Burnin’ Down the House!

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.
Knob_and_Tube_Wiring438-DFs
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.

Let’s start with what I found when I pulled down the ceiling light fixture. photo(3) In case you’re not an expert electrician, that’s not good. I knew the wiring was bad, but I had no idea it was that bad.

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.knob tube wired into romex 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?

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About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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10 Responses to Burnin’ Down the House!

  1. Such wiring is known in my mind as Tommy Edison Wiring. I have a home I am currently renting out that still had some of that laying about (built in 1926).

    Of course, what is worse is that one of the previous owners decide to upgrade the wiring, had no idea what he was doing, but got a “friend” who was an electrician to sign off on it all. I spent over $3K fixing a lot of it, and the electrician who did the work knew who signed off on it, and remarked to me that said person lost their license over crap like that.

    Of course, now that I think about it, since said corrupt electrician lost his license over signing off on shoddy work, you’d think the city would demand that all permits he signed be pulled and the work re-inspected.

  2. Troublesome Frog says:

    You have my sympathies. I get enough grief from the aluminum wiring in my place that I just have to tip my hat to anybody who deals with knob and tube on a regular basis. Did they even have a word for “electrician” when they were putting that stuff in? On the bright side, this is a great opportunity for you to end up with such fancy modern features as “ground.” Dirt wasn’t invented back then, so ground is really a new innovation.

    Are you a big fan of the plaster, or have you thought about converting to drywall a room at a time and rewiring as you go? If I was buying a house like that, I’d probably replace it all before move-in time. It’s something I regret not doing with my place. Drywall is so much easier when the room is empty and you can get dust everywhere without getting in trouble.

    Anyway, this has turned out to be just about the best $30 purhcases I’ve ever made. No more black lung. The filters on the respirator last a long time and you’ll use it everywhere. Don’t even bother with the paper masks–this gives you a nice tight seal. I used to spend a couple of days with allergies/cold symptoms after going into the attic or crawlspace. Now it’s fresh mountain air wherever I go. It’s even useful for dealing with terrible smells, like removing dead creatures from crawlspaces.

  3. J@m3z Aitch says:

    T-Frog,

    I am a fan of plaster. There’s both a solidity and a look to it that drywall can’t match. And even where it’s noticeably slumping, I like the character it gives a room.

    But I’m not a fanatic, and wouldn’t pay to have plaster installed or re-installed ( at a lower price point, yes, but that skilled labor doesn’t come cheap). When I gut my bedroom, I’ll keep the plaster on the two walls where it’s solid, but on the other wall I think it will have to go ( the other other wall has cardboard wallboard, which definitely has to go).

  4. lancifer666 says:

    James,

    Ah, the joys of owning a “classic” home. I’ve been at mine for over 20 years and it’s pretty much a new home that looks like the old one. I have kept (or replaced with reproductions) all of the cool Victorian trim and features of the house while updating every system (electrical, plumbing, roofing, foundation, windows, siding etc.)

    I do miss the “idea” of the plaster walls, but sadly the “reality” was a bunch of cracking and patched lumpy walls and sagging and cracking ceilings.

    Once a chunk of plaster the size of a large deep dish pizza fell from the ten foot ceiling narrowly missing my head.

    As TF points out, if you ever decide to remove the plaster and install drywall it will be an opportunity to install modern wiring as well as a vapor barrier and better insulation. But I also understand that there is a charm to plaster that flat, bland drywall cannot match. If I could have afforded it, and found a skilled craftsman that could do it, I would have re-plastered my home instead of replacing it with drywall.

    There is a huge difference knocking on a plaster wall and a drywall wall. The plaster gives the wall, and your home, a much more solid feeling of permanence rather than the flimsy “cardboard” feeling of drywall.

  5. lancifer666 says:

    I still have one small area of plaster in the tiny space around my furnace. It was too tight a space to knock out the plaster and replace it with drywall.

    I’ll probably replace it when I replace the furnace later this spring.

    Or maybe I should leave it as a historical footnote.

  6. J@m3z Aitch says:

    plaster gives the wall, and your home, a much more solid feeling of permanence rather than the flimsy “cardboard” feeling of drywall.

    When the kids smack into the wall, it should be the kids who are damaged, not the wall. How else are they to learn life’s important lessons? I think the whole problem with today’s youth can be traced to their growing up with drywall–it makes them soft.

  7. Troublesome Frog says:

    I just had the opportunity to teach my neighbor how to patch drywall. I asked how big the hole was and he replied, “I need to fix a hole about the size of a child’s ankle.” That’s a really good unit of measure for drywall damage.

  8. ppnl says:

    Man that is some ugly wiring. Seriously dude be careful. I’ve been reading the wiki on that stuff. With things like Carter system wiring and neutral leg fusing it really can’t be figured out without a detailed wiring diagram. And as old as it is the insulation will probably start to crack and flake off when you mess with it.

    And please tell me you don’t still have fuses.

  9. J@m3z Aitch says:

    ppnl,

    No fuses. Everything branching out from the circuit box was already clean when we moved in; it just attached to the old stuff in the attic. But the old stuff’s all gone now, as of last weekend. I never tried to tap into it, but anytime I worked on something that used it I just replaced all of it that was connected in that area. Fortunately there were three distinct areas that were separate from each other. As to the insulation, the scary thing is that there were areas on the wires where it had already cracked and/or flaked off. There’s no feeling quite like pulling a section of old knob and tube wiring out of loose cellulose insulation and finding a bare wire. Shudder.

  10. D. C. Sessions says:

    Thank you for reconfirming our decision to have an electrician do the work, all at once, of bringing our 188x house up to as close to modern as adobe allows (ain’t no drywall over adobe, doesn’t work — plaster or don’t bother.)

    Should anyone else be contemplating the fun and excitement of Wiring Adventure, I will strongly suggest scoring an RF wiring detector. Attach the transmitter unit to one end of a wiring run and the whole thing becomes an antenna, which the hand unit can locate wherever it runs.

    Finally, WRT dimmers and pull cords: remember my comments about modern electronic devices imitating 19th century Edison? Yeah, that. We aren’t even trying to retrofit independent fan and light controls to our wiring, we’re just going with RF controls and leaving the switches on all the time.

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