Keep Power in Check: How to Perform Electrical Inspections

Keep Power in Check: How to Perform Electrical Inspections Image

Electrical safety never stops being a concern. However, some believe the industry should pay more attention to it.

Whether you want to perform a dedicated electrical inspection, or just continuously stay on the lookout for red flags, follow these tips for assessing projects for electrical safety.

Of course, when examining a system, don’t operate outside your qualifications. If your locality requires an electrician, then hire one for the job. If your specialty license only allows you to work from the electrical box to the pool, then limit your work to that. Don’t open panels that you’re not qualified or licensed to handle, as they contain live connections.

Check the bonding, grounding and GFCI protection.

Check for bonding on all pool and spa components that require it, along with anything metallic within 5 feet of the pool. This includes pumps, metal filters, light fixtures, ladder pockets, fences, cover rails, handrails, diving boards, lifeguard stands, some handicapped lifts and automatic pool covers.

To make sure that all the components are properly bonded, perform a continuity test. This verifies that electricity is able to flow freely through the wire from one component to the next so there is little to no difference in voltage or potential.

When performing the test, the meter should read 1 ohm or less to signify a lack of resistance. If you get a higher reading, that shows the item is not properly bonded. The differences will generally be obvious, says Bill Hamilton, Ph.D., president of Austin-based engineering and architectural firm Hamilton and Associates, and a representative on the committee that writes the National Electrical Code’s pool and spa section. Properly bonded, an item will register less than 1 ohm on the meter; improperly bonded, or not bonded at all, it will go much higher.

Also make sure all applicable components are grounded. Visually inspect the ground terminals to make sure there’s a green wire and that they’re tight.

Hamilton recommends checking the bonding and grounding once a year.

Finally, make sure every electrically operated element is protected by a GFCI breaker or outlet. This can be overlooked or shortcut sometimes if the installer or technician runs out of space in a panel.

“The automation panels that we have don’t have enough knockouts for most pools to provide GFCI protection for everything,” says Paolo Benedetti, principal and designer of Aquatic Technology Pool & Spa in Morgan Hill, Calif. “So sometimes builders don’t put the GFCI breaker in on every appliance because the slots don’t exist, and they don’t want to put in a secondary sub-panel to provide those extra knock-outs.”

Check wires and breakers.

Start by verifying that the wires are the proper size.

“That’s one of the most common things I find,” Benedetti says. “People use undersized wire, especially with variable-frequency-drive pumps.”

Installers may use 12-gauge wires out of habit, but since many variable-speed pumps can go up to 3 horsepower, they may need 10-gauge wire instead. “You need to have that little bit of extra cushion that the electric code requires,” Benedetti says. With the larger wires, there’s less hazard of overheating and tripping breakers.

If the project includes both high-voltage and low-voltage hookups, make sure those wires are separated. Low-voltage wire should not be strung through high-voltage conduit or on the high-voltage side of an automation panel.

“There’s nothing wrong with putting multiple low-voltage wires in the same conduit,” Benedetti says. “It’s just you can’t mix high-voltage and low-voltage.”

When it comes to breakers, check their size as well. They should be able to accommodate all the equipment that’s connected to them. “Over the years, people sometimes add something new to their pools, and there might not be enough breaker slots, so they add it to an existing breaker,” Benedetti says. “They might exceed the capacity of the breaker.”

Calculate the load. It should not exceed 80% of the breaker’s capacity. In a 20-amp breaker, for instance, there should not be more than 16 amps. “We don’t want to push it right to its limit because devices turn on and off, motors have a little higher amp draw when they start than when they’re running,” Benedetti says. “So if we have a couple things come on at the same time, we’re going to start having nuisance tripping of the breakers.”

Look at the pump and motor labeling.

Particularly if you’re looking at an older pool, examine the pump motor to make sure it is matched to the wet end and the application. If the label is missing, replace the motor, Hamilton suggests. You likely don’t know if the original motor is still in place and whether the tech who came before you installed the right type. You wouldn’t want a motor that could overload.

“There’s a whole variety of motors that will fit on these pumps that may or may not be mechanically and electrically matched to that pump,” he says. “Additionally, you don’t have any immediate information on the voltage for the pump or the amount of current that it would be expected to carry.”

If the label is in place, verify that the motor is matched to the pump and the application. Check that it is listed with a nationally recognized testing laboratory. “There are motors out there, particularly on the import market that are coming in, that are not listed,” Hamilton says.

When looking at a commercial installation with three-phase pumps, make sure the unit is internally thermally protected. If not, code stipulates that it needs separate overload protection, so make sure that is present.

Check the pump disconnect.

The pump should have a motor disconnect that’s in plain sight, for quick disabling when you need to work on the unit or if there’s an emergency. This disconnecting means must open both wires going to the pump, if it’s a 240v unit. That rules out utility controllers — those devices placed by the utility to make sure the unit doesn’t run during peak hours — because they only open up one wire. “It will turn the pump off but it won’t de-energize it,” Hamilton says. “If you open up the electrical box and go into the wiring, you’re going to get shocked, even though the pump’s not running.”

Examine the electrical connections between the disconnecting means and the pump. If it’s set in conduit, do you see exposed wires? Is the conduit intact? Do you see corrosion developing? These may need repair.

Examine the underwater lights.

Professionals should check the lights for many potential problems. Of course, check for bonding, grounding and GFCI on high-voltage lights.

If a wet-niche light can be removed from the niche, do so and perform a visual inspection. Look to see if there’s a pool-light wedge holding it in place. If so, make sure it is conductive, rather than insulating. This particularly becomes a concern on older pools. While the newer wedges are made of a conductive material to preserve the bonding connection, some older ones were made of an insulating material that breaks the bond. If you find an insulating wedge, the bonding has been compromised. Replace with a newer wedge made of a conductive material, or otherwise restore that bonding connection.

Make sure there is no creative rigging to maintain the connection between the light and the niche. “I’ve seen people use wallboard screws that are sitting there rusting in the niche,” Hamilton says.

Similarly, examine the cord for modifications. If they’ve turned white, that’s fine — it’s the normal reaction to continuing exposure to chlorine. But look for physical damage — evidence of overheating, a cut or scrape to the jacket, splicing to another cord.

“The whole light needs to go if you find that — it’s very, very dangerous,” Hamilton says. Also make sure it’s the right kind of cord, not something meant for a lamp, for instance.

Look at the lens for signs of water intrusion. If you see green or black behind the lens, then that indicates electrical damage or algae, which means water has gotten into it. If you see either, replace the light.

If the light is a sealed unit, don’t try to open it. Perform a visual inspection for cracks, holes, burn spots or a bonding lug screwed into the plastic. Those signs indicate that the light is not sealed against water anymore, and so needs replacement.

For 120-volt lights, test the GFCI. Start with the light on, and make sure not only that the GFCI trips, but that the light actually turns off. This ensures that the GFCI hasn’t been bypassed by somebody who considered it a nuisance.

Check connections for safety.

Throughout the project, examine connections to make sure they don’t look like they’ve overheated. Overheated connections will need to be repaired. Tighten any loose connections, as they can pose a fire hazard or cause equipment damage. This includes bonding connections.

Check for conditions that could lead to corrosion.

If the equipment pad is set indoors, check the ventilation to make sure it meets code. Also, ensure that chemicals are not being stored in that space. Lastly, look for any liquid leaks that could result in corrosion.

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