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Electrical work

2007-12-03 16:26:33.712975+00 by Dan Lyke 16 comments

As my observation about HOAs shows, Charlene and I are looking about a bit. Yesterday we went and gave a place in Petaluma a bit of a look. It's a late 1940s redwood framed single story cottage, it looks like it's been meticulously maintained, nice level yard but out of the floodplane, in the low end for the neighborhood, and the neighborhood is relatively mixed, we're not going to be overrun by young couples with screaming kids, or a whole block full of simultaneous teenagers, but neither are the well-off neighbors going to be dying off in droves. However it hasn't been upgraded.

For the most part this is fine, there may be a bit of dry rot in the bathroom, but we're planning on reworking that anyway, we'd really like to build our own kitchen, the one carpeted area is over hardwood anyway so we can just rent a sander and spend a weekend elsewhere while we let that finish cure... however...

The electrical system is the same one that's been there since 194x, several fuses, at most it's 50A spread over just a few circuits. At the very least this is going to require a new main panel and a bunch of wiring. Does anyone know about upgrading an electrical system? What I'd like is to have a new panel dropped in (should be circa $1500), have that run to the old panel, and then run a drop or two at a time as we get to either needing an upgraded circuit (ie: the workshop in the garage and my computer workstation) or reworking that room.

My concern is that some portion of that might lose the "grandfather" status of the current wiring and we'd be forced to bring the whole house up to code all at once. Since this involves things like two GFI 20A circuits into the kitchen, independent of the lighting (and, I believe the appliances), I'd rather tear that up when we're re-doing the cabinets anyway. Anyone know how such things are handled? And I guess I need to find a friendly electrician in Petaluma...

Oh, and I now totally appreciate the difference between the $85 level and the $15 one... Glad we bought the former.

[ related topics: Children and growing up Dan's Life Real Estate ]

comments in ascending chronological order (reverse):

#Comment Re: made: 2007-12-03 16:31:45.173806+00 by: Dan Lyke

And for those who'd worry about my financial acumen: Good call, but, yes, we're treating this as an expense, and renovations to it are an expense as well. If we end up adding square footage, that's an investment, but we're well aware that in a normal market reworking kitchens and bathrooms don't add value.

#Comment Re: made: 2007-12-03 17:01:25.540758+00 by: Larry Burton

Dan, find a good electrical contractor who can recite passages from the NEC like an old C programmer can from K&R and get him to inspect the house with knowledge of what you think you want to do if you buy the house. With the demand you are going to put on your electrical service you need it done right the first time through.

#Comment Re: made: 2007-12-03 17:09:37.297524+00 by: meuon

Electrical work can be pretty easy, unless you have to pull in new wire. If the existing circuits are copper wiring in good shape, you might be able to leave it and add on. A friendly electrician might help you by installing a new 200amp breaker box (cause you'll probably need a permit to pull the meter) and explain what you can do yourself and what he'll want or need to come by and inspect before you flip a breaker on.

I'm also playing with things in this area, I'm trying to decide on going Z-wave or Zigbee for lighting and other controls, but I think I might be able to get some demo product soon, as I'm working on projects in related areas. Having 'smart' wiring means you can have light switches and multiple light switches in places you ordinarily would not, without running wires to them.

Good tools almost always pay off..

#Comment Re: made: 2007-12-03 17:12:30.122881+00 by: ebradway

It's one thing to rework a bathroom or kitchen for a flip - and it's another to bring up to your standards so you'll enjoy it for the next decade. Personally, I'd rather have rotting floors in the bathroom and crappy old cabinets in the kitchen so I can put in what I like - not what the flipper thought was good enough to make the sale. And I know you well enough to know that you feel the same. Sometimes owning a house isn't about the investment - it's about the independence. You get to install the kitchen you want. You get the bathroom you want,

On the electric - that old place I had in Chattanooga was a complete mess. Parts of the house still had knob-and-tube wires and those glass screw-in fuses - and other parts had been upgraded (in two different eras). There was one junction box in the newest section that, if you metered the outlets, read a variety of voltages and polarities. I ended up having to gut that junction in order to feel safe plugging anything in half the house. What really needed to be done was to gut the entire electric system... Which is what you might need to do to this place.

But that place in Chattanooga was also insanely large. Really alot more than I should have taken on myself. I remember one night running my circular saw after dark on a patch of plywood under a section of the roof while lightning was lighting the sky - because, well, sometimes you have to patch a leak between storms in the Chattanooga Spring.

