That’s Shocking!

person holding multimeter beside white painted wall
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So you’ve decided to join the thousands of others who flip houses (hopefully for profit). Congratulations!  Hopefully, you’ve realized before you bought the house, that this is going to be a lot of work.  If you follow the process from some of the flipper reality shows, the first thing you might do is demolition.  Is there a better stress reliever than smashing something with a sledge hammer?!! And it looks like such a blast on the realty shows.  But wait; there are few things that you can do to help save time, effort, and possible injury.

In nearly every wall, ceiling, and floor there may be electrical wiring and/or plumbing.  Sometimes it’s a challenge to locate these, especially in older homes, such as those built before the advents of electricity and indoor plumbing.  As a home inspector, I’ve seen several examples of these.   So, let’s talk about electrical wiring and fixtures.

Perhaps I’m more cautious than others, but 20 years in the safety field has taught me a lot.  One of the most beneficial things I learned was that you can never foresee everything.  I once witnessed a man using a reciprocating saw (Sawzall ®) sever an electrical wire while cutting some drywall and studs that had been damaged in a flood.  Thankfully he was not injured, but he could have been electrocuted if his hand had made contact with the blade or the live wire.

In my own personal experience, I was nearly electrocuted.  I was working with my father-in-law on our home.  (My in-laws lived on the first floor and my wife and I live on the second). I asked him where the breaker was for an outdoor light I was about to replace, and he told me not to worry about it, that he had already shut the breaker off.  I thanked him and attempted to remove the light fixture.  The fasteners were so rusted my only option to remove the light was to cut the wires.  I took out my cutters and proceeded to cut the wires in one cut.  To my surprise, there was a loud snap and a puff of smoke. Yikes!  I went to my father-in-law and said, “I thought you said that you shut off that breaker?” in disbelief.  He simply responded, “Oh, that one. No.  I didn’t shut THAT breaker off.”

Before you start your demolition, shut off the power to all the circuits you don’t need.  Next, use a circuit tester, like this one from Sperry Instruments,

Screen Shot 2018-10-29 at 2.09.57 PM

to test the outlets, switches and fixtures in the area you’ll be demo-ing.  Don’t forget to look on the other side of walls, floors and ceilings, if possible. The circuit tester itself isn’t infallible, so be sure to check that it is working properly on a live circuit before every use.  [An even safer way is to use a generator on site and shut off all the power to the house.]

[Note:  some states allow persons who own the home to perform electrical work on the home, but other states and municipalities may not.  Be sure to check with your local code enforcement office to determine if you need a licensed electrician to perform any of this work.]

Once you’ve established that all the circuits are de-energized, you can proceed with the demo.  If you cut any wires, first, only cut one at a time, this will lessen the risk of shorting out the wires.  Second, be sure to strip and cap each conductor to prevent contact with them when the power is on.  Next, wrap each conductor with electrical tape and temporarily tie it out of the way.  Here is an example of a live 208 Volt line that had been cut and left unprotected at chest level, (I bent it up to keep someone from contacting it).  Simply contacting this wire could have sent someone to the hospital or worse.

Live wire
Live 208 Volt 4 conductor cable for a range.

If you’ve just bought a house to flip, the inspector should have identified any item like this for you.  But, it is always a good idea to check electrical cables (wires) to see if they are live before you work near or on them.  They may not have been live at the time of inspection, because a switch wasn’t turned on.

To summarize: before performing demolition, shut off power, check that electrical wires, outlets and fixtures are de-energized, and be sure to cap any wires that have been cut.  If you’re not comfortable doing this work, call an electrician.