How to Inspect & Maintain Your Rental Property’s Electrical System

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A number of different codes and standards can apply to electrical systems in rental properties based on their size, use, and location. There’s the National Electrical Code (NEC), the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), and the International Building Code (IBC) — just to name a few. The local building authority that governs the jurisdiction in which your property is located has probably adopted some combination of the codes and added a few rules of their own.

The good news is that if the building has been granted a certificate of occupancy, the electrical system meets the requirements applicable to the building type, occupancy load, use, and appliances present. But if as an owner you want to maintain adequate service to tenants and the building’s value for resale, you’ll need to understand its electrical system and enforce a disciplined inspection maintenance plan. Most of the maintenance for your electrical system is basic and involves keeping it clean and dry, but always contact a licensed electrician to perform any repairs, installations, or electrical tests. Do not attempt to work on the system yourself.

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Electrical System Basics

A building’s electrical system starts with a service entrance — the spot where the utility company’s feed joins an electric meter. Since most multi-tenant commercial properties have separate meters, they’re likely to have more than one set service entrance, which can originate under or above ground. Everything on the other side of the meter is the owner’s responsibility.

From the meter, the service runs to a load center — in a multi-unit building, there are more than likely a number of service panels and sub-panels through which power is distributed to various circuits. Each panel is equipped with a main breaker, which is used to turn all the breakers in the panel on and off, and individual circuits are protected with breakers rated for the anticipated loads. To prevent fires, the breakers trip when they sense an overload, short, or other fault on the circuit.

Many larger, multi-unit buildings are required to have backup power systems for lighting, fire alarms, and other critical circuits to keep things safe and comfortable when utility power fails. Backup power is usually supplied by a generator and distributed to service panels with transfer switches.

Related: 5 Things to Show Your Tenants About Their New Home (to Save You From Costly Repairs!)

The table below provides information about the service life expectancy of electrical equipment typically found in rental properties. Some of the items listed are typical components within load systems and lighting circuits; others are typically used in HVAC, alarm, and security systems. To attain their normal life expectancies, electrical systems must be inspected, maintained, and repaired routinely.

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Recommended Electrical Inspection and Maintenance for Rental Properties

Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company, an influential standard setter, asserts that electrical equipment failures result in millions of dollars in business losses each year as the nation’s infrastructure ages. Two-thirds of those failures could be avoided by adherence to a routine preventive maintenance program, the insurer says. They recommend performing regular preventive maintenance on electrical equipment at least once every three years — or more frequently in moist or dusty environments. Below is a summary of key maintenance procedures.

Equipment Rooms and Switchgear

  • Inspect electrical equipment rooms and keep them clear. They should not be used for storage. Electrical equipment rooms or vaults should be kept cleaned of dirt and/or dust accumulations on a regular basis.
  • Inspect electrical equipment rooms or vaults for evidence of water seepage. Examine the tops and bottoms of electrical equipment enclosures for evidence of water, since this is a common entryway that often goes undetected until a failure occurs. Identify the source of the water (often a poorly sealed service entrance) and contact a licensed electrician to immediately correct the condition.
  • Make sure that enclosure panel doors operate smoothly and close tightly and that any locks and latches are in good working order. Panel doors should be marked with signs or label warning of the danger of live electricity. De-energize panels and vacuum to remove dirt, dust, and debris. Dirt and other buildup that can’t be removed by vacuuming should be cleaned away with a lint-free rag and solvent recommended by the equipment manufacturers.

Circuit Breakers

  • Ensure that all contacts are clean, smooth, and in proper alignment.
  • Ensure that spring pressures are maintained according to manufacturer’s specifications.
  • Clean silver contacts with alcohol or silver cleaner using non-abrasive cloths. Discoloration is not usually harmful to silver contacts unless caused by insulating deposits.
  • Manually close the breaker to check for proper wipe, contact pressure and contact alignment, as well as to ensure that all contacts make at approximately the same time. If possible, an electrician should perform a contact resistance test should be performed to determine the quality of the contacts.

Insulators, Supports and Connectors

  • Inspect insulators and conductor supports for signs of cracking, broken pieces, and other physical damage or deterioration.
  • Clean all loose dirt with lint-free rags. For contaminates that will not remove easily, solvents approved by the manufacturer may be used.
  • Examine for evidence of moisture that may lead to tracking or flashover while in operation.
  • Examine surrounding areas for signs of tracking, arcing, or overheating.
  • Have an electrician repair or replace damaged insulators and supports as necessary.
  • Examine all bolts and connecting devices for signs of deterioration, corrosion, or overheating.
  • Ensure that bolts and connecting devices are tight according to manufacturer’s specifications. Be careful not to over-torque bolts and connecting devices since insulators are easy to damage and difficult to replace.
  • Where copper and aluminum conductors and/or connectors are used together, examine connections for signs of galvanic action. Have an electrician ensure that the connectors are properly used and installed in accordance with manufacturer’s specifications, and apply an antioxidant compound to all aluminum-to copper connections.

Related: Home Appraisal: 9 Tips to Get a Higher Valuation (& Appeal a Too-Low Assessment)

Conductors

  • Examine insulation for signs of deterioration, cracking, flaking or overheating.
  • Examine all connections for signs of overheating, cracked or broken connectors and signs of tracking or arcing.
  • Ensure that conductors are clean and dry.
  • Examine and clean all connections and torque to manufacturer’s recommendations.

