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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Do I need a new electrical service panel

The electrical service panel is the largest safety device in our homes. It serves us everyday but we rarely think about it or appreciate what it does.

The service panel is the heart of our homes electrical system and has become vital in providing a comfortable modern lifestyle. Often during a power cut, we soon realize the importance of this system. No lights, no heat, no cooking, no hot water, no TV, no recharging cellphones.

As home inspectors we often recommend replacement of roof shingles or an air conditioner or a water heater and most people understand that these types of components have a finite lifespan and accept that they need to be replaced.

However, when a replacement service panel is recommended it seems to provide more cause for concern among both clients and R.E.agents

The point is that service panels do become obsolete, overcrowded or overloaded. Many older panels were not built to provide the services we require for our lifestyle today. Newer technologies and safety features have increased the reliability and serviceability of panels and breakers.

In 2009 the NFPA reported an estimated 44,800 residential home fires which could be attributed to old, faulty wiring or panels. Further studies have indicated that a disproportionate number of these fires were in homes more than 40 years old.

I acknowledge that the events that have to happen to create a life threatening situation are low probability but the panel is a safety device. Much like the air bags in your car, you hope you never need them, but you are sure glad they are there when you do.

To put things in perspective. Roof replacement cost is $ 4000 to $ 7000 and up. An air conditioner can be $ 2000 and up. A furnace can be $ 4000 and up. The cost to replace a service panel is usually in the $ 1200 to $ 1500 range.

I know this is not cheap but the panel is one component that could save your life. A roof leak will cause you to have a bad day but it most likely will not kill you.

Older panels manufactured by Zinsco, Federal Pacific Electric(FPE) or Bryant have a reputation for being problematic and a potential safety hazard but any electrical system older than 40 years should have a thorough evaluation by a qualified electrician.

As home inspectors we see these older systems regularly. There is no pass or fail for a home. We are hired to provide information and guidance particularly when it comes to safety so that our clients can understand the risks and make a better decision.


Friday, January 18, 2013

Your smoke alarm may fail 55% of the time

Ionization versus Photoelectric smoke alarms

In 1977 around 22% of homes had at least one smoke alarm. By 2009 around 96% of homes have at least one alarm. However statistics have shown that although the total number of fires has been reduced, the actual fire death rate risk, i.e the number of deaths per 1000 fires, has not changed much during this time period.

The two main types of residential fires are:

1. Fast flame such as cooking fires

2. Smouldering fires where injuries are mostly from smoke inhalation.

Currently there are two types of smoke detectors available in the market place, Ionization and Photoelectric and there are very real differences in how different smoke alarms types perform in real world fatal fires.

Ionization type detectors are by far the most common and are probably present in about 95% of homes. They use a small amount of radioactive material to charge air. Particles in the air disrupt current flow and set off the alarm. They detect small particles best, less than 0.3 micron. Unfortunately significant research has shown that this type of detector responds too slowly to the smouldering fires responsible for most residential deaths. Since they are also notorious for nuisance tripping from cooking, shower steam etc. they are also more likely to be disabled. Statistics show that Ionization alarms can fail to adequately warn occupants about 55% of the time. This is because although they are good at detecting small, fast moving particles, they are poor at detecting large slow moving particles and relatively insensitive to colour and density changes.

Photoelectric alarms use an LED light source and sensor. Smoke particles in air scatter light into the sensor and set off the alarm. They detect large particles best; 0.5 micron and up.With photoelectric alarms the occupants will receive significant warning about 96% of the time.

Recommended safety upgrade – I recommend that ionization alarms regardless of age be relaced with photoelectric smoke alarms. Photoelectric alarms have been shown to be far more reliable in most real world fire scenarios. A mixture of both types in your home may be advisable but combination units are not recommended.