How do I judge the electrical system in an apartment?
December 27, 2005 10:08 AM   Subscribe

How do I judge the electrical system in an apartment?

I'm looking at an apartment. In the past, I've always been worried, when moving into a new apartment, that I'll have problems with the electrical system, and this time I'd like to alleviate my paranoia beforehand. I do computer work from home, so reliable power is of paramount importance to me.

Many of the outlets are not grounded, so obviously at least some of those will need to be replaced with 3-prong outlets. My understanding is that this is usually not a big deal if there's a ground line to the outlet enclosure, and at worst may require snaking a ground line from the circuit box.

If the fuse box has enough capacity (it's got 8 circuits, 6 20-amp and 2 15-amp, which should be plenty), what else can go wrong?

What should I be looking/asking for?
posted by Caviar to Home & Garden (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Call an electrician. Seriously, the cost for a basic inspection would be marginal -- $50-$75 -- and you can negotiate that in advance.

If you're in California, you can get a full-on, top-to-bottom home inspection for $150. Any real estate agent can give you the numbers of the people they work with. So can the Yellow Pages.
posted by frogan at 10:10 AM on December 27, 2005

Agreed. Although it sounds like you might have an issue with no grounded outlets, even a close inspection won't give you all the answers (not to a layman that is). It's totally worth hiring a guy to come in and just access the situation.
posted by j.p. Hung at 10:15 AM on December 27, 2005

I lived in apartments before, first with one computer then with a growing number of computers along the years. Some things are important:
a) The circuit distribution - I found the most crazy things going on, from circuits connected to a single lamp to all outlets connected to a single circuit.
b) Sometimes it is not easy to add a circuit in apartments, specially in older ones with smaller electricity pipes.
c) If possible dedicate a single circuit to the computer system outlet - ground it and plug a stabilizer or a UPS to it before the system.

An alternative to hiring an electrician is asking a friend who understands electrical installations inspect it for you. But nothing substitutes a visual inspection.
posted by nkyad at 10:21 AM on December 27, 2005

Slightly off-topic: If you are working on a computer from home, an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) will save your butt in case of power outage. The peace of mind is well worth the cost. Many UPS's now come with software so your work will automatically be saved when a blackout or other power issue is detected.
posted by CaptApollo at 10:39 AM on December 27, 2005

CAptApollo point can't be overstressed. In older building, besides the normal power fluctuations, you may be also subjected to fluctuation caused by you neighbors electricity usage. An UPS not only protect your work when the electricity goes down they will also protect your system from anomalous power surges.
posted by nkyad at 10:55 AM on December 27, 2005

Some UPSs will provide power surge/undercurrent support, but not all. If you're going to get a UPS for home, and are worried about your transient power (brownouts, spikes), make sure to get a UPS that is both a UPS and a line conditioner, or get a line conditioner in addition to your UPS.
posted by KirTakat at 11:54 AM on December 27, 2005

My older apartment has 6 fuses in the box but only 2 lines. The others are dummies. Also, it's not unusual for tenants to put in 20, 30 or even 40 amp fuses in lines designed for 15, to let them connectt more stuff. If you have lots of power-hungry appliances (freezer, washer, dryer, microwave), it's essential to get a survey.

Utilities often do energy audits free or at nominal cost. Still, I agree with Frogan that you need to get an electrician to check what's there.

If you're stuck with, say, 2 lines, put the refrigerator (which draws a lot of current, particularly when the compressor starts up) on one line and your computer on the other. Actually, computers draw very little current. (Remember that the power supply in most computers is only 200 watts.) Laser printers draw a lot, because they have heaters to fuse the ink, so put the computer and the printer on separate lines.
posted by KRS at 12:52 PM on December 27, 2005

From a former electrician (now electric engineer):

Grounding an ungrounded outlet is NOT likely to be an easy task. Do not assume the electrical wiring is in conduit and that a ground wire can be snaked. Unless building codes are significantly different in NYC; your apartment is wired with Romex which is an insulated 2 wire (in your case) bundle nailed to studs.

Electricians routinely inspect home purchases for this exact reason.

Computers do not need to be grounded to operate safely.

You have plenty of amperage to operate a home office.

//good luck with your move
posted by vaportrail at 1:17 PM on December 27, 2005

Surge protectors need a valid ground.

Derail: Little, other than lightning, will cause a power surge, regardless of what the salesman at Circuit City will tell you when trying to sell you a high-margin $150 Monster Cable line conditioner.

A surge protector is essentially useless in the event of a lightning strike anyway.

//pet peeve
posted by vaportrail at 2:52 PM on December 27, 2005

If you feel the need for grounding, you can "fake" the ground with a GFI/GFCI. This isn't the kind of "fake" where you break off the ground pin and lose ground protection, but an accepted way of giving the safety of ground without actually connecting it (accepted as in many [but not all] electrical codes reccomend it as the 'next best thing', and electricians that read the pamphlet that comes with the GFI/GFCI will note it mentions this added functionality).

Replacing an outlet with a GFI is simple. If you've ever put in a standard outlet before (sounds like you have) it isn't any more difficult.

Also, pay attention to nkyad. My apartment has 120 Amp service. It's served like this:

Two outlets with each *socket* being fed with a separate line for a total of 60 Amps service wasted there. One 15A fuse supplies a single circuit that powers the entire living room, 2 bedrooms, and bathroom shaver socket (NOT GFI -- ILLEGAL! Argh!). That's a total of 30 sockets supplied by one 15 A fuse (Also ILLEGAL!). The other three go to three random outlets which, me, being a lazy bastard, ran extension cables from into the bedrooms.

Of course, the idiotic 30 socket setup was further bolstered by a 30 Amp fuse some moron (previous tenant) had put in...
posted by shepd at 3:20 PM on December 27, 2005

>need to be replaced with 3-prong outlets.
>My understanding is that this is usually not a big
>deal if there's a ground line to the outlet enclosure,


>and at worst may require snaking a
>ground line from the circuit box.

Incorrect. Snaking wires is the difficult and time consuming part of electrical work. If you don't own the property the owner won't let you open up walls and run wires. They might let you bring in a licensed electrician if you pay for it.
posted by Ken McE at 4:58 PM on December 27, 2005

As a licenced elictrician, I can tell you that snaking additional wires not enclosed in conduit is quite difficult and perhaps impossible without opening walls, cielings, etc. Installing a GFI where there is not a proper ground existing is a panacea. Surge protectors likewise are useless without a proper ground. If you have a two pole 60 amp service, chances are there is little you can do to protect a modern computer properly. I am afraid a rewiring is nessecary, and no, I am not fishing for work.
posted by scottymac at 9:54 PM on December 27, 2005

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