In our many years in the home inspection industry, we’ve come to appreciate the complexities of home electrical systems – including the arcing phenomenon. Arcing occurs when electricity "jumps" across a gap in a connection, including wire splices, circuit breakers, and wall switches. Arcing within the walls of a home is dangerous and can strike a flame. Staying informed and up-to-date on your home’s electrical wiring is the best way you can prevent a fire.

The Double-Edged Sword of Arcing

In a controlled setting, arcing is highly beneficial. It ignites the fuel in vehicle spark plugs, playing a critical role in engine operation.

In residential settings, unintended arcing is a major concern. Electrical shocks are not the immediate danger here – rather, heat generated by these arcs can build behind walls or in electrical panels. Over time, it can deteriorate insulation and even ignite surrounding materials, leading to house fires. During our inspections, we’ve seen the aftermath of such scenarios - charred wires, scorched panels, and the pain of the avoidable.

Inappropriate arcing occurs when electrical junctions are loose or improperly managed. Typically, a junction box serves as a first line of defense against electrical hazards by organizing and protecting these connections. However, we've seen the potential dangers of neglecting the junction box – exposed wires and poorly managed junctions – and understand the resulting fire risk.

Spotting the Signs of Electrical Arcing

A comprehensive home inspection detects arcing. Subtle signs like black or brown discoloration around outlets, switches or in the electrical panel are indicative of arcing, evidencing that electrical currents are straying from their intended paths. WIN home inspection offers a Full Home Inspection that includes electrical wiring checks. However, we also offer a non-invasive Infrared (IR) Scan to sense electrical hotspots in difficult-to-see and reach spots. This standalone service is part of WIN’s Healthy Home Check program, bringing actionable insights to homeowners looking for preventive inspections to save money in the long run. Inspections are not just about identifying current problems; they prevent future hazards and ensure the safety and integrity of the home's electrical system.

Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters (AFCIs) serve as effective back-ups, marking a significant leap in home electrical safety. Their role is to shut down the affected circuit after sensing unusual electrical patterns. In our inspections of newer homes, AFCIs are commonplace, providing advanced protection against arcing. This proactive approach to electrical safety has undoubtedly prevented countless fires. Moreover, the evolving standards, expanding the use of AFCIs beyond bedrooms to most household circuits, reflect a growing commitment to electrical safety in residential construction. Understanding and testing these systems, especially in vacant homes, is a key aspect of our role as inspectors. In the case of fire prevention, inspections not only save money – they protect lives.

Addressing Older Homes and Wiring Challenges

In older homes, particularly those with legacy wiring systems like knob and tube, the introduction of AFCI protection provides a significant change. Older systems are more susceptible to arcing. In our inspections of homes, we always recommend adding AFCIs as a preventive measure. For homes from the 1960s and 1970s with solid aluminum wiring, the risk of arcing is heightened due to the element’s high conductivity. Here, the issue isn't just about age but about the inherent characteristics of the materials used, making regular inspections and maintenance even more critical. With WIN’s Healthy Home Check, you can test your electrical systems, along with other critical elements of your home like water and air quality, to ensure safety and cost effectiveness year-round.

Vigilance and regular maintenance of electrical systems is of the utmost importance to homeowners. Inspecting appliance cords, ensuring they are not frayed or damaged and avoiding placing wires under carpets or heavy furniture can significantly reduce the risk of arcing. Such simple practices are often overlooked but play a crucial role in maintaining a safe electrical environment.

Through our experiences and observations as home inspectors, we've learned that understanding and addressing the risks associated with electrical arcing is essential for maintaining a safe home. Implementing proper wiring practices, staying vigilant with regular inspections like Healthy Home Check and utilizing safety devices like AFCIs are vital steps in this direction. Creating a culture of safety and awareness around home electricity ensures our homes remain safe havens for years to come.

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.