electrical-ouch

Why a professional trade is not always the best person to ask


Background

I recently asked to perform a Tarion 1-Year Warranty Inspection.  During the Inspection of the Kitchen, I was met by the Builders Electrician who had been called in to service the Cooker Exhaust Hood.

As I was inspecting, I noticed that the island receptacle was less than 1m away from the island sink.  As is usual in these cases I used a GFCI tester to check the receptacle was protected.  Sure enough, it tripped a GFCI receptacle on another counter-top.    The receptacles were NEMA 5-20T slot, but as usual, I pulled out my multimeter to ensure that I was dealing with a three wire circuit and not a multi-wire split circuit. 

Yes, I know, this is beyond the scope of a standard home inspection, and call me anal if you want, but  I’ve come across enough poor installations in my time to be a little more cautious than many.

Electrical Expertise miscommunicated

Anyway, in this particular instance, the Electrician asked me what I was doing.  I told him, and with much glee, and in front of the client, told me I was an idiot because the Electrical Code demanded a 20 Amp circuit in the Kitchen, and it had been that way for some 20 odd years.  He said it was this way because you couldn’t provide GFCI protection on a 15 Amp split wire circuit.

For those that know me, you might find it surprising that I did not retaliate.

My assumption was he was basing his comments on installation practices he was used to.  Sure it’s easier for electricians to install single wire 20 Amp circuits to the kitchen, and far more lucrative for them, but “required by code”, “for the last 20 years” and “impossible to protect a split circuit”, I wasn’t going to waste either my time, or my clients time on a blow-by-blow argument with someone who obviously had a different agenda.

What I did do, was bypass his comments and ask him about a different concern I had with the smoke Detector/Strobe system in the home which I had already tested. 

I found that when testing the detector in the Master Bedroom, the strobe didn’t operate.  Neither did any alarms in the rest of the house.  When I tested the alarm in another bedroom, the alarms went off in all rooms but the master.

Flippant and un-informed answer from the “professional”

Again, he smartly replied that you had to test the correct alarm to check they all worked.  He walked up to the one in the hall adjoining the bedrooms, tested it and presto, they all worked.  Again he suggested that I did not know what I was talking about, and again, uncharacteristically, I  chose not to challenge him.

When he left, my client asked me if I thought the electrician was correct in his findings.  Now here’s where it gets interesting.

Selecting a defence

I had a lot of choices in my response here.  My first thought was to unload with my client about my thoughts on the electrician and his opinions.  That thought caused me some stress, but I overcame it and chose another path.

My second thought was heck, maybe the Electrical code had changed in the last 20 years and the Code I had been reading from 2015 had some typos in.  I thought that maybe, the alarm manufacturers had put some form of microprocessors in their interconnected alarms that made one a “master of all” alarm.  I had that second thought for almost 10 milliseconds.

My final thought was to do what I generally do in cases like this when accused by someone who is allegedly more qualified than I in an area of expertise, I check my facts.   I told my client, that I thought my original opinions were still valid, but I would check and get back to her regardless of my findings.  Either way, I would report what I found, explain what my concerns were, and then identify if I had erred.

So here’s what I found.

Ontario Electrical Safety Code – 2015.

“Rule 26-712(d)(iv) and (v) requires at least one receptacle (5-15R split or 5-20R) to be installed at each peninsular or permanently fixed island counter space with a continuous long dimension of 600 mm or greater and a short dimension of 300 mm or greater.”

Unless I’m very much mistaken, this clearly states that you can fit EITHER a split-wire 15 Amp circuit OR a 20 Amp circuit for the receptacles in a Kitchen.

“Rule 26-700(11) requires Receptacles having CSA configuration 5-15R or 5-20R installed within 1.5 m of sinks (wash basins complete with drainpipe), bathtubs, or shower stalls shall be protected by a ground fault circuit interrupter of the Class A type, except where the receptacle is

  1. intended for a stationary appliance designated for the location; and
  2. located behind the stationary appliance such that it is inaccessible for use with general-purpose portable appliances.”

Again,  unless I’m mistaken, even a 5-15 split has to be GFCI protected.  So how can one protect a 5-15 split?

Here’s what the ESA has to say in their Safety Flash 16-28-FL.  

To meet the requirements of the OESC, an existing 2-pole circuit breaker feeding kitchen counter split receptacle can be replaced with 2-pole GFCI breaker of Class A type to provide the required protection; or as an acceptable alternative, it will be permitted to replace existing receptacles of CSA configuration 5-15R split with 5-15R receptacles protected by a GFCI with the following methods:

  1. For installations where an existing three wire branch circuit feeds two 5-15R split receptacles (Figure F1):

    Typical installation-two 5-15R Split Receptacles connected to a three wire branch circuit

    Figure F1 – Typical installation-two 5-15R Split Receptacles connected to a three wire branch circuit


    Each 5-15R split receptacle shall be replaced with a 5-15R GFCI Tamper Resistant (TR) type receptacle fed by a separate line of the existing three wire branch circuit feed (Figure F3). The neutral conductor shall be installed in such a manner that any neutral conductor may be disconnected without disconnecting any other neutral in compliance with Rule 4-028(d).
  2. For installations where an existing three wire branch circuit feeds a single 5-15R split receptacle (Figure F2):

