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Inspecting Electrical Panels
By far the most dangerous part of an electrical inspection, and one of the most dangerous parts of the inspection process, is inspecting the interior components of load centers, more commonly called “electrical panels.” The hazards are electrical shock, electrocution, fire, burns and eye injury from flying debris.
Although amperages are typically higher in main panels, both main and sub panels contain energized conductors of potentially lethal amperage.
Personal Protective Equipment**
Personal protective equipment for inspecting electrical panels consists of safety glasses, footwear with rubber soles, and gloves. Electrical gloves are made of rubber and are rated according to the maximum voltage for which they will provide protection. The category most appropriate for home inspectors is 00, which provides protection up to 500 volts AC. Proper fit is important for maintaining dexterity. Leather gloves will offer some protection but are not as safe as electrical gloves. Rubber-palmed fabric gloves are the least protective.
Inspectors performing commercial inspections should consider the increased protection provided by other categories:
Class 0 - Maximum use voltage of 1,000 volts AC/proof tested to 5,000 volts AC.
Class 1 - Maximum use voltage of 7,500 volts AC/proof tested to 10,000 volts AC.
Class 2 - Maximum use voltage of 17,000 volts AC/proof tested to 20,000 volts AC.
Class 3 - Maximum use voltage of 26,500 volts AC/proof tested to 30,000 volts AC.
Class 4 - Maximum use voltage of 36,000 volts AC/proof tested to 40,000 volts AC.

Voltage Detectors
The first exposure to potential danger comes from coming into contact with the metal panel, and they are all metal. It is possible for an energized conductor inside the panel to come into contact with the metal box, so that the entire panel becomes energized. When this is the case, the panel exterior surface becomes hazardous to touch. Before touching a panel an inspector should first test it with a voltage detector. These devices are inexpensive, small enough to carry conveniently and easy to use.

You may hear them called by a variety of names; voltage sensor or sniffer, or tic tracer. These devices can be used to determine whether the surface of an electrical panel has become energized.

Voltage detectors should always be checked with known live voltage when beginning an inspection. Without first confirming that the detector is working, an inspector may fail to detect an energized panel. Some types of voltage detectors will not work properly unless the person holding it is reasonably well grounded. If the detector is tested while the inspector is well grounded, but for some reason when testing the electrical panel the inspector is not well grounded, such as when they’re wearing rubber-soled shoes or standing on a rubber mat, the detector may fail to detect voltage present on the surface of the panel.
Upon finding an energized panel, an inspector should abandon the idea of inspecting the panel, post a warning tag in a conspicuous, nearby location, do their best to warn all those involved in the transaction as soon as possible that a dangerous condition exists, and recommend both in the written report and verbally that the condition be corrected immediately.

Removing Panel Screws
Once it has been determined that the panel surface is not energized, the next step in the inspection is to remove the screws securing the dead front cover. This can also be dangerous. Screws manufactured for securing dead front covers have shallow-cut, closely-spaced threads, reducing the chance that the threads will cut through insulation protecting wires as the screw is withdrawn. It’s not uncommon for the original screws to be lost and for improper types of screws to be substituted.

In the two photos above you can see the difference between the finer threads on the screw from a Square-D panel and the more deeply-cut, widely-spaced threads of a typical course-thread screw. The risk of cutting through the insulation protecting wire conductors may be greater with the threads along the shaft than with the screw point.
As a screw is withdrawn it may trap a conductor against the panel, increasing the chances that the screw threads will cut into the insulation, bringing the energized wire into contact with the grounded metal panel and causing a short. This condition can result in a bright flash and an explosion, which can send bits of metal flying through the air at high speed. Inspectors not wearing eye protection can suffer serious injury or permanent blindness. This type of accident can also result in serious burns.