The recommendations above cover maintenance for equipment likely to be found in relatively simple multi-unit buildings. More extensive inspections and maintenance and more frequent testing may be required for larger properties with complex HVAC, security, and emergency power requirements. It’s good to budget ahead of time for this work and to have all inspections, maintenance, repair and alterations performed by licensed electricians and verified by engineers. Make sure they keep records, pull permits for alterations, and get the work inspected when necessary.

Any questions about keeping your electrical system in tip-top shape?

Leave your comments below!

About Author

Michael Chotiner

Michael Chotiner is a former construction manager who writes how-to articles on topics ranging from cabinet installation to breaker panel maintenance.

8 Comments

  1. Paul Winka

    Hi Michael, thanks for the article.

    What stood out the most to me and your article was the table of the expected life of different electrical components in a rental house. My rental houses are both over 40 years old. And the items that last the longest are only good for about 25 years in that table. My property manager inspect the property every 6 months. So far, so good.

  2. So my question is if, as far as you know, everything has outlasted it useful life by many years, should you go ahead and replace everything, or wait for failure? I think I would go ahead and replace everything.

    • Michael Chotiner

      Katie, to replace an entire system just because the age of a building exceeds that of components listed in the table would most likely be wasteful. Paul Winka has the right idea in having his property manager conduct routine inspections every six months, which is probably why he’s avoided failures and fires in his 40-plus-year-old buildings. And Jeff Hanson is on the mark when he advises that inspections be carried out by licensed professionals.

  3. Marcus Auerbach

    I think this article needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Micheal writes for Home Depot (they sell stuff) and seems to be engaged in a number of trade associations. What he is recommending is basically the same as your tire place telling you to come back after 25 miles after a tire rotation to have the bolts checked and torqued again. Or my favorite: our office work place safety consultant, who suggested to end a phone call before walking down stairs. She is not wrong: it is safer to focus on the stairs without being distracted and have one hand on the handrail. I am sure that when you look at stats for office accidents you find that stairs account for a good amount of accidents and I am sure there were phone calls involved in many of them.

    Also consider if they would publish 50 years life expectation and a house burns down they could be held liable. I think most experienced rehabbers would agree that after 20 years an electrical system needs a thorough inspection by a licensed electrician and some components may need to be replaced, but I don’t think many of us find it financially feasible to rewire an entire house built in 1996. Unless you want to be on the safe side..

    • Michael Chotiner

      Marcus A., if you look at the source ID at the bottom of the table, you see that the service-life numbers come from R.S. Means, which is the most widely used reference for cost estimating in the U.S. commercial and residential construction space. I’ve been involved with construction for more than 40 years, and when I evaluate bids on projects that I consult on, I compare questionable items with Means data. I suggest that readers of this blog do the same. I’ve reproduced the data here in the spirit of: “Don’t be surprised if. . . .”

      But yes, take the service-life figures with a grain of salt. The numbers are derived using big data techniques, which means that Means gives us means, if that makes any sense. The actual service life of a given electrical component or system can vary widely depending on many variables, including the quality and compatibility of the original parts, the quality of installation, ambient moisture, dust and effective maintenance programs.

  4. Jeff Hanson

    Excellent article drawing attention to the importance of maintaining electrical systems for rental properties. As an electrical engineer intimately familiar with power systems, I greatly appreciate this one. With regard to the section “Recommended Electrical Inspection and Maintenance for Rental Properties,” it’s critical to note that only QUALIFIED PERSONNEL should perform any type of maintenance or inspections on electrical power distribution systems. There are a number of hazards associated with the operation, maintenance and testing of electrical systems (including arc flash, short circuits, ground faults, etc.). Proper personnel protective equipment (PPE) is required depending on the level of hazard (gloves, hard hat, safety glasses, arc flash suit, etc.). In all cases, every effort should be made to only work/inspect DE-ENERGIZED equipment, which will often require an outage requested through the local utility. Bottom line, any work on equipment where the source can’t be isolated (locked out & tagged out) is dangerous. Call a qualified professional to do this kind of work for you!

  5. Mark Redmann

    I would like to meet the person who actually does any of this. who checks out the contacts INSIDE of a breaker? that whole breaker section doesn’t make sense at all. contact pressure? are you for real?!? why would you even suggest any of these things to someone? If there’s a problem, call an electrician!! Yes, inspecting your receptacles, switches, lights, and other things is great. but to go any farther than that? come on… What conductors can you inspect? dont they run through the walls? checking behind a switch or outlet or inside the panel will only give you maybe a 5% view of all the wires in your house.

    also, the homeowner is responsible for everything up to where the power company attaches. This includes the service entrance cable BEFORE you get to the meter, unless the meter is on your roof and the power company is running their feed directly into the meter (never done and never will be done by the way)

    this whole blog post looks and feels VERY cut and paste from some other source.

    • Michael Chotiner

      Mark, if you want to meet someone who would do some of the checks suggested in the article, have a talk with Jeff or a good, responsible licensed electrician. When the good ones find a problem, they usually try to pinpoint the exact cause before trying to correct it. Some believe it’s more efficient to replace the most likely worn-out part; they save time and earn the markup on the component. Others look for opportunities to repair rather than replace.

      In a way, this brings us back to the service-life table. Use it as a critical thinking aid; use it for what it’s worth.

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