One option would be to start rebuilding in parallel - but make sure you start with a fuse panel with enough capacity for the entire house. Putting your workshop on a separate panel makes considerable sense - and can be done separately. In a workshop, you never know when you want to patch a couple lines together to get an extra 220 line.

Electric code can be touchy. If you need regular inspections or your electrician is a by-the-book kind of guy, you might find that if you do more than replace fuses on the existing system, you'll have to gut the entire thing to stay at code.

#Comment Re: made: 2007-12-03 17:36:05.249975+00 by: Dan Lyke

Larry, yeah, electrical is our major sticking point with this house, and I need to find the right person to work with on that. I just called one place and when I said "what I really want is an electrician I can build a relationship with who'll let me do the work" I got good vibes, so maybe I lucked out. We'll see when I get called back.

Meuon, if there's a good solid cutoff at the top of the main panel, I've got no problem with working on everything up to the main panel, but I get nervous if there's anything that's hot exposed in the main panel (as there is in the house we're currently in, even though I've done stuff in there), and I draw the line at anything that involves the top third of the main panel.

The place is small enough that I'm not too worried about going "smart" with everything, but I do want a high density of to-code sockets, sufficient circuits, and GFCI with a good solid ground in more places than would be otherwise specified. If we can get smart (and reliable, I've heard that X10 and its ilk don't always do what one would hope), all the better.

#Comment Re: made: 2007-12-03 18:58:01.797182+00 by: Larry Burton

#Comment Re: made: 2007-12-03 19:24:37.207789+00 by: other_todd

You really shouldn't work on service panel without pulling the meter, and you can't pull the meter yourself (ask the electrician about the hoops HE has to jump through to be able to pull it and you'll know why). The service panel is generally where my "go no further" threshold is, and I'm an above-average amateur electrician at this point.

The other bad news is that an ethical electrician, as you suspect, is rather obliged to make sure the rest of the circuits are up to code before putting in a new panel. But you haven't told us exactly what you think is WRONG with the old circuits. If the wiring insulation is good in the circuit and it's the right gauge for its amperage and you don't try to push more than its capacity through it - i.e. you keep a 15 amp circuit a 15 amp circuit and don't try to make it a 20 - there may not be as pressing a need, legal or otherwise, to pull those wires right away. (I agree it's something you'll want to do eventually for capacity reasons.)

One of the first things we did in our house was have an electrician come in and put in a brand-new 100 amp panel (I wanted a 200 but he successfully argued me that I'd never need it, not with the big hogs all on separate circuits). Now you must understand that our house is a historical museum of wiring - Romex, cloth-wrapped, BX in the metal flexible conduits, and knob-and-tube (yes, still working) up in the attic. All he said about the knob-and-tube was what the inspector had said: It was working fine with present load and could go on indefinitely as long as we didn't add load and the wiring didn't deteriorate. Nor did it appear to be a violation of code to keep it as long as we didn't alter it or try to extend it.

So bottom line is, unless the inspector tells you that a circuit is miswired or is doing something that is now actively against code (rules do change), you might not need to worry about replacing things gradually.

I am willing to bet you a beer that the electrician will not want to put another service panel next to an existing old fusebox, for a number of logistics reasons, not least of which is that replacing the old one and simply dropping in the old circuits makes his job much easier to do.

As a reference point, we paid $2000 for our work, which was the new service panel plus a short dedicated circuit in the basement for our dryer. That was some years ago.

#Comment Re: made: 2007-12-03 19:58:36.898466+00 by: Dan Lyke [edit history]

Todd, aside from the extension cords that were stapled behind the baseboards to provide more outlets in a room, which we can just unplug and tear out, the only thing wrong with it is just that it's 2 wire 1947 wiring, and on the stove, refrigerator, washer and (gas) dryer there are 3 prong to 2 prong adapters. I want at least a dedicated 20A 3 prong circuit for tools, but I'm okay with using the portions of the system as-is until we can upgrade it. Which is why I want to know about doing it incrementally.

My "Means Residential Square Foot Costs Contractor's Pricing Guide 2007" says a 100A service should cost $977.50 * a 1.25 geography factor, a 200A circuit comes in at $1,718 before geographical adjustment. Your region should cost about the same as mine, so, yeah, if we can do this without upgrading the whole house (which I figure would cost at least $15,000, but would necessitate a lot of drywall work I don't want to do all at once), I'm figuring on $1,500 to $2,000.

