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Insurers Have the Final Word on Fuses

November 29, 1998|BARRY STONE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

QUESTION: The home I'm selling is very old, and the main electric panel contains fuses rather than circuit breakers. The buyer's home inspector says the electrical system is not up to current standards, but appears to be safe and functional.

The insurance company, however, refuses to write a homeowner's policy unless the electric panel is upgraded to circuit breakers. They say that fused electrical systems are unsafe. Who should I believe, the home inspector or the insurance company?

ANSWER: Insurance underwriters are certainly not experts in the field of electrical wiring. But their actuarial tables indicate higher instances of residential fires with fused electrical systems.

This, however, does not mean that fuses are inherently less safe than circuit breakers. In fact, fuses, when properly installed, are probably more reliable than breakers because they have a quicker response time and are literally fail-safe when electrical overloads occur.

These advantages are the result of the very simple design of fuses. The only working part is a small wire filament. This thin metal strand is able to conduct a limited amount of electricity. When this power level is exceeded, the filament instantly burns up, causing an immediate interruption of power.

Circuit breakers, on the other hand, are complex electromagnetic switches capable of failure in a number of circumstances. Rust damage and overheating can cause breakers to stick in the "on" position, and breakers are not designed to trip in all types of overload conditions.

The problem with fuses is that well-intentioned but ill-informed homeowners and other self-appointed handy-people can easily defeat their intended purpose. This usually occurs in one of two ways:

Let's say the toaster, hair dryer and stereo are turned on simultaneously, causing the fuse to burn out. Joe Homeowner gets tired of buying fuses twice a week, so he replaces the 20-amp fuse with a 30-amp fuse. This higher capacity fuse is much less likely to respond when a problem occurs.

Instead, it allows the wires to become hot whenever there is an overload. The likely result, sooner or later, is a fire.

The second method of tampering with fuses is even more hazardous. This time, Joe doesn't bother to buy a 30-amp fuse. Instead, he puts a penny behind the old burned-out fuse. This condition, known as an unfused circuit, nearly guarantees a house fire in the event of an overload. Thus we see why insurance companies prefer circuit breakers.

From a technical standpoint, breakers may not be as reliable as fuses, but owners and renters are unable to tamper with circuit breakers. When breakers trip, you simply switch them back on. When they trip repeatedly, the only option is to call an electrician.

In today's world, insurance companies not only write the policies, they write the rules. Like it or not, you may be upgrading to circuit breakers very soon.

Unused Gas Valve Needs to Be Capped

Q: Now that I'm selling my house, the buyer's home inspector noticed an unused gas valve in the laundry room. My clothes dryer is electric, so I've never needed to use the gas connection. The inspector says the gas valve is unsafe and should be capped. This seems to me like a lot of needless bother. The valve has been just as it is for the last 10 years, without any problems. Do you see any reason to install a cap?

A: Unused gas valves are common in laundry rooms where electric clothes dryers are used. In such cases, most people don't even realize they have a latent hazard. Imagine what would happen if an object were to bump against the valve handle. Just a slight turn could start a gas leak in your home with potentially disastrous consequences.

People with electric clothes dryers should check behind their machines for unprotected gas valves. Capping an open valve is a simple and inexpensive way to eliminate an avoidable household hazard. To be sure the job is done properly, delegate the work to a licensed plumber.

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Got a question about any aspect of the home inspection? Send it to Barry Stone, Los Angeles Times, 540 Atascadero Road, Morro Bay, CA 93442. Queries can also be sent via e-mail to: inspector@fix.net. All questions will be considered but cannot be answered individually.

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