The photo above shows, starting at the left, a proper dead front cover screw and three improper but commonly seen screws; a particle board screw, a gold deck screw, and a machine screw.
InterNACHI recommends that inspectors not attempt to remove improper screws, but instead, disclaim conditions inside any affected panels and recommend correction by a qualified electrical contractor. Home inspection fees are not lucrative enough for an inspector to justify taking serous risks.

Removing the Dead Front Cover
The dead front cover should be removed carefully, both to avoid contact with energized electrical components, and to avoid tripping any breakers, or knocking them loose from the main bus bar.
Tripping breakers is not necessarily a safety issue, but shutting off a circuit to the home when it’s not expected may make the occupants very unhappy, depending on what devices (such as computers with unsaved information) are connected to that circuit.
Knocking a circuit breaker out of the bus bar is a safety issue. To replace the breaker, an inspector will have to reach into the panel and in both gripping the breaker to replace it, and when pressing it into place, the inspector’s fingers will be very close to the branch circuit conductor connection points on the breaker, and to the main bus bar, both of which will be energized. There is no good choice in this type of situation. Leaving the breaker dangling from the branch circuit conductors will prevent replacement of the dead front cover and represent a dangerous condition to the home occupants. Inspectors should not do this.
Reconnecting the breaker to the bus bar means reaching into the panel, which is not a good option, but which can be made reasonably safe if the inspector is wearing gloves that will provide adequate protection if accidental contact is made with energized components. Reaching into the panel will be safer if the main disconnect is used to shut off power to the main bus bar. This may still create unhappy occupants, but replacing the breaker will be safer. If it is a sub-panel with no main disconnect there will be a circuit breaker in the main panel that can be used to shut off power to the subpanel.
It’s much better to avoid this situation by exercising care when removing the dead front panel.

Inspecting the Panel Interior
Once the cover is off the panel, many energized components are exposed to touch. Inspectors should not insert anything into the panel that will conduct electricity. This includes fingers and metal tools.
There are two reasons that inspectors may be tempted to reach into a panel. One is to move conductors aside in order to read or photograph the label that lists the amperage rating of the panel. These labels are often affixed to the sides of the panel and partially obscured by conductors.
Another reason is to confirm the size of the entrance conductors, or conductors feeding subpanels. The printing on these conductors is sometimes difficult to see due to their position on the side of the conductor away from the inspector, or because of dust accumulated on the insulation. Inspectors should resist the temptation to reach into the panel. Accidents involving contact with energized electrical components can be serious or fatal. Instead, inspectors can comment in their inspection report that they were unable to safely retrieve information such as the entrance conductor or panel amperage ratings. This is perfectly acceptable and not at all unusual.
One of the hazards of pushing conductors aside is that due to a loose connection or a break in the insulation protecting the wire conductor, moving the conductors may cause an unprotected wire to come into contact with grounded components, such as the grounding bus bar or the metal panel itself. This can cause an explosive short circuit, similar to that described in the section on removing screws.
When an inspector is accompanied by someone who may not be aware of the dangers associated with touching exposed, energized electrical components, such as a client, agent, homeowner, or occupant, that person may be tempted to point to an item in the panel that is being discussed, such as a defect of some type. Inspectors should take action to ensure the safety of anyone approaching an electrical panel. This means preventing them from approaching the panel closely, or verbally warning them not to reach toward the panel for any reason, including pointing. They may forget and reach toward the panel anyway, and inspectors should be ready to physically prevent contact. Laser pointers are inexpensive and work well for safely identifying specific components being discussed.
For the same reason, after the dead front cover has been removed, an inspector should not leave the room if there is a chance that someone unfamiliar the dangers associated with touching exposed, energized electrical components may enter the room during the inspector’s absence.

Replacing the Dead Front Cover
In replacing the dead front cover, inspectors will confront the same hazards as in removing the cover, but in addition, if pointed screws have been substituted for proper screws, which are blunt, the point of a screw may penetrate the insulation of a conductor, connecting the energized wire to a grounded component, such as the metal panel, and causing an explosive short circuit. This risk is increased when an overly long screw is used. Although some inspectors carry proper replacement screws, panels made by different manufacturers do not all use the same type of screw.