Eric, yeah, this place is perfect in being a well maintained structure that just needs upgrading. That's exactly the level of fixer-upper we were hoping for.

#Comment Re: made: 2007-12-03 20:19:56.057272+00 by: other_todd

Ah, the two-wire problem, that hadn't occurred to me. I have two-prong all through the living room, and it causes me no end of pain, and there's no ground whatsoever in the room, so the little adapters that fasten onto the plate screw are not actually providing a safety benefit.

In a house that's wired ALL 2-prong, you probably want to ask your inspector and/or electrician if there's even any good ground at the service panel. It's going to feel like a silly question, but it's one you want to know the answer to. I lived in a house once where we had to use an earth rod (i.e. metal stake in the front yard to get the ground we needed. In days of yore they'd just clamp a ground wire onto your water main but that is a no-no in most codes now, I'm told.

#Comment Re: made: 2007-12-03 20:33:58.226023+00 by: Larry Burton

The problem with clamping a ground to the water main is that there is no guarantee the main won't be replaced with plastic and then you are without an earth ground.

#Comment Re: made: 2007-12-03 21:03:49.952551+00 by: petronius

I remember when my brother bought a place in Costa Mesa from a guy who did some construction work and who fancied himself a master of all trades. The glazing was a work of art, the plumbing eccentric and the electricity a violation of the laws of god and man. When I got there he introduced his "live-in electrician", who was driving a copper rod into the earth to provide a proper ground, which simply didn't exist before.

#Comment Re: made: 2007-12-03 21:14:22.566601+00 by: Dan Lyke

Yeah, that's the main reason for wanting to get the service panel replaced right up front. I want a ground I can trust and a foundation I can build on.

I believe that current code is an 8 foot rod driven completely into the ground within 5 feet of the water service entrance, and connected to both the panel and the water service by bare #6 or greater wire (or armored #8 wire, but if it's going to be my house for a while, let's not only do it right, let's run it in a metal raceway, bonded at both ends).

For the sake of feeling better about it, I have, before, built a temporary cord that was a 3 prong socket, a 2 prong plug, and a length of wire (probably #14 that I stripped from the extension cord that I cannibalized one side of this from) that I clamped to a 3' rebar spike. Knowing what I know now I'm not sure that was a good idea. Made me feel better, though.

For Larry's reason, especially since this place has a gas hot water heater and nothin' says lovin' like potential on your gas appliances, I'd be reluctant to just trust the water mains.

#Comment Re: made: 2007-12-04 04:33:48.756201+00 by: TheSHAD0W

I'd recommend you simply replace the panel all at once rather than gradually move circuits over; it's not a complicated job and solves some potential safety hazards. Fuses will drive you mad, trust me; before you know it, you'll be checking your pockets every time you go to the panel to make sure you have a penny. :-P

#Comment Re: made: 2007-12-04 14:10:07.795699+00 by: other_todd [edit history]

And if you put a penny in a fuse socket, I won't HAVE to come kill you for gross negligence, because you will have autodarwinated. heh. But I know you know better.

P.S. to Larry: Plastic water mains! That makes sense. never would have occurred to me. We apparently aren't that newfangled yet here in greater Boston.

#Comment Re: made: 2007-12-04 15:01:35.776769+00 by: Dan Lyke

As I learn more, I want those newfangled arc fault breakers on the old circuits anyway...

Re: penny in the fusebox... Much of my dad's career was in high voltage electrical engineering. I've seen big-ass (ie: not something in your house panel) circuit breakers fail closed from behind 18" of glass (although I was watching on the monitors because looking straight at something like that is a bad idea, even behind 18" of glass). Me 'n the accidental trip are happy friends, 'cause I know that something's gonna be a fuse when things go wrong.

#Comment Re: made: 2007-12-05 05:23:44.158928+00 by: nkane

Completely unrelated to electrical - Check out the sewer condition if the house is older. I just had a camera stuffed down mine. The house was built in 1924 and I think the sewer is original. Looks like I'll be needing a new sewer. I just cant wait for the estimate to come in on that one. the line goes under my driveway and garage, but the camera operator thought the condition was such that they could do the trench-less replacement. It will be interesting to see that in action.

The clay lines are seriously cracked and in one spot (in the middle of the street) a section of pipe a few inches long is completely missing. Apparently I'm responsible up to where my line hits the main.

At least I have a DVD of the adventure. ugh.