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Insurance company rejects house with electrical fuse box.

Q. The home I'm selling is very old and the main electric panel contains fuses rather than circuit breakers. The buyer's home inspector says the electrical system is not up to current standards but appears to be safe and functional.

The insurance company, however, refuses to write a homeowner's policy unless the electric panel is upgraded to circuit breakers. They say that a fused electrical system is unsafe.

Who should I believe, the home inspector or the insurance company?

A. Insurance underwriters are not experts in the field of electrical wiring, but their actuarial tables are the stars by which they navigate their financial ship. These statistical constellations indicate higher instances of residential fire with fused electrical systems. Because their approval is needed to close escrow, they win the debate.

However, this does not mean fuses are inherently less safe than circuit breakers. In fact, fuses, when properly installed, are probably more reliable than breakers because they have a quicker response time when there is a power overload, and they are literally fail-safe when electrical overloads occur.

These advantages are due to the very simple design of fuses. The only working part is a small wire filament. This thin metal strand is able to conduct a limited amount of electricity. When that power level is exceeded, the filament instantly burns up, causing an immediate interruption of power.

Circuit breakers, on the other hand, are complex electromagnetic switches, capable of failure in a number of circumstances. Rust damage and overheating can cause breakers to stick in the "on" position, and breakers are not designed to trip in all types of overload conditions.

The problem with fuses is that their intended purpose can be defeated by well-intentioned but ill-informed homeowners and other self-appointed handy-people. This usually occurs in one of two ways. Let's say the toaster, hair dryer and stereo are turned on simultaneously, causing the fuse to burn out. Joe Homeowner gets tired of buying fuses twice a week, so he replaces the 20-amp fuse with a 30-amp fuse. This higher capacity fuse is much less likely to respond when an overload occurs. Instead, it allows the wires to become hot whenever there is too much current in the circuit. The probable result, sooner or later, is a fire.

The second method of tampering with fuses is even more hazardous. This time, Joe doesn't bother to buy a 30-amp fuse. Instead, he puts a penny (cheaper than a 30-amp fuse) behind the old burned out fuse. This condition, known as an unfused circuit, nearly guarantees a house fire in the event of an overload. Thus, we see why insurance companies prefer circuit breakers.

From a technical standpoint, breakers may not be as reliable as fuses, but owners and renters are unable to tamper with circuit breakers. When breakers trip, you simply switch them back on. When they trip repeatedly, the only option is to call an electrician.

In today's world, insurance companies not only write the policies, they write the rules. Like it or not, you may be upgrading to circuit breakers very soon.

* To write to Barry Stone, visit him on the web at, or write AMG, 1776 Jami Lee Court, Suite 218, San Luis Obispo, CA 94301.

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Title Annotation:Real Estate
Publication:Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)
Date:Feb 16, 2018
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