What I'm Seeing Now


Altering (Or Adding To) The Electrical Panel Box Is Serious Business

Whenever I see panel boxes where breakers have been added, or changed, I have to think that altering (or adding to) the electrical panel box is serious business.

This is a house with a basement "finished" without a permit.  I know this because of all the things found that are not to code (and I am not the code inspector) or professionally.   Always basements without permits are "finished" by people who THINK they know what they are doing. 

The cliche applies:  we don't know what we don't know.

I am especially bothered when breakers are installed but they are not serviced by properly-sized cables.

Current flowing through conductors dissipates heat, and the greater the current, the greater the heat.  Too much current and things overheat.  Sometimes things overheat dramatically and fire happens.

Over-current protection in homes comes in the form of circuit breakers (or fuses in older homes).  They are designed to LIMIT the amount of current to a safe level.  If the current exceeds that level, the breaker or fuse will turn off the circuit - they will trip.

But what if the over-current protection device is inappropriately rated so they it allows more current to flow than the connected wires are able to safely conduct?


It's a problem because, of course, it is incorrect.  But it's also a problem because it indicates unprofessional or uncaring work.


What might be going on inside the walls of, say, a "finished" basement, not done with a permit?

Notice the black and red cables in the photo.  They each service 30amp circuit breakers.  Notice how fat they are?

Now look at the two lowest breakers on the left.  They are also 30amp breakers.  See the size of the cables servicing them?  Hard to tell, but they look to be 15amp cables!

Under the panel box is a receptacle labeled, with a magic marker, "220 Only."  Into it is plugged a large 220 volt air compressor.

It might be that used to be a regular 15amp receptacle that used to service the garage.  Did somebody pump it up with 30amp breakers, so a 220 air compressor could be used?

The 20amp breaker above them is serviced with the same size cable.  And it is also new.  It may service the basement.  It's so labeled, but I don't trust that.

It is licensed electrician time.

The amount of current that can safely flow is determined by many things:

1.  The type of conductor - copper or aluminum.
2.  It gauge (thickness) - fatter cables carry more current.
3.  The insulation temperature rating.
4.  The ambient temperature.  This is important.  A cable passing through the attic can carry current than it could in cooler areas.  So it must be sized differently.
5.  Whether the cable passes through thermal insulation that might allow heat to accumulate.  This dissipation of heat is why cables are not bundled.

Important:  in 2005 the NEC tightened rules regarding ambient heat and required that cables be rated for 90 degrees Centigrade (194 Fahrenheit) instead of the older 60C (which is 140F).  MOST OLDER INSTALLATIONS DID NOT USE CABLES RATED FOR 90C, AND MAY BE LESS SAFE.

This is why installing newer appliances or light fixtures in older homes with older wiring may require an entirely new wiring job.  Many instruction manuals so specify, but hey, who reads instructions?

My recommendation:  it is essential that a panel box be investigated, particularly when a homeowner or other non-professional has been in there doing their "work."  Too many things can go wrong and a buyer will inherit all that.  Certainly in these cases an electrician needs to evaluate and rectify any improper goings on.

Note:  this inspection was with Cindy Jones of ActiveRain.  The buyer was not present.  At one point I did not trust the drain for the "finished" bathroom in the "finished" basement.  I thought the flushed toilet water might pass through the shower drain and introduce itself into the air.  So I had Cindy flush the toilet while I smelled the shower drain and watched the water in the trap.  While the fabled "refrigerator repairman butt" was not displayed, I apologize to her for the view and to you for the image you now have in your head...



Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC  

Based in Bristow, serving all of Northern Virginia.

Office (703) 330-6388   Cell (703) 585-7560


Comment balloon 17 commentsJay Markanich • September 20 2012 02:11AM


Yes, there is nothing worse than someone who thinks they know what they're doing.  It is a safety hazard and unfortunately more expensive to fix now. Oh, and LOL on your last paragraph.

Posted by Debbie Gartner, The Flooring Girl & Blog Stylist -Dynamo Marketers (The Flooring Girl) almost 8 years ago

I agree Debbie, and see it all the time, as do you probably.  I thought Cindy needed a public apology...  ;>)

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) almost 8 years ago

Morning Mr. Jay surly you are not talking about Uncle Bob are you?  He is the master of construction, remodel, electrical water or anything else that you may want to have.  Enjoy the day sir. :~)

Posted by James Dray, Exceptional Agents, Outstanding Results (Fathom Realty) almost 8 years ago

Jay, That box looks really scary and needs further eva;luation as you inspectors sometimes say.

