The lightbulbs in our dining room light fixture burned out…again. I replace them 3-4 times a year, but this time I’d had it. So, in tune with our recent discussion about energy efficiency, I decided to replace the incandescent bulbs with LEDs. But since I don’t want to pay for LED bulbs repeatedly, I knew I had to upgrade the wiring to the fixture. And so the saga began.
Remember that my house was built in 1870, and has never been fully updated. When I moved in, all the wiring from the electrical panel was new, but everything above the height of the first floor electrical outlets was still connected to old knob-and-tube wiring. That was one of my first priorities when we moved in 7 years ago, and within a year I had upgraded the wiring to our daughters’ upstairs bedrooms. But for one reason or another, I stalled on finishing the job for the rest of the house. To be fully honest, the primary reason was that every time I went up into our attic and tried to make sense of the maze of wiring up there, the more I despaired of ever figuring it out. And so it sat, while I waited for the house to burn down around our ears.
For those unfamiliar with knob-and-tube wiring, it looks like this.
Notice how wires are connected. The technique in the not-so-good old days was to scrape off some insulation from the wire, wrap the bare end of another wire around it, then tape it all up. It works, but it’s not ideal. And that insulated cover degrades over time, so you get spots of bare wire. And it’s sitting under several inches of cellulose insulation.
So I’ve wanted to replace it, and this weekend I planned to replace a little bit more, just what it took to rewire my dining room light. Lord knows I wasn’t looking for a project any bigger than absolutely necessary. But I’ve been working on this old house long enough to know that “absolutely necessary” always includes complications and sheer pain-in-the-ass difficulties.
So with the fixture disconnected, I trotted up to the attic to track down the wiring. Well, once I found the fixture, that is. I thought I knew where it should be, but I was wrong. I even stuck a wire up through the ceiling so I could find it, but no go. Now while my attic is unfinished, about 2/3 of it has loose floorboards, and it turned out that the fixture was under some floorboards, which required moving them, which required moving some stuff I have stored up there. It’s now been 1/2 hour since I came up into the attic, and I have only uncovered the fixture box.
Following the old wire from the fixture box, seeking out where it connects to power, I once again ran into the problem of a maze of wiring. See the first picture above–that’s what I encountered, multiple wires branching off from my dining room light wire, and with a sinking feeling I realized I wouldn’t just be rewiring my dining room light this weekend, but also everything that ran off that wire. I knew that stuff needed to be replaced, but I just really didn’t want to do it right now–I had planned a work meeting with a colleague to complete a project that is against its deadline, and then finish with a quiet Sunday evening before the first day of classes for the spring term, and now that was out the window.
And then I got my next surprise. The old wire was attached to the new just as in this handy picture cadged from the internet (complete with convenient notation that this is a fire hazard. But in addition to being unsanitary, as electricians say, it also meant that I was going to have to run more wire than I wanted to, because I couldn’t connect new wire to the power wire that way. It would have to be in a box, and I didn’t want to put a box in the middle of the floor because I’d like to finish that space some day–an electrical box in the middle of the floor would mean it would have to be rewired again if I ever get around to that. I also didn’t have an electrical box on hand, because I hadn’t looked ahead and foreseen this possibility (I should have; it was rather predictable).
So a trip to the hardware store later, I’m back up in the attic, fixing the new box in a better location, and then it’s time to pull wire. So imagine my attic with me. It has a steeply pitched room, and is above a wing of the house that is an add-on, with the sidewall of the original structure sticking up about 3 feet above the attic floor. Now imagine that that place where the wire comes up into the attic is precisely where that sidewall and the lowest point of the steeply sloped roof meet. It’s a space that’s too small for my head, so the pulling wire–both the power wire and the switch wire, since the switch is directly below that point–was all done by feel (I never actually saw the spot where it went through the floor), while my head continually bumped against the ceiling joist and, occasionally, the shingle nails coming through the roof boards. And of course this job did not go smoothly, but had various minor difficulties that made it take much longer than it should have.
It’s now been 4 1/2 hours since I started what I hoped would be a 2 hour job, and I have new wire run but not connected, and a maze of old wire that I think is no longer connected to power, but with the confusion of the various random-seeming connections, I wasn’t really sure (and wasn’t willing to turn on the power to find out).
