Prevention is oh so simple but the condo association, or someone, has to realize that there is a problem waiting to happen, and a potential safety issue. First, let me set the stage for an emergency. After the scenario is over, it will be obvious that it is one of those situations where you really did have to make up your mind.
You are in your condo, a small one, only four units in the complex. You are running the electric baseboard heaters in zero degree weather and, suddenly, smoke starts pouring out of the distribution, or sub-panel, which is inside the bedroom. (Condos usually have all of the main shutoff's outside the individual units, often at an end of the building. Inside the house, there is a distribution or sub-panel). We continue: You flip all the breakers in the indoor panel and the smoke, and that distinct smell of burning wiring, is still coming out of the panel with wild abandon. That might be all you need to do, but you are not sure. Simultaneously with calling the fire department, you want to go turn off the main breaker at the east end of the complex. When you get there, you find the arrangement shown below.
Duh, what is what ? What controls what?
You live in unit D, which one do you turn off? You want to kill the power to your unit, but unfortunately unit A has a resident with serious health issues and shutting his power off could shut-down some of his critical life-support equipment. Do you flip them one at a time and then run in the house to see if it had an effect. It might be hard to tell since you already turned off the individual breakers in the sub panel so the lights and heaters are off already. Or do you just go for it and flip all four of them and let the infirm resident in unit A take his lumps and come out in the zero degree weather and try to figure out why his hospital equipment, and his own equipment, has pretty rapidly shutdown?
Despite this dilemma, and it would be a big one if it was taking place in your life, the solution is easy, could be resolved with the help of a grade schooler,or even a known underachiever, and is shown in the photo below.
Stick on outdoor labels, paint, take your choice but get the letters or numbers on there
So you see, the key is not honing your skills for crisis management. Instead, it involves telling the condo association to label the meters and breakers. Imagine how much simpler your decision would be, and how much lower your blood pressure would be, if your sojourn outside to the main breakers had ended with the meters and shutoffs below. Again, planning and prevention is 9/10 of the battle and this simple labeling might have saved the resident in unit A a short ride in a fast car or a visit with the grim reaper himself.
Note: Sometimes the outdoor shutoffs are labeled but padlocks are on them so they are hard to open and in some condos all main breakers are in a locked room. It is unlikely that a scenario such as this will occur, but just in case, it is best if residents have some understanding of the main shutoffs and access to them in a crisis. Also, some work that might be done in a sub, or distribution panel, could require shutting off the main breaker so it is best to know how to do that.
I hope you made up your mind! You can find more information on condo wiring here.
Steven L. Smith
Bellingham Home Inspector