GFCI looks for differences in current between the hot and neutral conductors. What exactly does that mean? If the current in the neutral is lower than the hot, it means electricity is travelling where it should not be going. Often this means it is passing through a human body. A GFCI detects this almost instantly and stops the circuit, potentially saving a life.
The language surrounding where GFCIs are required is confusing but the simplest way to look at it is that any electrical outlets within 5-6 feet of a water source need GFCI protection. Water and electricity do not mix, and the combination can be fatal without the safety of a GFCI.
An Important Note
Home inspectors are not electricians or code compliance officers. While I have a working knowledge of electrical codes, I do not cite current codes in my reports. There are two reasons for this:
In other words, if the home predated AFCI and GFCI requirements you do not have to add them to be code compliant unless you perform major renovations. Having said all that, my focus is on safety, and regardless of what the codebooks say dangerous electrical currents do not care when your home was built. Therefore, I always recommend upgrading your electrical system to the latest safety requirements for you and your family’s protection. These two devices serve different purposes, but both are valuable safety features that should not be ignored.
WARNING: Do NOT, under any circumstances attempt to remove or disassemble an electric service panel (even if switched off) as just one small mistake can be fatal! I am a trained and experienced professional and know my safe limits.
Shortly after we moved into our house, we hired an electrician to do some upgrades and improvements. Like any curious home inspector, I couldn’t resist peeking at my panel before calling to see what exactly I was dealing with. As expected, I found no major issues that I typically look for such as double taps, aluminum branch wires or mixed neutral/ground bus bars. I couldn’t help but notice, however, the burn mark located on the bottom right of the panel.
Simply put, this was almost certainly caused by an electrical arc. You might think that an arc is just a few sparks and a quick sizzle and is no big deal. This is incorrect: while a bigger risk lies in large industrial systems, residential electrical arcs can be very dangerous in many ways:
An arc fault creates high temperatures and have been known to reach 19,000°C (or 35,000°F). That’s four times the temperature of the sun’s surface! This can not only melt steel (and damage the panel) but can easily cause a fire.
Arc faults can create a pressure blast of about 2000 pascals per square inch (PSI). Translation: the corresponding arc blast can not only knock an adult to the ground but can shoot debris and cause trauma to anyone nearby.
Sound and Light
I know from firsthand experience an electrical arc is LOUD! How loud? The sound can go as high as 140 decibels, which is as loud as a gunshot. It also can create a flash of up to 13,000,000 lux (130 times brighter than direct sunlight) that can cause temporary or permanent vision loss.
Luckily these extremes are generally only seen in larger, more industrial electrical setups but that doesn’t change the fact that residential electrical systems are dangerous and not to be messed with. The biggest concern with an arc fault as a homeowner is that it can cause a fire, not only in the main panel but behind the walls. This is one reason why in 1999 the United States followed by Canada in 2002 started requiring Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters (AFCIs).
If I haven’t made clear enough, electrical systems look very simple but can hold numerous dangers you may not be aware of, so always refer any electric work to a licensed electrical contractor.
There is no such thing as a perfect home, and yes that includes my own house. Here are 3 subtle defects I found after moving in (and before I became a home inspector). Can you spot the issues?
This is what appears to be plain, ordinary insulation in the basement. The problem doesn’t lie with the installation or the R (insulating) value, nor is there a problem with mold or cold air infiltration and there is nothing wrong with using the red tape. The problem lies in the fact that this type of insulation is known as extruded polystyrene, which like all plastics is derived from petroleum by-products. As such, while it can be hard to ignite, once a fire has started it burns very rapidly with highly toxic smoke. As it is located in the basement, it would be nearly impossible to detect before the fire got out of control.
Solution: this type of insulation needs to be covered by a fire barrier, such as I have done here with drywall. This simple action can greatly reduce the spread of fire, allowing for precious minutes to take action.
This is a door frame that was walled over. How do I know this was added later and is not part of the original construction? Not only is the wood slightly different, but the plastic vapor barrier is missing over the former doorframe. This barrier is designed to keep wood and concrete from making direct contact, and having moisture travel up from the concrete into the wood by capillary action, which will reduce the wood's lifespan by promoting rot and mould growth. Below is proof that moisture is travelling up: you can see a moisture content of 10% compared to 6% to a nearby section of the wall with a proper moisture barrier. Generally, we start worrying when the moisture content hits 20% as that is conducive to rot and mould growth.
Solution: given how the moisture content isn't in the "danger zone" it is easier (and cheaper!) to just leave this alone, especially since this is not a new home. If this wood needs to be replaced in the future a plastic barrier such as polyethylene will be installed first.
This is from our basement where the washing machine is connected. All electrical receptacles within 5-6 feet of any water source need to have ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) protection as water and electricity do not mix.
Solution: I replaced this receptacle with the proper GFCI unit and while you may have noticed it was installed “upside down” it is 100% acceptable to install them upright, upside down or even sideways. I have inspected houses that appeared on the surface to be perfect, only to discover similar issues that aren't always apparent. This is just one of many examples of why I love being a home inspector!