Very well done Kenton! I personally would make a comment about the distance you should tell Clients to stay away from the panel. I feel 6 feet off to the sides should be far enough to prevent any chance of danger and has been my practice for several years.

I would recommend that anyone removing the panel cover first turn off the main before doing anything else.
As a licensed contractor I would dismiss anyone in my employment for removing a panel cover with the main energized. I would never remove a cover with the main on myself.

The conductors between the meter and the main have no overcurrent protection and as you pointed out should the wrong screw be used could damage one of these conductors and the end result would not be very pretty and yes I have seen the end result of a sheet metal screw that came into contact with the bare service conductor where the threads cut the insulation. The repair bill was high not to mention the damage to the person that was removing the panel cover.

So do you routinely remove panel covers when performing home inspections?

If so, do you always turn off the “main” breaker? (shutting off all electricity in the building)

Or do you disclaim that part of inspection and choose not to remove cover?

Do you perform home inspections, or only do contracting?

What injuries did the person suffer Mike?

This would be good info and maybe a chance for home inspectors to insure the panel is de-energized by Home Owners permission!

I turn off the main every time I remove a panel cover for any reason

If the panel I am opening is for the entire building yes I turn it off

I do claim that it is a lot more safe to de-energize the panel before removing the panel cover

I do very little contracting any more. Most of my time is used teaching things such as but not limited to; Residential Wiring, Electrician Assistant, Introduction to Electricity, NEC Licensing Prep, all three levels of Electrical Inspectors, NFPA 70E Safety in the Work Place along with OSHA 1910.26 and 1910.333 for our local community college.

I sit on the Education Committee for the NC Ellis Cannady Chapter of the International Association of Electrical Inspectors and am on the Board of Directors. I am a listed instructor with the NC Electrical Contrctors Licensing Board and the NC Qualification Board for Electrical Inspectors. I work with the NC Office of the State Fire Marshall with the writing of the mandated manuals for teaching all three levels of electrical inspectors.

After 40 plus years in the field I am too old to do some of the things you young bucks do in the field every day although I do work some with local real estate agents for the electrical part of home inspection. It is usually to confirm the findings of the home inspector.

He got his hands burned a little but broke a leg when he fell over something that was in the room with him. The screw burned up pretty quick but the heat got the interior of the panel. I took the contract to replace the equipment to help the little feller out. I figured he had paid enough through the pain he suffered but he did learn something about 1 inch hex head screws and panel covers. He turns off the main before removing the covers also.

Do you think we should change our SOP to include de-energizing of the panel?
I know here all work by an electrician with ESA approval have to shut off the power to the outlet and unit they are working on. I would welcome this to the Home Inspection industry and support it fully.

Actually the panel is not de-energized but the main bus bar and a lot of the conductors are.

I am not now nor ever going to de-energize a house to inspect the electrical. Because then I have to go inside and ensure all is turned off before I re-energize the residence to prevent damage to any of the electrical items. This also seems to be a GREAT way for sellers to say you broke something. I can just hear the words now “It worked before you turned the power off, you must have done something wrong.”

I have yet to have the priveledge of being in a profession that did not have its dangers and down sides. I consider it the cost of business and educate myself to minimize my exposures to safety while taking calculated risks. I do it everyday. I decide which roof can be walked based on the conditions of the day, pitch, material, condition and then assess what is there and make an decision. Most roofs I walk on.

It seems that I see many people freaking out about, this and that and YES the 1 in 1,000,000 will come up and you can say, “I told you so”, but to me that is the cost of doing home inspections.

YES, I have fallen off a ladder and YES I have been shocked by a sharp screw in a panel and YES I have stepped through a ceiling from the attic. Stuff happens. I am sure other things will occur. I still open panels, walk on roof and crawl through attics, it just part of the business from my view.

