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Fear the Fuse Box?

posted May 10, 2016, 4:20 PM by Troy LaPare

Fuses and circuit breakers are designed to prevent circuit overload. What's the danger of circuit overload? Starting a Fire!! When electrical energy moves through copper and aluminum, the wiring can get hot. Nobody wants red-hot wires glowing inside the walls of your house!

Most wiring in pre-1970s houses can safely carry a sustained load of 15 amps without overheating, while circuits in many (but not all) newer homes can safely carry 20 amps.

But Mr. Home Inspector, are fuses dangerous? Nowadays, we use much more electricity than did our parents or grandparents. 50 years ago most houses were wired with 60 amps of total capacity--and fuse boxes often only had room for four 15-amp circuits and a single 30-amp 220-volt circuit for a stove or water heater. Fast forward to modern day, most new houses have 150 or 200 amps of capacity, with dozes of individual circuits.

When a 15-amp fuse blows, it can be mighty tempting to screw in a 20-amp fuse as a replacement instead of hiring an electrician to wire a new circuit. And when that 20-amp fuse blows, it can be equally tempting to screw in a 30-amp fuse. If you do this, you've created a fire hazard.

  1. If you find a fuse box stuffed with 30 amp fuses, or even all 20 amp fuses, chances are the fuses have been blowing frequently--and the occupants have installed heavier fuses than are safe. This house definitely needs additional wiring!
  2. Even if you find a newer 150 or 200-amp circuit breaker box, you're not entirely out of the woods. If you discover only five or six circuit breakers in the box, this means that little or no new wiring has been added over the years, even though the capacity exists to add it. (Most electrical codes, for example, require outlets every 12 feet or within six feet of each doorway. But many older houses have only one outlet per room.)
  3. If the main fuse (or circuit breaker) is rated for 100 amps, which was normal residential capacity from the early 1950s to the mid-1960, you've probably got adequate overall capacity if most of the major appliances in the house (stove, water heater, dryer) are gas rather than electric.
  4. A house with 60-amp service, on the other hand, almost always needs upgraded electrical service.
  5. And in some (but not many) older houses you'll find a 100 or 150-amp fuse box with a dozen to 20 or more individual circuits, each protected by a 15 or 20 amp fuse. This is a sign that the house was rewired years ago by an owner who was playing it safe, and planning ahead. In such circumstances, there may be no compelling reason to replace the fuse box with a new circuit breaker panel. To play it safe, though, you should always make any purchase offer contingent upon having the home inspected.

One more thing, in NY, most insurance companies will charge high insurance rates if the house has a Fuse Box, or will not insure the house at all.

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