West Van | Older Condo Electrical Issues

At a recent West Vancouver condo inspection, this particular one bedroom apartment had an older fuse panel for the electrical distribution, rather than the now standard circuit breaker panel.

This is typically found in many Co-ops on the North Shore in both North and West Vancouver. My client was naturally concerned about this ‘old school’ technology and wanted my opinion as to whether it should be replaced immediately or not. A good question requires a considered reply.

This condo’s panel had one large fuse block for the electric stove and six screw-in fuses for the rest of the home with five 15A circuits and one 20A. The main 60A breaker for the condo was located separately, in the basement of the building, in the electrical meter room.

I grew up with fuses and so I have a soft-spot for this technology. From an engineered product perspective, fuses are as a Rolex while breakers are like a Timex. The protective element in a fuse is a melting link, a precise element. A breaker on the other hand is a switch with moving parts. One type uses a bimetallic strip that warps on overload to switch open. Another type uses electromagnetism to creates a magnetic force on overload to pull open the switch.

Fuses are one-time use. Breakers are forever, that is, they can be reset.

Now back to the fuse panel. If the apartment has been lived-in by your grandmother and she has never had a microwave, toaster oven, cappuccino machine, blender, juicer, 700W home theatre system with 6 sound-surround 300W tower speakers, multiple PCs, several laptops, iPad and 7 chargers for other stuff…then it’s likely the panel has served her very well. And will continue to do so for the ‘right’ buyer.

The more likely scenario is that some of the fuses have been changed out to higher ratings, additional circuits added to the apartment and terminated in the panel by double-lugging (a practice where two circuits are placed under one fuse), power bars are like dust bunnies all over because of a lack of plugs, and, if one inspects the insulation on the wiring, it may show discolouration – a sign of long-term overload.

As a secondary issue, the receptacles may be only 2 hole, without the third hole for grounding. I’ve seen many condos where there is a fuse panel but with 3 hole receptacles. That usually means that someone has replaced the receptacles but the ground is probably not connected, since some older wiring did not have a separate bare ground wire.

So back to the opinion question. It comes down to lifestyle. If you definitely need a lot of portable appliances and technology, then you will be an abuser of the fuse panel and you will find it inadequate. Expect to replace fuses frequently.

So who would be the ‘right’ buyer for a condo with a fuse panel? I would describe them as having a low-impact lifestyle, small carbon footprint, living within the limitations of 15A fuses and having a Luddite-like abhorrence of appliances and power bars. Then the fuse panel may be perfectly adequate to your immediate needs.

But be prepared for change. Budget for it. At some point the bank who issues your mortgage or the insurance company who holds your policy or the strata owners association which is concerned about fire safety will require you to replace the fuse panel and all the apartment wiring. Plus you will get a huge safety bonus of grounded receptacles, ground fault protection and arc fault protection.

Our recommendation is to install a new electrical panel and rewire the entire apartment prior to move-in. It’s the right thing to do.