I was discussing maintenance and possible troubleshooting of the electrical system in a family member’s home a few weeks ago. As readers may know, discussions such as these are common at parties and gatherings where people know we are electricians.
Most people are somewhat cautious or afraid to mess with electricity, especially after receiving a minor shock or burning up a screwdriver or two—as well they should be. The electrical system had not been maintained since this family member, let’s call her Nicole, purchased the house four or five years ago.
Ghosts in the ceiling fans?
Nicole said a ceiling paddle fan and light combination in the master bedroom would turn on when the ceiling fan in another bedroom was remotely activated. She wasn’t sure if the fans were being controlled by ghosts. I assured her that was most likely not the case, but who really knows sometimes. (I did not say that, of all the spooky things they could do, ghosts probably would not waste time with ceiling fans.)
I asked her the most logical question, from a technical electrical point of view. Were the ceiling fans the same models by the same manufacturer, and were both controlled by remote control? Nicole was somewhat relieved when I told her I had the same problem with the remotely operated ceiling fans in my master bedroom and in the family room. Remote controls by the same manufacturer are more than likely at the same frequency for both ceiling paddle fans.
Nightmares of fire
Nicole also worried about electrical malfunctions—so much that she had recurring nightmares that the house was on fire. That is a serious and upsetting dream to have. I told her that I would be happy to come over to look at the electrical system for her peace of mind.
I did a routine service check on the three panelboards (all located in the garage) and saw a few loose connections. None of the connections were loose enough to be a major issue.
I also searched for any discolored conductors and insulation deterioration on the conductors that may have been affected by loose connections, and for any National Electrical Code violations that may be safety issues. Fortunately, I did not see any.
I did not do a thorough review of the electrical system, such as checking GFCI trip levels on each device to ensure functionality.
I also did not test the smoke alarms. The house was designed with the master bedroom on one side and the remainder of the bedrooms on the other. NFPA 72, the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, requires more than one smoke alarm installed in a home to be multiple-station alarms, not single-station. A single-station smoke alarm is self-contained with a sensor, control components and an audible and visual alarm notification appliance in one unit operated from a power source located in the unit (battery-powered) or obtained at the point of installation (120V supply at the outlet box).
Where more than one smoke alarm is required within a home, as Nicole’s, all smoke alarms must be interlinked so an alarm in one smoke alarm will initiate the audible and visual alarm in all of the others. Multiple-station smoke alarms can be interlinked with a maximum of 12 smoke alarms and 6 other carbon monoxide or heat alarms for a maximum of 18 total devices. A smoke alarm must be installed in each bedroom, in the hallways connecting the bedrooms and in each level of a home. All must be interconnected. I will schedule a trip to do that additional testing to help alleviate any further concern of a potential system malfunction.
Check the grounding electrode
There is another item that most electricians and ECs overlook when doing a maintenance survey of any property: the grounding electrode. It is an extremely important part of the electrical system. However, once the electrical system is installed and approved by the authority having jurisdiction, everyone totally forgets about the long-term capability of the electrode.
The grounding electrode has four functions. The most important is to stabilize the voltage at the service to earth during normal operation of the electrical system. It also limits the voltage imposed by lightning, line surges and unintentional contact with higher-voltage lines.
Don’t forget to determine that the grounding electrode is still present and functional. Whenever possible, try to convince the owner to invest in a Type 1 or Type 2 surge protective device, as required for all dwelling units in 230.67 and installed in accordance with Article 242.