    Typical installation single Split Receptacle connected to three wire branch circuit

    Figure F2 – Typical installation single Split Receptacle connected to three wire branch circuit


    In addition to replacing the existing receptacle with a 5-15R GFCI TR type receptacle, an additional 5-15R GFCI TR type receptacle shall be added to the countertop and connected as per Figure F3.   Since the standard for GFCI receptacles requires both the Line and the neutral to be disconnected under ground fault conditions, the requirement to have the neutral in compliance with OESC Rule 4-028(d) will still allow the second GFCI to operate if the first one is tripped or disconnected.

    Figure F3 – GFCI Replacement Method


So round one of the Electrical discussion goes to the Inspector, not the electrician, and on three counts.

  1. A kitchen can have either a 20 Amp branch circuit or a 15 Amp Split circuit.
  2. There has been no rule in place for the last 20 years that says otherwise
  3. You can provide GFCI protection on a 15 Amp split circuit

Alarms – deferring to the manufacturer

The smoke alarms fitted to this house were BRK SC9120B Hard-wired, interconnected alarms.   Here what the manufacturer says about installation practices.

  • Connect the white wire on the power connector to the neutral wire (usually white) in the junction box.
  • Connect the black wire on the power connector to the hot wire (usually black) in the junction box.
  • Connect the orange wire on the power connector to the interconnect wire in the junction box. Repeat for each unit you are interconnecting.
  • Never connect the hot or neutral wires in the junction box to the orange interconnect wire. Never cross hot and neutral wires between interconnected Alarms.

I don’t disconnect alarms to check the wiring, so I should be able to assume, in a new build, that the electrician that wired them knows what they are doing.  

When it comes to testing, the manufacturers have something to say on this matter too…

Interconnected Alarms: Press and hold the Test/Silence button until the unit alarms. All interconnected Alarms should sound. The other Alarms sounding only tests the interconnect signal between Alarms. It does not test each Alarm’s operation. You must test each Alarm individually to check if the Alarm is functioning properly.

Nowhere in the manufacturer’s specifications or manuals is there any mention of location specific, smart thinking, master controlling alarms.   When I went to school (and did my electronics apprenticeship) we were taught that electricity could flow along the length of a wire, and it wasn’t uni-directional in an A/C circuit.  As all these alarms are interconnected by what is supposed to be a single circuit, then any single alarm should (and indeed must) trigger all the other alarms in the system.  If they don’t then something is broken.

Rather than take the electrician’s word for it, I inspected even further and found that the green light that should be on in the master bedroom wasn’t.  Even though the alarm sounded when tested locally and worked from the alarm in the Hallway, it didn’t when the alarm was tested in one of the other bedrooms.   Clearly there was something wrong and clearly, the electrician was just trying to fob my client off with excuses and make me look stupid.

The final response and a couple of lessons

As usual, I posted my findings in the report and added the technical details from the relevant sources without stating that the electrician was in error.

I left it up to my client to decide that for herself, she is an intelligent woman who is quite capable of deciphering the fact of the documentation, from the fiction of the electrician. 

I know she will make the right choice.

This is a very poignant reminder to all inspectors that while you might be absolutely certain of your opinions, it is not wise to get into an argument with another professional in front of your client.  It stresses your client out at a time when they don’t need the stress, it makes you look bad, even when you are right, and there are much better ways of handling things that show you are professional, well educated and can be trusted to give accurate advice and opinions, and back them up with evidence where required to do so.

It is also a very strong reminder to consumers who are thinking of buying a home or have purchased a new home.  While a Professional Home Inspector may not be a specialist in every area of the Home, they generally have a broad range of knowledge of the things that really matter to your safety and your homes long-term viability.  Your home is not only a huge investment, if you are not made aware of some of the things that are, or could go, wrong with it, it could also be a huge and unexpected expense.

Make sure you ALWAYS get a Home Inspection from a Professional Home Inspection with an audited certification, like the CCHI or NHI, to back-up their claims to knowledge.   

References:

ESA Flash 16-28-FL – https://www.esasafe.com/assets/files/esasafe/pdf/Flash_Notices/16-28-FL.pdf
BRK Strobe Manual – http://www.brkelectronics.com/pdfs/2011/09/19/b541dcfc.pdf
BRK Alarm Manual – http://www.brkelectronics.com/pdfs/2008/10/13/491b55ae.pdf 


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About Len Inkster

Len is an accomplished consultant with a strong background in root-cause-analysis and education. Coming from both an Information Systems Security and Construction background Len is an all-rounder. Len's Inspection skills range from Home Inspections to Mould, Radon, and other Indoor Air Quality consultancy services, as well as Asbestos identification and sampling services. Although fully capable, Len has consistently refused to provide remediation services on the basis that to provide inspection services and remediation services is, in his eyes, a serious conflict of interest. You can call Len at (289) 214-7531 or email him at leni @ fppi.ca