Steven L. Smith, Bellingham, WA Home Inspector (King of the House)


Lynden Home Inspector (King of the House) -- Condo Electrical Safety


  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

Steven L. Smith

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Comment balloon 7 commentsSteven L. Smith • January 26 2008 04:24PM


Just a side note of something that was brought to my attention yesterday.  Real Estate is like a Garden...  First you plant the seeds and then you water then it grows then we pick our fruits.  The person that waters the seed the most, makes the most money.  Just thought that was a fun little way to look at it. Happy selling.
Posted by Andrew Johnson, Real Estate Service and Inventory Specialist (Touchstone Realty) almost 12 years ago
Thanks Andrew.
Posted by Steven L. Smith, Bellingham WA Home Inspector (King of the House Home Inspection, Inc.) almost 12 years ago

Great advice Steven.

I would add one thing.  If the buyer had a home inspection when they purchased, that defect, and it is a serious defect would have been reported to the condo assn and addressed quickly. 

That is a serious safety hazert and I'd have written it as such and required that the seller get those things labeled.


Posted by Lenn Harley, Real Estate Broker - Virginia & Maryland (Lenn Harley,, MD & VA Homes and Real Estate) almost 12 years ago


I just called this out the other day, top photo. A safety issue like this is an easy call as it is so simple to fix. I do find, personally, that lots of the condo associations do not seem too responsive to maintaining their part of the bargain or repairs. That can be a problem for a condo buyer. He or she gets a list of the inspectors findings. Often these include crawl space, roof or siding issues that are not the responsibility of the seller. But sometimes getting the condo association off the dime, to do their part of the workk, is a serious problem -- like motivating Dagwood Bumstead.

Posted by Steven L. Smith, Bellingham WA Home Inspector (King of the House Home Inspection, Inc.) almost 12 years ago

I wouldn't have any trouble getting a condo assn to label elec. boxes or meters.  The fire department would make a house call. 

I put the burden on the seller.  Write serious matters as "undisclosed safety defects" and the contract is conditioned on the seller getting the repairs made. 

The agents need to learn how to get things done.  That's what we get paid the big bucks for.

Posted by Lenn Harley, Real Estate Broker - Virginia & Maryland (Lenn Harley,, MD & VA Homes and Real Estate) almost 12 years ago
Steve, I would say that more than half of the condo's I inspect have the various scenarios you described.  I think we are "a law suit away" from seeing code changes regarding these safety issues:)  These outside disconnects bother me from a "creative vandalism" point of view as well, and I think that is why we see the locks sometimes.  I think main breakers in every panel in the individual units would be a big improvement (to go along with the main breaker in a "secure" location at the meters).  There may not be any "ideal" solution.
Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) almost 12 years ago


I know what you are saying. It is like in the movies, some thief or mass-murder trips the main breaker, which is conveniently located outdoors, and everything goes black and his gang loots the premises as the occupants cower in their corners, reading by flashlight their home inspection contracts to see if the inspector predicted that this mayhem could happen.

Posted by Steven L. Smith, Bellingham WA Home Inspector (King of the House Home Inspection, Inc.) almost 12 years ago