When we reflect on the evolution of home electrical systems, it's remarkable to see the shift from the simplicity of the 1920s to the complex demands of the 21st century. Here, we compare the past with the present and shed light on the challenges older home electrical systems face.

Back in the 1920s, homes were wired to accommodate only basic lighting and a few appliances. Nowadays, our homes are filled with a multitude of gadgets and appliances that demand more electricity than ever. This surge in electrical needs often poses a challenge for homes with outdated electrical systems.

One of the biggest issues we run into with older electrical systems is antiquated electrical service. Originally, a 60 Amp electrical service was the gold standard, suitable for the era's needs. Now, the voltage has shifted to a 200 Amp/240 Volt service, with some smaller homes or homes with gas service adequately served by 100 Amp/240 Volt service. Surprisingly, we still encounter 60 Amp services in older homes – which are often insufficient and unsafe for modern needs. Additionally, circuit breakers and wiring gauges sometimes mismatch, posing a fire risk. For instance, installing a 30 Amp fuse on a 14 AWG copper circuit rated for 15 Amps can lead to overheating and a potential spark.

Older homes may also still have fuse-based, over-current protection. While fuses are a viable protection method, modern circuit breakers offer more convenience, especially when a circuit trips. Additionally, replacing fuses with higher-rated ones or using inappropriate substitutes like pennies can create significant fire hazards. When in doubt, upgrade to a modern circuit breaker.

Electrical System Component Issues

WIN Home Inspector inspecting an electrical system

Breaker Panel Lifespan

Electrical components, including breaker panels, have finite lifespans, typically around 30 years. When inspecting homes with electrical systems over this age, we recommend a thorough evaluation by a licensed electrician to ensure breaker panels are still functioning safely.

Wiring Types and Upgrades:

Modern homes use Romex® or NM cable, which includes a grounding conductor, unlike K&T wiring. Older homes should upgrade to modern wiring standards for safety and efficiency.

GFCI Protection in Wet Areas:

Installing Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) protection in areas like bathrooms and kitchens can significantly enhance safety, even in homes with older wiring systems. They detect electrical flow imbalances and rapidly cut off power to ensure no electric shock nor fire ensues.

The Old and The Dangerous: Knob and Tube Wiring

Knob and tube (K&T) wiring, prevalent up to the mid-to-late-1940s, is a particular concern in older homes. While not inherently problematic, issues arise when unqualified individuals modify this wiring. K&T wiring lacks a grounding wire and is designed to be air-cooled, meaning it shouldn’t be covered with insulation. Modifications to this system are dangerous.

Purchasing an older home comes with its charm and challenges. It's crucial to be aware of potential issues with the electrical system, especially if it hasn't been updated in decades. A thorough home inspection is essential, and being prepared for potential updates or repairs is key to ensuring safety. WIN Home Inspection offers Full Home Inspections for buyers, Pre-Listing Inspections for sellers and Healthy Home Checks for homeowners – providing ample opportunity for you to safeguard your greatest investment and ensure the health and safety of your loved ones. Contact your local WIN Home Inspector today for more information on service offerings. Even our non-invasive Infared (IR) Scan, which detects electrical hot and cold spots around your home using thermography, is a proactive tool you can utilize to prevent home fires and mold growth from water damage, respectively.

As professional home inspectors, our goal is not to deter you from buying an older home but to educate and prepare you. Awareness of these electrical issues and proactive steps to address them can ensure your dream home is safe and equipped to meet the demands of modern living. Remember, the safety and well-being of you and your family could depend on just one, simple inspection.

Author Bio:

Pat Knight

A former home inspector, Pat serves as the Director of Training and Licensing for WIN Home Inspection, Pat has been in the inspection services industry for over 30 years and is an expert in performing and teaching 35+ essential services.