Stumbling In the Dark

flashlight

After uncovering the knob-and-tube wiring, I called my electrician friend, Tim. I don’t mind fishing new wire or pigtailing to add a plug, switching out a fixture or putting in a new switch. But when it comes to abandoning and replacing a wiring system that scares me and that I don’t understand, well…time to write a check.

And good thing. Once he got into it, Tim found out things are far more troublesome than he or I expected at first look. (OK…very bad thing…but good thing I didn’t try to tackle it.)

It turns out about 80 percent of the house is still on the knob and tube, and things are apparently double-dipped, double-wired, double-jointed, double-somethinged that I don’t begin to comprehend. I know the word “double” factored in. So when Tim dropped the one circuit that I thought powered three rooms on the second floor (about 30 percent of the house), 80 percent of the house went dead (which makes no sense; I must have missed something). And this is despite having plenty of empty slots in the two panels (it used to be a two family)…but more vexing, also having lots of circuits in use on said panels. So what they heck do they go to?! I dunno. Tim is figuring it out, running new wires and getting things in shape (and up to code) as much as possible for now. But it’s going to take at least another day of work.

So for tonight, I have full power (read, light) in only two rooms (my current computer room and one bathroom), along with random working receptacles in select and non-contiguous other rooms – and in said rooms, only some of the receptacles are working. (I guess that would explain the circuits that are in use…but the mapping is illogical, and I am part Vulcan.)

But Tim, bless him, is smart. He made sure my router, computer, coffee maker and refrigerator are all getting juice. The heat and hot water are gas. I think I’ll live.

I just hope that tomorrow he doesn’t uncover more crazy. And leave me completely in the dark.

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About fitz

Editor & content director for Popular Woodworking, ABD PhD focused on early modern drama, freelance content and copy editor/writer, ailurophile
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8 Responses to Stumbling In the Dark

  1. That’s no fun. With Tim figuring things out and rewiring make sure you capture a map of what goes to where on the new circuits and laminate it and hang it near the box. It will make it much easier in the future to know what to turn off when a breaker fires.

  2. I didn’t even know what knob and tube was until reading your last post. I thought I had it bad when I discovered a few back-stab receptacles and wires ran atop joists without protection.

  3. tombuhl says:

    Our 1950-build home was the last done buy an old-timer. So he used dated techniques. Which sometimes was a very good thing. Other times, like electrical, not so good. My wife has been here for thirty years. I moved in ten years ago, but before I added my piles to the abode, we had entire home rewired. My wife counted 123 holes to patch. Some large, some small. But no crazy stuff like your place. Just old and insecure. Great to have it all done at one time. Even put a 50-amp sub in the garage. How was I to know that I’d soon take on woodworking and add several 220v tools? Great that we did the new subpanel. If I would have known, we would have put in a 100 amp panel, but it works for a one, slow moving woodworker.
    Do as much as you and Tim can at this time, when you are in patch and fix mode. No fun to return at later date. Best to you, Tim and the home.

  4. Dave Fisher says:

    Hang in there. We had to eliminate a lot of old knob-and-tube in our old house room by room. It will be quite a relief when Tim gets it all sorted out for you. Cool photo of the stairs, by the way.

  5. Bill Murr says:

    Although terms can be regional, the term we use around here is double tapped. In essence, a single fuse or breaker supplying power to more than one circuit/wire. A particular danger of the old Knob and Tube, was the tendency to switch the Neutral wire, and to use it as the return path for more than one circuit. In reality, the Neutral wire carries as much current as the live conductor, and can overheat. Since it is NOT protected by a fuse or breaker, this may lead to a fire. [ Speaking as an Electrician ] it’s a good plan to draw a floor plan with the locations of outlets and lights – so that they can be labeled to the respective circuits. A small bit of painters tape, marked with a Sharpie; can help to identify the corresponding circuits too. Slap them on the walls, next to the plugs and switches as you go. The goal is to have no more than 12 devices on any circuit. If Tim is good, he will be able to deduce locations that are ideal for splitting the circuits, based on the diagrams. I’ve rewired this ’20’s Craftsman, and while slightly extreme, I have ended up with 70 circuits. The code required 10 for my kitchen alone, My shop has 8; no lighting circuits share any receptacles ( who wants to plug something in, and be in the dark? ) The sensitive electronics are by themselves, and surge protected, while outside and wet-location devices are separated to accommodate CFCI’s. But, in all of that, only 10 circuits are what I’d consider “Critical”, and they are on their own sub-panel that is fed by a transfer switch that can be supplied by my generator or the utility.

  6. Ann says:

    Gee, stumbling around in the dark, with missing floor boards sounds interesting.

    My SW Ohio 1919 house, was still mostly knob and tube. It ran only in the core of the house, not the outside walls. So any and all outlets were only on the inner walls of the house. This might also be a helpful clue as to how your wiring was run….ie where to find the knob and tube stuff. Each room only had outlets on the inner walls, causing lots of wires to have been run to other locations over the years.

    Also in my house, while there were gas pipes by several of the light fixtures, but they were ever used. There was a time in house building when electricity was considered a possibly new fangled and soon to be forgotten thing, so houses were built with both systems just in case. I saw them in the kitchen and dining room ceilings as well as the upstairs bathroom wall, by the sink and mirror. Again, might be a clue on where to be drilling or demolishing gingerly.

    Knob and tube wires tend to be spliced together anywhere they saw fit, no boxes at these junctions and no boxes over light fixtures. My cold air return in the hall floor had a large taped joint of wires running right through it which were excellent at collecting balls of dust.

    In your ‘what fresh hell is this’ photo, do you have an answer yet?

  7. Ward Shrake says:

    Be patient. And be ready to roll with future punches, as they land. Getting rid of that scary-old stuff takes (seemingly) forever, since, as you’ve noted, the mapping of what happened where makes one’s head hurt enough. Let alone, figuring out the why behind it.

    Household wiring was once new and weird and fancy and relatively rare. People didn’t anticipate having much use for it, anywhere in their homes. So circuitry as a whole was minimal. As another person commented, the older style of thinking was to just tap into whatever was extant, when anything new got added. In other words: very little of this stuff was all planned, at the outset.

    My guess on the “80 percent of the house is on one circuit” is that if you treated it like some sort of an archaeologist, you’d probably figure out that once upon a time, 100% of it was all on one big circuit. The other twenty percent was likely the point in time when they realized that plan just wasn’t working all that well — and they needed to quit overloading one big fuse-blowing circuit. The mental disconnect between our era and theirs is that, no, they really didn’t realize how much they would come to rely on electrical power, over time. So a lot of adding-on routinely happened.

    Having helped a license electrician tear out EVERY wire (phone, TV, 120 volt, whatever) in an old house or two, and replace it with nothing but up-to-code modern stuff: it sure feels wonderful, at the end of the project! But expect it to be like finding Martian Rats built nests in your walls, first.

    Just a thought but if you’re up for creative recycling and/or need a way to deal with the aesthetic revulsion part of what you’re finding is behind your walls, know that some people in situations like yours give the old wiring itself to artist friends of theirs, or artists/teachers, who will strip off the old insulation and use the wire itself for (non-electrical!) uses such as using it as armature wire, for sculpting things. But I suppose most people probably just send the ancient stuff to a landfill.

    • fitz says:

      And then comes the plaster repair πŸ™‚ Yep – I’m going to put a note on our local message board site about the old wiring (also a fair amount of copper in those, for the truly committed recylcer to who wants to strip the coating and take it in. I am committed enough to donate it to that person!)

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