If you’ve recently had a home inspection performed on a house you’re looking to buy or sell, you may have some questions regarding how the electrical panel box was inspected. The home inspector may or may not have opened the electrical panel for inspection. You may be left wondering why or why not. This is a hotly debated topic as to whether or not a home inspector can (or even should) open an electrical panel box.
So, can (or should) a home inspector open an electrical panel box? Yes, a home inspector can (and should) open an electrical panel, provided the electrical panel cover can be removed safely and without damage to the property. However, according to industry Standards of Practice, a home inspector is not required to remove any panel cover where the home inspector deems safety is an issue.
Let's examine this further. But first, we need to understand the industry Standards of Practice. Home inspectors are licensed and most US states. However, there are some states where licensing for home inspectors is not in place. For a complete list see ASHI Requirements by State.
There are two main certification organizations for home inspectors. They are the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors (InterNACHI or NACHI) and the American Society of Home Inspectors.
Both organizations have similar Standards of Practice. Let’s explore these standards.
What the Standards of Practice State
However, under IV.C. it states the inspector is not required "to remove panelboard cabinet covers or dead fronts."
In the ASHI Standards of Practice under 7. Electrical 7.1 states under A5 inspect interior components of service panels and subpanels.
There is nowhere under the ASHI Electrical Standards of Practice that instructs a home inspector not to open an electrical panel except under 13.F.1 General Limitations and Exceptions which states:
"The inspector is not required to perform procedures or operations that will, in the professional judgment of the inspector, likely be dangerous to the inspector or to other persons, or to damage the property or its systems or components."
So what does this all mean? Let’s examine further some scenarios where an inspector may open an electrical panel or not open an electrical panel.
Why Would a Home Inspector Open an Electrical Panel
The only way to accurately inspect the panel board is to open the panel to observe the:
- Service entrance connections – point where the service entry wires connect into the main service panel usually at the main service disconnect.
- The main service disconnect breaker – the main service disconnect breaker (usually located inside the main electrical panel) used to cut all power to the service panel.
- The panel board components – components such as the bus bar, neutral bar, grounding bar.
- Breakers or fuses – breakers or fuses used to connect power to the branch circuit wiring.
- Bonding – Other metallic systems connected to the grounding electrode system.
- Wiring and wiring connections – branch wiring for lights, outlets, fixtures, and mechanicals connected to the breakers or fuses.
By opening the electrical panel, the home inspector can visually inspect the panel box for defects. This is the only way to see defects such as burned wiring, rust or burn marks on the bus bar, double-tapped wiring connections, improper bonding, etc.
The home inspector can then cite these defects in the home inspection report and recommend the defects to be examined and repaired as necessary by a licensed electrician.
Only licensed electricians should perform electrical work. Of course you need to check with your state regarding who can perform electrical work.
The National Electric Code (NEC) provides the guidelines for electrical installations. NEC standards are not federal law. Local governments can either adopt NEC standards or create and enforce their own electrical code.
Since electrical codes can vary from location to location, most home inspectors adhere to there Standards of Practice and NEC standards when performing home inspections.
For more information on electrical and electrical panel defects, see our article Signs Your Electric Panel Needs an Upgrade – Safety & Costs to Replace.
Why a Home Inspector Would Not Open an Electrical Panel
There are some exceptions where a home inspector would not remove an electrical cover panel. These include:
- Inaccessible electrical panels.
- Painted or caulked panel covers where removing could cause damage to the property wall if removed.
- Safety concerns for the home inspector or others present.
When inspecting an electrical panel, there will be instances where the electrical cover panel can't be opened. Electrical panels that are blocked by furniture, equipment, or other obstructions or do not have the proper clearance are not required to be opened. An electrical panel should ideally have 3 feet of workspace on all sides of the electrical panel. This is often not the case in older homes. I've personally opened many panels with far less workspace clearance.
There will also be instances where the electrical panel box has been painted over thus sealing the panel box cover to the wall. Most home inspectors will attempt to cut along the edge of the electrical panel box to break the seal. However, sometimes these attempts are not successful.
Home inspector licensing requirements (where present) vary from state to state. Oftentimes these requirements offer little training in many areas of home inspections. In many states, you can obtain a home inspectors license with very minimal training. Take an online course and pass a state test and congratulations, you're a home inspector!
This leaves advancing training for things like electrical systems to organizations like NACHI or ASHI. In my opinion, inexperienced home inspectors should not remove electrical panel covers until proper training is obtained.
A valid argument could be made that an inexperienced home inspector should not be allowed to perform a fee-based inspection. However, since most home inspectors are independent contractors or sole proprietors, if they are licensed by their state to perform home inspections, there is nothing preventing them from doing so.
This is also one of the reasons many experienced home inspectors are pushing for more stringent entry requirements into the home inspection field. Inexperienced and poorly qualified home inspectors often enter the field offering cheap prices for a cheap inspection. This often creates unreal expectations and eventually drives the new inspector out of business because they've not been properly trained.
These are just some of the scenarios where home inspectors may not open an electrical panel. When this is the case, the home inspector should make a notation in the inspection report that the electrical panel cover was not opened, cite the reason why and refer for the panel box for examination by a licensed electrician.
What Safety Issues May Prevent a Home Inspector from Opening a Panel
- Live dead front cover – Before a home inspector ever touches an electrical panel box, they should use a circuit tester to determine if there is an electrical current present in the metal dead front cover. This can occur by a live wire inside the box touching the panel cover.
- No main service disconnect – many older panels do not have main service disconnects. The main service disconnect will cut all power to the breakers and branch wiring to allow the home inspector to safely remove the cover panel for visual inspection. This is not to say, that a home inspector will not remove the cover on a live panel box, only that this could be considered a safety reason as to why a home inspector would not remove one.
- Panel boxes with known safety issues – some older panel boxes such as Federal Pacific Stab-Lok and Zinsco have known safety issues linked to house fires. Depending on the home inspector, many will not remove these cover panels and immediately recommend the panel box be examined by a licensed electrician.
- Rust or water present – if rust or water is present on or in the vicinity of the electrical panel, a home inspector can immediately recommend that the panel box be examined by a licensed electrician. This yields to a potentially life-threatening situation.
In closing, when at all possible, a home inspector should remove the cover from the electrical panel to visually examine the components. If you've ordered a home inspection and your home inspector did not remove the cover, ask them why.
Best practices the home inspector should include pictures of the panel cover on and off as proof of performance. In my home inspection reports, I include a photo of the front of the box with the cover on, a photo of the data plate on the door with the brand name visible, a photo of the cover off, the service entry connections, the left side, and right side breaker connections.
This allows the client or owner to see what I see when they are not present for the home inspection. It can also serve as a good mental jog, in the event you need to recall a home after several weeks.