Posted by Debbie Reynolds, Your Dedicated Clarksville TN Real Estate Agent (Platinum Properties) almost 8 years ago

Jay-at least there was no plumbers crack :-)

Now to put together the home inspection repair addendum.

Posted by Cindy Jones, Pentagon, Fort Belvoir & Quantico Real Estate News (Integrity Real Estate Group) almost 8 years ago

OK, that's not the image I needed before I sit down for breakfast. Thanks plumber man. 

Posted by Scott Seaton Jr. Bourbonnais Kankakee IL Home Inspector, The Home Inspector With a Heart! (SLS Home Inspections-Bradley Bourbonnais Kankakee Manteno) almost 8 years ago

It looks like somewone had the old, if -the -fuse-blows-put-a-bigger-fuse-in logic when wiring those circuits. All those tandems would give me pause as well. 

Posted by James Quarello, Connecticut Home Inspector (JRV Home Inspection Services, LLC) almost 8 years ago

Electricity can be complicated, just because the circuit is currently working does not mean that it is in good working order Jay.

Posted by Tom Arstingstall, General Contractor, Dry Rot, Water Damage Sacramento, El Dorado County - (916) 765-5366, General Contractor, Dry Rot and Water Damage (Dry Rot and Water Damage www.tromlerconstruction.com Mobile - 916-765-5366) almost 8 years ago

What drove me crazy when I was installing telephone systems that needed IG circuits was when the ground strip was not isolated from the metal panal with a fiber strip AND IF they did isolate the ground strip they used metal screws to attach it to the panal. ALWAYS ALWAYS use a licensed professional electrician.

Posted by Doug Dawes, Your Personal Realtor® (Keller Williams Realty - Topsfield, MA) almost 8 years ago

Uncle Bob is truly the Master of All, James.  And he does get around!

Debbie - it does and it will get that further evaluation!

Cindy - you say plumber's crack, I say fridge butt - either way, at least that didn't happen!  My wife rolled her eyes when I told her the story last night.  She asked if I was going to blog about it!  It was a blog addendum instead!

No problem Scott!  Once I went into the 7-11 for a soda and someone was working on the ice-maker machine.  The classic butt crack was on display and IT TOOK ALL OF MY PERSONAL WILL POWER NOT TO GO BACK TO THE CAR TO GET MY CAMERA!

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) almost 8 years ago

I'd say you're right Jim!  And about the tandem thing.  I didn't want to confuse the post.  It was kind of long anyway...

Word GQ Guy!  And I don't know when it was done.  Perhaps not long ago.

Doug - why don't you want to use metal with metal where there is metal near electricity?

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) almost 8 years ago

Jay -- that is one of the things that bothers me about most new construction.  When I was growing up -- all the 15 amp circuits used 12 gauge wire.  Then they went to 14.  I would prefer to have heavier than required wire, even though it costs more, than to have the wire overheating.

Posted by Steven Cook (No Longer Processing Mortgages.) almost 8 years ago

The guage on these is 12 Steven, which is why I said I think they are 15amps.  Today's stuff would be thinner.

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) almost 8 years ago

Good evening Jay. Electrical panels is no place for John Homeowner to try his luck at saving money. Best to get an electrician over there to do it right.

Posted by Randy Ostrander, Real Estate Broker, Serving Big Rapids and West Central MI (Lake and Lodge Realty LLC ) almost 8 years ago

Wonderful that you and Cindy are working together.

Will we see you for the Charity Walk in Chesapeake Beach 9/29?


Posted by Margaret Rome Baltimore 410-530-2400, Sell Your Home With Margaret Rome ( HomeRome Realty 410-530-2400) almost 8 years ago

Poooooor Cindy...what a view !  Sounds like there was a shortage of permits and expertise !

Posted by Sally K. & David L. Hanson, WI Real Estate Agents - Luxury - Divorce (EXP Realty 414-525-0563) almost 8 years ago

Randy - I believe that is the next step.  We'll see what he says.

Margaret - we have had a few inspections together.  I just read about the walk at Chesapeake Beach.  Saturday is my biggest inspection day, so when I do something like that on a Saturday it becomes very expensive.  I can walk about 100 yards, because of my knees.  Is that far enough?

S&D - I feel for her too.  Yep, quite a shortage of both!

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) almost 8 years ago

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