It is a profession that has its risks and I charge accordingly. I know, I know there will be those who say…is my life worth it? I mean I can get electrocuted and die…but if this is your worry, then please guide me to a profession that has no risks.

Then I will hear that taking the cover off is a HUGE risk. To me the risk is self emposed and on me. I have seen the insides of thousands of panel and to me the risk is worth the reward (finding the defects in the panels and potentially saving my cleints life).

I have no idea how many inspections are performed a year and I hear little about the “injuries” that occur, sure they show up but when thousands and thousands of inspections are being performed, it is just logical that accidents will occur.

KNOW what you are doing, THINK before you act and do what is within your skill set and all should be ok…

And yes Ken you are right about de-energized completely.
ESA is trying to put this in place.

With all the gadgets, computer, and other electronic equipment in homes today, no way will I shut off the main to remove the dead front of a panel.

Look and observe the condition of the panel, if to many things look abnormal and you have suspensions of danger, refer to an electrician for a full evaluation and stay out of it. :slight_smile:

Thanks for answering all of my questions Joseph. I respect what you’re recommending and this is also what I was taught (advised) in pre-home inspector classes, which I did when I first started (turned off panel disconnect).

After I became a member of INachi several years ago this was discussed a few times, flipping “main” breaker off, and the majority, if not all, of the seasoned inspectors advised this is a bad practice and strongly recommended to NOT turn off main breaker.

Reason(s) were too many expensive items could be damaged when flipping breaker back on. Also most said if you felt uncomfortable removing dead front cover that was understood and recommended more training in the electrical field. So I no longer turn off panel disconnect at “main” panel or at "sub’ panels. I do dress appropriately, am aware of safe conditions in immediate area and use a tracer (voltage detector).

If you employee more than just yourself then OSHA will require you as an employer to furnish your employees the proper PPE when working in or on an energized panel. There are some pretty hefty fines should someone get hurt and OSHA do an investigation and find that your employee did not have the proper PPE while working on something energized.

The way around this is to simply de-energize everything before opening and no PPE is required.

As an instructor in the electrical trade I teach, safety first, safety last, and safety always. A person might open a thousand panels without incident but once the accident has happened it is too late to do anything to prevent it. What was it that Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) said, “an ounce of prevention is worth more than a ton of cure”

As has already been pointed out by others the screw that holds the panel cover on has no eyes and cannot see what it is coming into contact with. I believe that every HI on this site has opened panels that looked like a nightmare from Charlotte’s Web. With the panel cover in place the HI or anyone else can see how those conductors are inside that panel. They can’t see if the screw is in contact with a conductor or not. So you tell me what you think about turning one off.

I think the comments about using a tick indicator to see if the panel is energized say a lot about the dangers involved.

“Deenergized parts.” Live parts to which an employee may be exposed shall be deenergized before the employee works on or near them, unless the employer can demonstrate that deenergizing introduces additional or increased hazards or is infeasible due to equipment design or operational limitations. Live parts that operate at less than 50 volts to ground need not be deenergized if there will be no increased exposure to electrical burns or to explosion due to electric arcs.

“Energized parts.” If the exposed live parts are not deenergized (i.e., for reasons of increased or additional hazards or infeasibility), other safety-related work practices shall be used to protect employees who may be exposed to the electrical hazards involved. Such work practices shall protect employees against contact with energized circuit parts directly with any part of their body or indirectly through some other conductive object. The work practices that are used shall be suitable for the conditions under which the work is to be performed and for the voltage level of the exposed electric conductors or circuit parts. Specific work practice requirements are detailed in paragraph © of this section.