In fact I’d reached the point I should have reached years ago, and decided to just rip out every bit of old wiring I could find. I didn’t worry anymore about trying to understand it so I could figure out where I need to run new wire. I just pulled tracked it all, every branch line, through insulation and under floorboards and pulled the shit up. I decided that when I finished rewiring all the fixtures what I knew needed it, I’d just let time help us figure out if there was anything else–if an outlet or light doesn’t work, then I’ll go fix that. I suspect, though, that there isn’t anything else, because–and this is scary–some of those branches didn’t lead to anything for sure. That is, as I pulled and cut, I’d sometimes go back to a branch section and pull it, and it wouldn’t be connected at either end, and I was unsure if I’d just cut both ends, or if it had previously been cut off from something else but left connected to the power wire. And two wires dive under the roofline in the vicinity of my bathroom and basement stairwell. I’ve replaced the fixtures in both those areas, and thought I had disconnected the old wires from power, but now I’m not certain I did.
So now that old knob-and-tube stuff is all gone, and that’s the big victory for the weekend. But the drama wasn’t over yet. Fortunately I found the ceiling light fixture easily, as the pulling of old wire led me to it. But to run the new wire to the kitchen via an efficient route (the amount of back-tracking and round-aboutness of the old wiring was bewildering) I had to drill holes through 6 joists. Now my house has some pieces of structural wood that are incredibly hard. Last summer while re-siding the back wall, I found myself literally unable to hammer nails into the corner post without bending them. I finally gave up and bought a nail gun. The first joist I drilled through was one of those. It took over 5 minutes to drill through, and I looked at the other 5 joists and despaired almost to the point of giving up and just running the wire over the top of the joists. But not quite, and fortunately the other 5 were not that same wood, and went quickly. But, there is 4 inches of blown-in cellulose insulation between the joists, and despite clearing out enough to make room to operate the drill, the drill motor’s exhaust kicked up a tremendous amount of that stuff into my face. As if the attic wasn’t sufficiently dirty even without that–every trip to restroom involved blowing out black snot and hawking up black loogies. Just picture me this way:
After running wire to the ceiling and kitchen fixture boxes, I looked for the pantry fixture box and where the wires for the switch ran. Ah, well, there are two possibilities, and where the other set of old wires run….who knows? I think I know which one operates the pantry light, but the other one runs down into the sidewall right under the low point of the rafters, and god knows I don’t want to have to mess with that. Fortunately, after turning on the power I did check, and none of those old wires is powered, so either I’ll find what they operate some day or else it just doesn’t matter. But it was getting late, the light was growing dim, the bulb for my worklight had burned out, and I said screw it. I’ll get the pantry light next weekend, and for now I’ll just hook up the dining room and ceiling fixtures and be done with it.
So back to the dining room, where I have loose wires dangling out of the hold in the wall where the switch box goes. As has happened too often to me with these old plaster and lath walls, old weakened plaster had broken out around the edges of the hole, which was now too large for the fixture box. So after screwing around with different solutions, I finally ate a popsicle and used the stick as a bridge across the top of the hole, for the flange of the box to catch on. This will require an extra large cover place, which I don’t yet have, of course.
And we wanted to be able to dim the dining room lights, as we had in the past, so we went to the expense of dimmable LED lights and an LED-capable dimmer. And lo and behold, the lights didn’t really dim much, but even worse, I couldn’t turn them off! So I looked at my lovely wife and growled that if she wanted dimmable lights she could call an electrician, but I had an extra standard light switch in my toolbox and that’s what I was going to put in, and I would listen to neither reason nor argument nor pleading.
In the kitchen, we were debating whether to continue running wire to the switch–which is behind the door that stays open 98% of the time, and so is a pain-in-the-ass-to bother using–or just run power straight to the light and keep using the pull string as we always have, and just drop the charade that the switch matters. My lovely wife preferred to keep it wired to the switch, but when I pulled the cover plate off, I realized that there was no electrical box in the wall, just the switch, and that to do it right I would not only have to track down where that power went through the attic floor–difficult, under 4 inches of loose insulation, especially given that I’d snipped off that wire at some point in my attack on the old stuff–but cut a larger hole for the box, an easy enough task with drywall, but one attendant with problems and the potential to cause a large scale failure of the plaster in a plaster and lath wall. So I made another executive decision, and skipped the wall switch.
After that, putting up the ceiling fan/light was pretty straightforward, other than that it’s a heavy little monster and my wife and I were both tired out and not really up to holding the thing up while trying to wire it.
And that’s where it stands. The kitchen and dining room have light, although the kitchen has a light-switch-size hole that I’ll need to repair (but it’s hidden behind the door, so out of sight, out of mind, and I’ll probably get to it sometime in the next 5 years), and the dining room has a toggle switch that will have to be replaced (I don’t like the look of toggle switches and have replaced most of the others in the house, and maybe I’ll get a different dimmer switch and try that) and a cover that is too small to hide the ends of the popsicle stick. And the pantry’s dark. And I’m sore all over from crouching on floor joists and shoving my head into tight corners.
Life’s good, isn’t it?