Amateur wiring, shocking results

Inspector's Eye

May 27, 2001|By Dean Uhler

Amateur electrical wiring is an aspect of home inspecting that is a source of both anxiety and entertainment. I worry because do-it-yourself wiring sometimes contains mistakes that pose a significant safety hazard. There's undersized or overfused wiring, splices outside boxes, lack of grounding, not to mention more subtle wiring defects that create an increased risk of fire or electrical shock.

But it is also endlessly fascinating to observe the ingenuity with which the occasional homeowner or handyman rigs up wiring using skills learned while connecting speakers to the stereo system.

Fortunately, a large portion of truly dangerous wiring has visible defects that can be found in a diligent inspection, so that repair or replacement can be made by a qualified electrician. Other improper wiring is more insidious and can easily remain undetected.

Obviously, it is a sound rule that requires the use of licensed electricians for all but the most basic electrical work (for example, replacement of an outlet or switch by a skilled layman).

Here are two questions recently sent to me.

I am selling my house and plan to take some favorite light fixtures with me. Two of them are wall sconces, and the buyer of my house has asked me to plaster over the holes in the wall after removing the fixtures. Is this OK?

Live electrical boxes should not be plastered over or otherwise permanently concealed. Section 370-29 of the National Electrical Code and Section 4405.10 of the International One- and Two-Family Dwelling Code provide that junction boxes and outlet boxes (for fixtures, receptacles, etc.) should be installed so that the wiring contained in them can be rendered accessible without removing any part of the building.

If the buyer does not want to replace the existing fixtures with new ones, the wire ends can be capped off in the fixture boxes, and removable, blank plates can be installed over them. Also, an electrician can disconnect the wiring to the fixture boxes at its source. Once no live wiring is in the fixture boxes, they can be plastered over and effectively eliminated.

During the recent repainting of our house, I noticed that the insulation on the main electrical cable on the rear wall of the house is badly frayed. Whose responsibility is this cable, and can it be repaired rather than replaced?

You are describing the service entrance cable - the cable that runs between the electric meter and the splices where the overhead service drop meets the house.

In the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. service area, this cable is the homeowner's responsibility. Although damaged sheathing on these cables is sometimes wrapped with electrical tape by an electrician as an interim repair, the preferred repair is replacement of the cable, the only long-term fix.

Prince George's County recently stipulated this, passing a law that requires replacement rather than repair of service cables.

However, if the cable is to be wrapped, it is not a job for a layman, as the condition of the insulation on the conductors needs professional evaluation.

The proximity to the service splices at the top of the cable makes working there potentially deadly.

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