Why Simple Testing is not Always So Simple

Home inspectors like to test things to see if they work; this is the very definition of what an inspector does during a home inspection. This seems simple but can get complicated when you run the risk of disabling an important system in the house or even damaging a homeowners personal property.

One specific example of this conundrum is testing AFCI’s and GFCI’s which protect electrical circuits. These devices are easily identified by the re-set buttons present on electric receptacles and breakers. These devices are important safety features that can prevent electrocutions and electrical fires so they are clearly worth testing to ensure proper function.

So why might a home inspector NOT test every GFCI and AFCI in the house?

Cutting an important power source: The nightmare scenario for a home inspector is testing and tripping a GFCI and disabling power to an important appliance in the house, such as a computer. “I was working on my thesis,” is not something we want to hear. This is easily overcome if no one is home during an inspection, but complications remain.

Now imagine that the GFCI tripped and the inspector is unable to locate the reset button and the circuit was powering a freezer full of expensive meat, or a fish tank full of expensive fish. This has actually happened to me and luckily for me, I figured it out and was able to run an extension cord to the freezer and keep it working and I left a note for the homeowner explaining what had happened. In this case, the owner was understanding, but not every owner will be so charitable.

Failed under testing: Things can get a step worse if the GFCI is tested and tripped but will not reset. This happens quite frequently. The inspector, in this case, has discovered an important safety defect, but in the eyes of a homeowner, they have broken an important system that worked before the inspector touched it. The critical language here is, “failed under testing,” but many homeowners find this an inadequate description of events.

Why this all matters?

GFCI’s and AFCI’s are important safety devices that we try and test during a home inspection. However, we may not be able to test every device. This is the discretion of the inspector, but we try to avoid damaging a building or the property within a building, and this can limit the scope of a home inspection. My friend Charles Buell has suggested that home inspectors can leave a note behind for sellers explaining that we are required by our standards of practice to test these devices and this poses some risk that some GFCI’s or AFCI’s might not re-set. This requirement could vary by state depending on licensing laws, but this is not a bad idea for fellow inspectors to consider.

I hope this helps home buyers and sellers understand a little more about the complex predicaments faced by home inspectors who are doing their best to help you understand the residences you are buying or selling.