“Work on energized equipment.” Only qualified persons may work on electric circuit parts or equipment that have not been deenergized under the procedures of paragraph (b) of this section. Such persons shall be capable of working safely on energized circuits and shall be familiar with the proper use of special precautionary techniques, personal protective equipment, insulating and shielding materials, and insulated tools.
The definition of qualified person from NFPA 70E is;
Qualified Person. One who has skills and knowledge related to the construction and operation of the electrical equipment and installations and has received safety training to recognize and avoid the hazards involved

That part of receiving safety training has to so with electrical safety and the dangers of electrical energy. One simple question will tell you whether or not you are qualified or not. How much heat energy is available in that panel? If you can’t answer that question then simply turn off the main.

Yes I recommend changing the SOP to include de-energizing a panel before removing the cover. Throughout this site are those that do this or that to ensure they aren’t going to have something go wrong. Would they be doing all this if they didn’t perceive some sort of danger?

Edited to add;

PPE is designed to prevent burns and shock from being severe not to stop accidents from happening. Only person that ensure my safety is me.

While I certainly understand your position Mike, I don’t believe it’s necessary to de-energize a panel before removing the covers. If I had employees, I may think differently.

The three electrical contractors I “work” with on a regular basis, frequently replace entire service panels without having the POCO turn off power. Although this would be well beyond my own comfort level, I have watched them do it on many occasions.

In the end, I believe it comes down to just that - our own comfort level.

I think it should be left up to individual inspectors. I think inspectors who understand the dangers should be free to make their own decision and those that don’t need to learn.
I’ll address this in the safety course.This is exactly why I posted it on the boards.

This article may be of help Kenton.;_ylu=X3oDMTE1djhiYzQ3BHNlYwNzcgRwb3MDNwRjb2xvA2FjMgR2dGlkA1NNRTA2NV8yMzM-/SIG=121umg0m1/EXP=1325064166/**http%3A//

Another good resource here;;_ylu=X3oDMTE2Nmh2MjUwBHNlYwNzcgRwb3MDMTUEY29sbwNhYzIEdnRpZANTTUUwNjVfMjMz/SIG=1377na89r/EXP=1325065004/**http%3A//

Thanks for posting the links that back my recommendations as they point out there is the danger present. People have been hurt.

One thing I have learned sitting in some of the chairs I sit in is that the ones that get hurt the worse are the one who believe there is no danger in what they are attempting.

I would hope that anyone doing home inspections where they will be removing a panel cover don’t believe that they will do the same damage should the panel cover accidently trip one of the breakers. The so called damage will occur either way if any damage would occur at all.

Should I enter someone’s home and the need come about that the panel cover needed to be removed I assure you that I would have them turn off any thing that is on before turning off the main. I wouldn’t just turn off the main without warning. I would hope that during a home inspection the HI would do the same for the home owner before removing the panel cover.

My personal safety outweighs anything that any of you can come up with for not turning off a breaker before removing a panel cover. My insurance will cover anything that might be damaged while that breaker is off. Home Inspectors do carry insurance don’t they?

I have worked in the electrical trade for 40+ years doing all aspects of work. I know the damage that a single 15 amp circuit can do and the dangers involved with a 240 volt single phase panel. As to the primary overcurrent device opening on the transformer, it would depend on the type and size of fuse installed. I know of one where sparks flew until the service truck arrived and pulled it open. Dump truck caught the service drop and she was arcing at the meter base for almost an hour.

My post is nothing more than a recommendation and is based on safety of the HI. It is YOU that I care about.

We carry General Liability and some of us carry Errors and Omissions. I’m not sure which would cover this. Damaging something by turning off power to the home is not an error or an omission if it is done for safety reasons. I think we’d need someone from the insurance industry to comment on this one.

Also, it’s common for people to say there’s no dog, then you arrive and there’s a dog in the backyard. If people can’t get that sort of thing right, how’re they going to remember to turn off the computer. People will say it’s OK to turn off the power and then complain because they lost computer information, or everything electronic with a clock needs to be reset, or they lost phone messages, or the electric fence went down and a bear got into the yard and killed their goat, or ____ (fill in blank).