Being well grounded is not just about one’s well being–but it could be.

There was a time, in the not so distant past, when the only way a house’s electrical system was “grounded” was by connecting the grounding conductor to the metal water pipe coming to the house. There are still a large number of such houses around the country.

While I could talk about where this wire gets connected in relation to where it is supposed to be connected, that could be another whole blog post all by itself.

Today I want to talk about how this particular means of grounding the electrical system, often gets compromised by the installation of plastic components. It is also about how plumbers are not electricians and electricians are not plumbers, so these compromises happen too often. The lowly home inspector is about the only one that is going to draw attention to the problem.

One of the most common ways these older systems get compromised is when the old galvanized pipe from the street is no longer functional (from a plumbing stand point) and gets replaced with a new plastic water line. The installation eliminates the house electrical systems grounding electrode, resulting in the loss of a proper path to ground for dissipation of static charges that might build up on metallic systems  in the home.

The ground path is not totally eliminated however. There is also a grounding path back to the ground rod at the utility transformer on the pole at the street–which could be several houses away.

For electrical safety it is important to maintain grounding redundancy.

There could also be ground rods present in addition to the water pipe grounding electrode.

Another way these systems get compromised is when the pipe is repaired with plastic components—resulting in a break in continuity of the grounding conductor.

In the following pictures we can see where the old water line has been abandoned.

Water Pipe Grounding

And while the new water line from the street is metal, plastic components have been used to connect the new pipe coming to the home to the water pipes inside the home. The grounding conductor attached to the pipe on the house side of the plastic pipe is effectively no longer connected to the incoming water line–to either of the metal pipes.  Both would still likely be required to be used as grounding electrodes for the home’s electrical system.

Repairs will not be difficult, but needs to be done to provide proper grounding of the electrical system.

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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Sorry Utility Linesworker—I didn’t mean to forget…….

The receptacle pictured below is a standard dryer receptacle. 

It is installed next to the stacking washer dryer and was likely used for the dryer, previous to the dryer being converted to gas.  What is a handy sort of guy to do with a left over dryer receptacle?  Well why not plug the generator into it and use it as a way to get power to the electrical panel?  GENIUS!

While it has been labeled as to what it is for–with even a warning to make sure the main breakers are turned off, this is not an approved means of providing power to the electrical service panel.  Modern generator interfaces are just that: “an interface.”  An interface will mean that there is a way of ensuring that home generated power cannot improperly back-feed the lines running to the home.

This is an extremely important safety feature because, every year utility company lines workers are killed or injured from improperly installed generators that send power back into the grid.  Obviously if you shut off the mains, as the instructions say–everything will likely be OK.  But all you have to do (when in the heat of the moment all you can think about is the venison thawing in the freezer or getting your crashed computers back up and running) is forget to turn the Main breaker off just once and someone is killed–how will you rationalize not installing a proper interface?

These interfaces are extremely cheap–especially the type that is basically a switch that turns the generator breaker to the on position in the same movement that turns the main breaker off.  Here is a picture of what these simple interfaces looks like.

When you flip the main breaker to the left you can then slide the mechanism upward allowing you to turn the top right generator breaker to the on position.  There are even panels that can perform this operation automatically.  Here is a picture of a Square-D Panel that can sense a power loss, turn off the main breaker and turn the generator on–all before the lights much more than dim.  At least that is the theory.

These panels however, are not cheap–but for someone that wants all the bells and whistles or has to maintain life support systems and computer systems–it may be warranted.

So let’s generate safety–and let’s do it safely!

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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Two wrongs still don’t make it right.

Two wrongs still don’t make it right.

As you can see in the picture, the cut truss (wrong #1) is pointing right at the whole house fan (wrong #2).

While whole house fans may have been a good idea, once upon a time in some climates, they have virtually no place in modern energy efficient construction. In northern climates they are of particular concern as they are typically NOT adequately insulated and sealed against heat loss in the winter. When they are not insulated and sealed, the natural stack-effect of the home will pull warm air into the attic more or less around the clock.

The idea of these units is to flush the warm daytime air from the home at night, and then pull in the cool night air to cool the home off. Not a bad idea really. While this principle works in older poorly insulated homes, in modern well insulated homes they should not be necessary. Merely opening a few windows on opposite sides’ f the home should achieve the same result.

If the home is overheating during the day, one should look to the causes of that overheating and fixing the overheating as opposed to installing a system that should not be necessary. If one’s home is overheating and one considers it “well insulated,” I would argue that one should perhaps re-think one’s definition of “well insulated” or that perhaps there are other factors contributing to the overheating.  A good question to ask might be, “what are the air sealing abilities of the insulation?”  Not all insulation is created equal.

As a side note, I can pretty easily argue that even newly constructed homes in areas of the country with high cooling needs are NOT adequately insulated to appreciably reduce energy costs. Code requirements for energy conservation are “minimum” standards, and make no distinction between the air sealing characteristics of the various kinds of insulation.

If installed properly, and if used properly, and if maintained properly in the off season, these fans can help reduce air conditioning costs, improve comfort and improve air quality. Please note that this statement includes a lot of “ifs” and their installation can more often result in increased heating costs in the off season.

Another issue that arises from these fans is that if they are not sized properly (and they rarely are) they are capable of drawing more air into the attic than the attic space can get rid of. This can result in pressurizing the attic and minimizing the effectiveness of the fan—oversized or not. Regardless, even if additional venting is installed to compensate, there will then be compromised and possibly inadequate venting of the roof structure for that part of the year when the fan is merely wasting energy. It might be possible to balance these differences, but the reality is that often the different requirements for the different functions are simply not taken into account—or, worse yet, not even possible to take into account. More often than not, when I see them installed in the Northwest, they seem to be installed on the insistence of someone that has moved here from a climate where they worked or were possibly even necessary.

For the installation above, someone is now going to have to incur the cost of removing the fan and repairing the damaged truss. These costs will now need to be added to the increased energy costs created by the installation in the first place

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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