Worrisome Electrical Things

I'm fussy about wiring. I got that way back in my rock & roll band days, when I was in charge of all the band's wires. I built all the guitar cords, microphone cords, and speaker cords. I built the "snakes"-the long, fat cables that carry signal from the microphones to the mixers. I learned early on that if I used cheap equipment or left my wires all loose and wiggly, bad things would happen. If we had a minor failure, somebody's mic or amp would go dead. At worst, some expensive piece of equipment would fry.

These days, in our little home inspection business, we have to worry about customers' electrical equipment going sparky, and their houses going up in smoke. We see worrisome electrical things every day. These three worry me most.

Federal Pacific (FPE) Stab-Lok Electrical Panels

We call them panels. Most homeowners call them "breaker boxes." They're the metal boxes-usually gray-where the circuit breakers reside. They're usually located on an outside wall, near the electric meter, or in the garage. Sometimes, you'll find them in a hall, a kitchen, a bedroom, or even a closet. (You don't really want one in a closet, but we'll get to that in another column, another time.)

Most of the FPE panels we see date back to the late 60s to early 70s. We see a few of them in houses, but we see even more in condos, especially condos that used to be apartments. These panels were in fairly common use until the late 70s. They're easy to recognize. Besides having the FPE brand name, and the word "Stab-Lok" written right on them, they're full of breakers with bright red handles.

Here's the problem: The breakers might not trip when they're supposed to. If a circuit gets overloaded, and the breaker doesn't trip, chances are something's going to burn up, and it might just be the house. There's more: The breakers attach weakly to the panel, so they're prone to coming loose, and even falling out, when they're manipulated. Sometimes, when they fall out, they won't go back in. New breakers are hard or impossible to find, and if you can find them, they're very expensive.

There are people-including some electricians and some of my fellow home inspectors-who'll tell you that FPE Stab-Loks are just fine. When I run across these folks, I suggest that they visit Dan Friedman's website at http://www.inspect-ny.com/fpe/fpepanel.htm Dan's a very knowledgeable and careful home inspector in upstate New York, and he's got pictures of burned-up FPE panels. Dan, and some other smartypants electrical types that I know, have convinced me that FPE panels are trouble. When I run across one, I tell people to rip it out and get a new one. That's what I'd do if I had one in my house.

Aluminum Wiring

First, let me explain: I'm talking about light-gauge aluminum wire, not the big stranded stuff. As far as I know, heavy-gauge stranded aluminum wire is not a problem.

Light-gauge aluminum wiring was popular from the mid-60s to the early 70s. The problem is that connections between the wire and devices (switches, outlets, fixtures), or connections at splices, overheat. Back in the mid-70s, the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) published research showing that houses wired with pre-1972 aluminum wire are 55 times more likely to have one or more connections reach a "fire hazard condition" than houses wired with copper.

That's all I need to know. If I had light-gauge pre-1972 aluminum wire in my house, I'd rip it out. And before somebody calls and tells me about the supposedly-legit retrofit in which the aluminum wire gets copper "pigtails," let me tell you: I don't have much faith in it. If the installer gets a little sloppy, the overheating problem gets worse, not better.

Old Rag Wire in Attics

Some people call it "rag-wrap," I just call it "rag wire." It's the old electrical cable-vintage 1950s-60s-that's covered with fabric insulation, as opposed to the plastic insulation we see on electrical cable today.

The problem with rag wire is that it's just not made for hot spaces, like attics. I've measured attic temperatures up to 140 degrees. Rag wire is suitable for 130 degrees at best.

Last fall, I almost bought a house with rag wire in the attic. Don't you know, I would've ripped it all out. We Jowerses will not be sleeping in a house where I know the wires are going to get overheated.

These three surely aren't the whole list of worrisome electrical things. In general, old electrical equipment worries me. Wiring, panels, outlets, and fixtures were never meant to last forever, and they won't last forever. Wire insulation turns brittle, panels corrode, switches wear out, and receptacles start to lose their grip on plugs. If I had my druthers, I wouldn't want any electrical parts more than about 20 years old in my house. I would definitely rip out and replace any parts more than 50 years old. Except for high-quality antique light fixtures. I'd rewire those.