This Old House: Checking an older home for Code violations

A friend called me recently with some intriguing questions about some electrical work that he was having done at his newly purchased home. The home was built in the mid-to-late 1950s with some electrical work done in various parts of the home since it was originally built.

For example, the home has a nice swimming pool with a seating area in the water and a play area on the opposite side. The in-pool seating area also has a raised deck that is used as a table so people can sit in the water with their drinks and food. Beyond the table, there is a barbecue grill area that is depressed so someone can cook and serve their guests without getting wet. As you can imagine, this home has quite a few nice features, but the electrical contractor also took some shortcuts with the electrical wiring.

Since this was a second home for his family, my friend wanted to ensure that everything electrical was safe, so he called me to look at the overall installation. I am qualified by the International Association of Electrical Inspectors as an electrical inspector for one- and two-family dwelling electrical installations, general electrical, commercial/industrial electrical installations and electrical plan review.

When I did the initial walk-through, I noticed the existing receptacles and switches had been changed to a modern style throughout the entire home. My friend verified that the old devices had been removed and replaced. Since some of the plates had been removed in the kitchen area for painting, I looked closely at the switches to see if they had been connected to the equipment grounding (bonding) conductor or if the switches were self-grounding. Some were self-grounding and others were not. The switches that were not self-grounding did have the equipment grounding (bonding) conductor connected to the green screw on the switch’s metal yoke, and the boxes were metal. The self-grounding switches were installed in metals boxes. So far, so good, based on 404.9(B).

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Some switches in the kitchen had been connected to the equipment grounding (bonding) conductor and others were self-grounding.

I then examined the screws that were used to attach some of the switches and receptacles to metal boxes and some of the receptacles to nonmetallic boxes. Many of the screws for both switches and receptacles were drywall screws rather than the original 6/32 screws provided by the manufacturer. I guess it was easier to use drywall screws with a power screwdriver. Who knows why someone would not use the original screws? This is a violation of 404.10(B) for switches and 406.5 for receptacles. Is this a minor violation or a major one? The 6/32 screws provide a path for a ground fault to the metal box or metal plaster ring that works in conjunction with the parallel path of equipment bonding conductor to the switches and the receptacles, so it is a major issue.

Examining the receptacles, I noticed that none were tamper-resistant. All 15- and 20-ampere 120-volt and 250-volt nonlocking-type receptacles in dwelling units must be tamper-resistant based on 406.12(1). The purpose of tamper-resistant receptacles is to ensure no one, especially young children, can insert a key, knife or some other flat metal object into the hot or the neutral side of the receptacle and energize the object. Tamper-resistant receptacles require a cord cap with a blade for the hot and neutral to be inserted at the same time before the blades will be energized. Section 406.4(D)(5) requires any replacement receptacles to be listed as tamper-resistant where the NEC requires.

While tamper-resistant receptacles were not required when the home was originally built, they must be installed whenever an old receptacle is removed and a new one is installed. Since my friend and his wife have young children, this is an extremely important safety issue for their family. Section 406.4(D)(3) requires receptacles that are replaced to have GFCI protection in a location requiring GFCI protection, such as bathrooms, garages and outdoors; this requirement was met. Section 406.4(D)(6) requires receptacles that are replaced in a damp or wet location to be listed as weather-resistant and must have WR on the receptacle. Weather-resistant receptacles are manufactured with a plastic boot inside that will help prevent water entrance into the receptacle and corrosion of the contacts inside.

I started the review at the new service for the home, which had been relocated from the rear of the home as an overhead utility-supplied service from an overhead utility-pole-mounted transformer to a new location on the home’s west side and supplied as an underground service supplied from the same pole-mounted transformer. The outside of the home was stucco and the new, all-in-one panelboard with meter socket was installed as a semirecessed installation. Without a mounting pan behind the panelboard or a panelboard that was listed for flush or semiflush mounting, the installation violated the requirement in 312.2 for a wet-location installation to maintain at least a quarter of an inch airspace between the enclosure and the wall or other supporting structure.

Many electrical contractors and electricians do not realize that a panelboard enclosure is actually covered in Article 312, while the interior busing and components are actually covered in Article 408, with the panelboard and enclosure being required to comply with both Articles 312 and 408. The reason for the quarter-inch of airspace is to permit any water on top of the enclosure to adequately drain off and not continue to sit on top of the enclosure, causing corrosion and abnormal amounts of rust to compromise the enclosure integrity. This is a small, but especially important detail for the installation’s long-term consequences and longevity.

The installer also cut knockouts in the Type 3R enclosure at a location above the energized busbar, abandoned the knockouts, and then used four-square box blank covers without gaskets to cover the holes. This is a misuse of a listed blank cover and a violation of 312.2. The last sentence states, “for enclosures in wet locations, raceways or cables entering above the level of uninsulated live parts shall use fittings listed for wet locations” and 110.28 for the integrity of the enclosure in a wet location.

Since I was already looking at panelboards, I decided to next examine the swimming pool panelboard located outside and near the swimming pool equipment. When I removed the dead front cover from the Type 3R panelboard, I noticed that the feeder ungrounded supply conductors were No. 10 green insulated copper conductors. This is a violation of 250.119, since green insulation is only permitted for equipment grounding conductors with a few minor exceptions, none of which would be permitted for ungrounded conductors. Water intrusion had occurred at one time or another interior to the panelboard, resulting in water damage to the circuit breakers installed inside.

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Water intrusion had occurred to the swimming pool panelboard, resulting in water damage to the circuit breakers installed inside.

I also noted that none of the swimming pool equipment and the panelboard was bonded using a No. 8 solid copper conductor as required by 680.26(B)(6). In addition, there was a metal railing installed at and adjacent to the barbecue pit at the end of the swimming pool and within 5 feet of the edge of the water that also was not bonded based on 680.26(B)(7).

Upon examining the newly installed wiring located in the home’s attic, I observed open junction boxes [314.25], boxes not adequately supported to the building structure [314.23(B)(1) and (2)], boxes located too close to the eaves so the boxes were not accessible [314.29], and knockouts in boxes that were open but not closed in an approved manner [314.17(A)]. In one location within an interior wall, a plastic switch box had the sides cut out with two of the NM-B cables in an open splice inside the wall but outside the box.

I noted several deficiencies in the electrical installation and violations of the 2017 NEC. All these deficiencies and violations were a result of the newly installed electrical service, feeders and branch circuits. The entire electrical system of the home was to have been removed and replaced with new wiring.

The shortcuts taken at this home were not acceptable to me; the municipal electrical inspector of which I gave a copy of my report; to my friend, the homeowner; or to any qualified electrical contractor.

About the Author

Mark C. Ode

Fire/Life Safety, Residential and Code Contributor

Mark C. Ode is a lead engineering associate for Energy & Power Technologies at Underwriters Laboratories Inc. and can be reached at 919.949.2576 and Mark.C.Ode@ul.com.

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