Multi-Family or Commercial Building Electrical Systems - Know This Before You Buy

Written by: Commercial Real Estate Inspectors, LLC
  • Determining the condition of the electrical system in Multi-Family and Commercial buildings is another reason a professional real estate inspection is vital before purchasing a commercial, industrial or multi-family property.
Electrical System

How Electrical Systems Work

Electricity is one of the most complex and misunderstood aspects of construction. This system is by far the most dangerous. However, with proper controls, plastic coated wires, a conduit that houses the wires, safety devices such as breakers and GFCI (safety plugs), this system can be used safely and for many years with virtually no maintenance. However, there are a couple of potential safety issues that are worth mentioning.

Electrical Panels To Look Out For

In Commercial and Multi-Family buildings there are two of brands of electrical panels, usually 200 amps or less, that were installed during the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s that many electrical experts feel are a safety concern. One is called Federal Pacific Electric or FPE panels. The other is Zinsco.

Based on my personal research and discussions with numerous local, long time electricians, here are the potential problems with both of these panels:

  • Federal Pacific panels are more potentially dangerous in that the breakers have a tendency to not trip as quickly as they should and in some cases, not at all. This can allow electrical current to continue to travel through a line when it shouldn’t which can cause deadly fires or shocks. To determine if the breakers will function properly requires them to be removed and tested in a special lab. The cost for this test is usually close to the cost of replacement of the panel.
  • The Zinsco panels are known for having a higher degree of problems internally with the connections than other brands of electrical panels. This is usually not a health or safety issue because if there is a problem it usually stays within the panel. Due to poor design, improper connections and possible arching which can melt wires and other internal components can occur. This can cause the system to not function but will usually not be a health issue, just a costly inconvenience.

As a general rule, when FPE panels are seen in buildings, most electrical experts advise having them removed and replaced. The Zinsco panels can usually be taken apart and inspected by an electrical contractor to determine their condition for a nominal fee.

Other than the above two types, most electrical systems are reasonably safe to operate for many years.

Does the Electrical System Meet Industry Standards?

Older systems were not designed to accommodate all of the current demands so there is a greater chance they will not perform up to industry standards. Any system older then 50 – 60 years is generally at or near the end of its expected useful life. Upgrades should be strongly considered if this is the case.

Where we see most problems with electrical systems is when upgrades have been done non-standardly. Things like exposed wires are a common fault.

Why Choose Commercial Real Estate Inspectors To Inspect Your Electrical Systems

One of the questions we ask a client during an inspection is what they plan to do with the site. If it is going to continue to be used as it is, then we look at the overall quality of the system, age and amount of power. If the electrical demand will increase significantly due to change of use, then we check to see if the current system will allow for upgrades or if the entire system will need to be removed and upgraded.

When you hire Commercial Real Estate Inspectors, we do a thorough general inspection using a representative sampling of the outlets, switches and fixtures along with overall observations and recommendations for the electrical system. We can tell you if the system will fit your needs or if it will need to be upgraded. Our unique RISK Assessment® will give you an estimate for any needed or recommended repairs and expected costs for the electrical as well as all other systems (plumbing, HVAC, roofing and structure) over the next 5 years.

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