There are many conditions you should look for when inspecting electrical outlets. Outlets might be damaged, worn, loose, overheated or ungrounded. Some outlets have open neutral connections, open hot connections or reverse polarities. Sometimes, the number of outlets is insufficient or they simply are inoperative. In addition to these defects, there are poorly located outlets. These include those that are too close to bathtubs or showers, too far from basins, directly above electric baseboard heaters, on floors, countertops and near garage floors.
Electrical switches share common conditions with outlets. They can be damaged, loose, overheated, inoperative or obsolete. Location issues include furnace switches too close to the furnace or light switches inappropriately positioned in bathrooms. In this article, our focus will be to identify some of the common conditions found specifically with poorly located outlets and switches.
Outlets too close to bathtubs or showers
Strategy: Most electrical authorities like to have outlets as far away from bathtubs or showers as they can be located. For example, you should not be able to stand in the shower and plug in a hair dryer. Any outlet closer than 3 feet is potentially dangerous.
GFIs Help: Some authorities believe that adding a GFI to this receptacle improves the situation enough to leave it. Your responsibility as an inspector is to point out the potential danger and let the client make his or her own decision.
Outlets too far from basins
Strategy: Electrical authorities like receptacles in bathrooms to be close to the basin, but not right over the top of the basin since the cord may droop into the water.
Away from tubs: Receptacles should be on either side of the basin. The authorities recognize that this is where people use hair dryers, curling irons, electric toothbrushes, electric shavers and so forth. This generally keeps them a reasonable distance from bathtubs and showers.
Razor-only outlets: Many home inspectors recommend replacement of the isolating transformer-type outlets usually labeled razor-only. These older receptacles are isolated from ground so you can’t get a shock. The downside is that they have limited voltage capabilities and many electrical appliances (e.g., hair dryers) won’t work properly. Replacement of these with a GFI receptacle makes good sense.
Photo above: A poorly located outlet directly above the faucet.
Outlets above electric baseboard heaters
Strategy: Outlets should not be installed above heaters, and heaters should not be installed under outlets. Cords plugged into these outlets will tend to drape over the heaters and may overheat. Where long baseboard heaters are used on walls, outlets should be located at either end.
Outlets in floors or in counter tops
Strategy: Electrical receptacles shouldn’t be flush-mounted on horizontal surfaces because water may get into the receptacle. Where these cannot be avoided, they must have watertight covers. Even then, some authorities do not like them. Outlets should not be located in areas where water may collect, even if it’s only from washing the floor. Watch for these and, where practical, recommend moving the outlet or disconnecting it.
Above: An unsafe situation can occur if water is spilled on the floor near this outlet.
Outlets within 18 inches of the garage floor
Strategy: Outlets should not be closer than 18 inches to the floor in garages in new construction. Gasoline fumes may accumulate near floor level and the slight arcing involved when people plug in or unplug appliances might ignite the flammable vapors. Speak to your local authorities about their recommendations and how they handle existing homes.
Poor location near furnace
Furnace switch location: Most jurisdictions require a separate shut-off switch for furnaces. For oil and gas furnaces, it’s good practice to have the switch between the furnace and the furnace room entrance. Someone shouldn’t have to walk past a dangerous or malfunctioning furnace to shut it off. Furnaces in basements should have the furnace switch between the basement stairs and the furnace.
Don’t turn on or off switches if you smell gas: With natural gas, some people believe that when they smell gas as they come down to the basement, they should turn off the furnace so that it won’t come on and create a gas explosion. Others believe it is dangerous to flip this switch if there is a gas odor. When switches are opened or closed, there is a small spark within the switch. If the gas/air mixture is within the upper and lower explosive limits, flipping a switch could ignite the mixture.
Don’t use telephones: Most believe that when there is a gas odor, the best action is to walk out of the house without activating any switch (including one that might be activated when you make a telephone call to the gas company). Leave the door open and phone the gas company from a cellular phone from a remote location. We believe this is a good approach.
Strategy: Checking the location of the switch for the furnace can be thought of as part of the electrical or the heating inspection. You should find out what is accepted in your area as good practice.
Poor location in bathroom
Away from tub: Switches in bathrooms should be out of the reach of people standing in showers and bathtubs. Typically, this is at least 3 feet away. An exception to this is a switch built into a whirlpool bath. These often are special switches with built-in safety features. For example, some of them are pneumatic.
Strategy: Where you see switches close to tubs or showers in bathrooms, recommend relocation. If it is close to a whirlpool bath, recommend checking the suitability of the arrangement first and relocating if necessary.
Above: These light switches are located too close to the bathtub.
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