Can Home Inspectors Turn on Breakers

The comprehensive answer based on facts

the facts about whether or not home inspectors can turn on breakers?

The simple answer is yes. There is nothing prohibiting home inspectors from turning on breakers, or turning on water shut off valves. Good home inspectors can, and should, be turning on most breakers and water valves.

Why Some Inspectors Won’t Flip Breakers

there are many myths in the home inspection industry

The home inspection industry is plagued with myths. We wrote about several of the more common myths here.

One of those myths is that home inspectors are not allowed to turn on breakers, or operate water shut off valves. Legend has it that turning on breakers can actually burn a house down. Although many inspectors purport to know someone, who knows someone, who knew someone that it happened to, I have yet to come across first hand knowledge of such an incident.

Knowledgeable home inspectors can appreciate the irony that one function of a circuit breaker is to prevent fires. A circuit breaker is designed to shut off power to a circuit during faults to prevent the wire from being overloaded, over heating, and starting a fire.

Even if these fables are based on a singular, or extraordinarily rare occasion of a fire started by turning on a breaker, it would not be enough to justify the dread that overcomes inspectors when approaching a circuit breaker in the off position.

If turning on a breaker does start a fire, that means the breaker is defective, and that is incredibly important information for a homebuyer to be given – which is the entire purpose of the home inspection.

Where Did This Home Inspector Myth Originate

Like most myths, this myth probably started around a fire (not started by a circuit breaker),  and evolved overtime to what it is today.

Seriously though, most inspectors defend their position by misquoting, and misinterpreting the Standards of Practice for home inspectors.

Most reputable home inspectors are members of the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors (InterNACHI). There are other smaller and insignificant home inspector associations, but they generally have the same SOP. Even states that “write their own SOP” simply copy and past the InterNACHI SOP.

Here’s what InterNACHI says about circuit breakers:

“The home inspector is not required to operate:

  1. any shut-off valves or manual stop valves.

  2. any electrical disconnect or over-current protection devices. “

In Virginia, there is no official SOP, and there is no mention of what home inspectors are to do if they approach circuit breakers in the Off Position. It does say :

“Systems in the home that are turned off, winterized, or otherwise secured so that they do not respond to normal activation using standard operating controls need not be put into operating condition. The home inspector shall state, in writing, the reason these systems or components were not inspected.”

Turning on and off a breaker is normal activation using standard operating controls, so that does not really apply.

As home inspectors we are not REQUIRED to turn on breakers. This is vastly different from NOT ALLOWED.

Interestingly enough most inspectors will stay they are not allowed to turn on breakers, because of their SOP, but they are fine with ignoring the limitation two lines down , which states”

moisture meters, gas detectors or similar equipment.”

Home inspectors are not REQUIRED to use moisture meters, gas detectors or similar equipment, but all the good inspectors do.

The myth originally started with the SOP allowing home inspectors to not turn on a breaker if there is a risk in doing so, and evolved into this humorous idea that is always dangerous to turn on breakers.

Should Home Inspectors Turn on Breakers?

home inspectors can perform operational risk management

So far we have established that home inspectors CAN turn on breakers, and that nothing is prohibiting them from doing so. The idea that they’re not allowed IS A MYTH.

That leaves us with should home inspectors turn on breakers?

For the most part, yes – home inspectors should turn on breakers.

In the Marine Corps we learned something called operational risk management. There are four main principles to operational risk management :

  1. Accept risk when benefits outweigh the cost.
  2. Accept no unnecessary risk.
  3. Anticipate and manage risk by planning.
  4. Make risk decisions at the right level.

Home inspectors are not required to operate breakers. There is some risk involved and risk is perception based – it is different for everyone. Home inspectors who know little about the electrical system, will perceive operating breakers to be of high risk, and home inspectors who are proficient in understanding the electrical system will perceive it to be low risk.

The risk is managed by evaluating the circuits you want to operate. For example, many times homeowners turn off the dryer breaker when the property is vacant. If I inspect the dryer plug and it is in good condition, turning on the breaker has minimal risk.

If I inspect the dryer plug, and it is broken, or damaged, or missing,  turning on the breaker is a higher risk.

The benefit is that the client will know if there is a problem with the circuit.

Training inspectors on how circuit breakers work, and allowing the inspectors onsite to determine if there is additional risk to turning on breakers, allows for the best service to the client, and the least risk to inspectors, home buyers, Realtors and property.

The Bottom Line

There is nothing prohibiting home inspectors from turning on breakers. It is myth that is prohibited by the SOP. Turning on breakers is extremely low risk, and performing some operational risk management limits nearly all the risk.

When hiring a home inspector ask them if they will turn on breakers that are in the off position. If they give you a blanket “No” answer, then move on.