Because an inspection is primarily visual, inspectors are not required to disassemble most components they examine, or troubleshoot any defects they find to determine the cause when is not obvious. The electric panel is one exception. A panel must be opened and the wiring inspected.
But inspectors are not prohibited from pulling the cover plate of a receptacle outlet if they suspect something wrong behind it. Here’s three examples:
1) When we see a wood wainscot or wall paneling that looks like it might not be part of the original construction of the home, we open at least one cover plate, to see if the receptacle assembly has been pulled forward of the box (like in the photo below), which exposes the flammable wood surrounding it to any arcing at the wire connection.
2) If there is subtle, mottled discoloration of color on a wall surface, it is possible that it was caused by mold growth in the wallboard that was painted over instead of being properly remediated. Any easy way to check is to remove a receptacle cover plate, because a quick paint-over rarely goes all the way behind the cover plate to the edge of the receptacle box.
3) If a homebuyer wants to know what type of insulation sits between the studs in a wood-framed exterior wall, the small gap between the edge of the wallboard and the receptacle, box that is exposed when you remove the cover plate, can help an inspector see the answer—especially if the drywall guy was sloppy cutting the opening.
Also see our blog posts Does a home inspector check every electrical receptacle outlet in a house? and When should I replace electric receptacle outlets? and How can adding wood paneling or a wainscot create an electrical safety hazard?
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To learn more about electrical wiring, devices, and receptacles, see these other blog posts:
• What is the difference between what trips a GFCI (ground fault) receptacle and a circuit breaker?
• What is the code requirement for GFCI protection for receptacles near a wet bar sink?
• What is the requirement for a service receptacle outlet for heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration (HACR) equipment?
• Why is an opening in the wall around the side of an electrical receptacle outlet a safety defect?
• When was GFCI-protection for kitchen dishwasher receptacle outlet first required?
• What is allowable voltage range at a wall receptacle outlet in a house?
• When should I replace electric receptacle outlets?
• Does an electric receptacle outlet in a storage shed require GFCI protection?
• What are "self-contained" electrical receptacle outlets and switches?
• What is the difference between an electrical receptacle, an outlet, and a plug?
• Does a washing machine receptacle outlet require GFCI protection?
• What is the building code requirement for receptacle outlets at stairs and stair landings?
• Can I remove a 240-volt range receptacle and hard-wire the range?
• What is a "backstab" receptacle outlet?
• Why are some electric receptacle outlets upside down (ground slot up) in a house?
• What is the height requirement for an electric receptacle outlet?
• Where are GFCI receptacle outlets required?
• When were GFCI receptacle outlets first required?
• What is the minimum height for an exterior receptacle outlet?
• When was the current receptacle/outlet spacing of 12-feet first required?
• When was the three-slot (grounding) outlet/receptacle first required?
• Why does painting an electric receptacle (outlet) make it unsafe?
• Why are electrical outlets and plugs polarized?
• How many electrical receptacles (outlets) are required in a hallway?
• What problems does having too many electric receptacle outlets on a single circuit cause?
• Is a house required to have outdoor electric receptacle outlets?
• How I can tell if a receptacle outlet is tamper resistant?
• Why is there a GFCI breaker in the electric panel for the bathroom shower light and exhaust fan?
• What is a false ground, bootleg ground, or cheated ground receptacle?
• How far apart should kitchen counter receptacles be spaced?
• How far above a kitchen countertop do electrical outlets have to be?
• What is reversed polarity at an outlet/receptacle? Why is it dangerous?
• How high above the floor do electric outlets/receptacles in a garage have to be?
• How far apart should electric receptacles be spaced in a bathroom?
• Is an ungrounded electric receptacle outlet dangerous?
• My bathroom electric receptacle/outlet is dead and there are no tripped breakers in the electric panel. What's wrong?
• Is there an adapter that can be placed on a two-slot receptacle to make it safe?
• How do the new tamper-resistant electric outlets work?
• Why is there no bathroom electric receptacle in this old house?
• How can I tell if the electric receptacle outlets are grounded?
• How far apart should the electrical receptacles be placed?
• What are the most common problems/defects found with electric receptacle outlets during a home inspection?
Visit our ELECTRICAL page for other related blog posts on this subject, or go to the INDEX for a complete listing of all our articles.