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Electrical upgrade. from the ground up.
~mike gradziel.
In 1939, this house was given a state-of-the-art electrical system with insulated copper wire run through porcelain tubes and support knobs, painstakingly soldered and taped at joints and routed neatly throughout the walls and attic. Nowadays, we have sensitive electronics that need surge protectors to survive thunderstorms and surges. Plus, mankind has realized it is much safer to have a low resistance path to ground in every appliance and electrical outlet so when hot wires touch things they aren't supposed to, breakers will trip right away. I was using an extension cord run across the house from the kitchen, which had grounded receptacles, to power my computer. We needed new wiring, more circuits, and more convenient light switches; after cleaning up the attic in late 2010 I got an electrical permit and got to work.

Some years ago (circa 2001) the kitchen was remodeled, and electrical service was upgraded to 100 amps getting rid of the old fuse box but replacing it with a rather small load center, with just twelve slots for circuits. Most of these went to the new kitchen, leaving the rest of the house on three old circuits. It was a sloppy, low-bid sort of job with wires snaking loosely across the attic and other unsafe things like sharing a neutral between two circuits without using a double pole breaker. I decided to completely replace the load center and use the old one in the back shed for my wood shop. And to start from a solid foundation, I put in four new copper-clad ground rods in the front yard to make a nice low-resistance ground. Some people think that's excessive, but materials were inexpensive and now I can be sure that my surge protectors will work.
I drove ground rods out front in March before the soil dried out trench dug for ground wire, 16 inches deep; November used clamps listed for burial
buffed surfaces with sandpaper, then installed tightly used a copper tube to protect wire through garden bed and concrete wire in place, to four 8-foot rods spaced 7 ft apart
too-small electrical panel pre-demolition wall post-demolition wall
the wall with wire installed wall with insulation in place fire-code gypsum wallboard hung
the receptacle is wired up but not connected to anything yet cutting conduit I built short conduits to carry cable to the attic.  Note the improperly secured old electrical wiring
conduit runs up from the panel because the wall has too many top plates to conveniently run wire through hole view looking down at the panel.  The old air duct ran through here.
January 2011: Bathroom re-wiring quickly became a larger project. Most light switches in the house were 54 inches above the floor, to the top of the switch, which is 6 inches higher than is common these days. The switch just felt too high, and smaller children wouldn't be able to reach it, but to move it down I had to remove some tile. The tile backsplash was so tall that the wall outlets I planned to install behind the sink would be rather far from the countertop, but more importantly the mirror lower edge would be high, again to the disadvantage of small children. Off came the tile, a tedius job because I wanted to save as many tiles as possible to repair damaged tile elsewhere in the room. I certainly don't want to re-tile the whole room right now with only one bath in the house! I would have a pickup-truck-full of debris, we would be without any bathroom for quite a while (not feasible!) and it would be costly. Plus, they built this so well in 1939 with lots of wire mesh in the concrete stucco, making it hold together without cracks all these years. It was not easy to take off by hammer and chisel. Now we plan to replace the sink and re-tile the upper decorative edge all the way around the room. Plus, I'm adding a ventilation fan with special design features at the intakes to make it extra-quiet. This black granite sink is wrong for the color scheme, so we decided to put in a two-basin white porcelain sink.
the bathroom pre-demolition the bathroom pre-demolition demolition in progress for bathroom re-wiring and re-tiling


February 2011: Next, I am wiring the bedroom that for a whole year now we have been waiting to move into. I'm exactly one year behind schedule, on account of cleaning the attic. I'm really happy it's clean, though - wiring is so much easier and I am proud of being able to do a nice neat safe job. I sealed off the room and protected the floor with plastic and cardboard, then did strategic demolition. Had I removed all the walls I could have insulated better and hung drywall, but that would have left me with a truckload of plaster debris and a lot more work. Plus, who knows what ancillary projects would be spawned: as it is, I've already discovered some rot in one window frame. After mounting the boxes and running wire from the new panel via the attic, I made connections at junction boxes to minimize the wires in each switch or receptacle box. With my volume of buying, boxes are cheaper than wire so it makes sense to minimize wire. Except I decided to use all 12-gauge, instead of using 14-gauge for lighting circuits. This will cost me about $100 throughout the house, but it is more convenient having just two types of NM-cable (12-2 and 12-3) on hand.
bedroom, pre-demolition chiseling holes in the walls chiseling holes in the walls
The master bedroom lighting is as good as it gets: one switch at the door plus two more one on each side of the bed, all for the overhead light; also, two dimmable sconces switched separately bedside; also, closet lighting with wall-mounted switches. And the smoke alarms will be hard-wired, so they all go off together when tripped. On top of all that, I have enough receptacles to plug in anything we could ever want. I decided not to run any data cable since we have no current use for it, and I can cut a hole in the wall later to install is almost as easily as I could cut a hole now.

The wall had wallpaper, originally; a dark red color with a white pineapple motif. I wonder what, seventy years from now, will people look at in my house and say to themselves, "what were they thinking!!" All those light fixtures, maybe; I suppose by then we will have luminous ceiling paint. Removing painted-over wallpaper is no fun at all: wearing my respirator, on a ladder, with my scraper I have to work over every inch of surface. Wetting it hasn't helped much. Then I will have to wet-scrape the residual paper, wash off the paste, and touch up the plaster.
electrical artery junction box junction box
wire runs scraping wallpaper the old knob and tube wiring
new wire run added insulation where I could reach nailed up the lath again
Joy scraping wallpaper sheetrock to cover the closet shoe rack opening dusty room after plastering and sanding
ready for priming painting painting
all done except for the trim and the floor


June 2011: In the garage, I wanted to run a copper ground from my new larger subpanel to the main breaker where my deluxe four-rod ground system terminates. The last installer used metal conduit as the ground path, with all its screw fittings adding risk and resistance (though this is common and entirely legitimate), and the 1-inch conduit was too small to legally run a copper ground alongside the other three wires. I had to replace the conduit. Fortunately I was able to re-use the same 2 AWG copper conductors and neutral which was nice because it is very expensive, and I will be able to use the old 1-inch conduit in the crawlspace for the run to the back yard shed. I bought 90-degree pre-bent elbows and ten foot straight sections of inch-and-a-quarter conduit and then made several slight bends in the most low-tech, low-cost way possible: I stuck one end of the conduit in a hole in the ground and pulled on the other end. The rounded edge of the hole distributed the load for a uniform curvature, and I had my conduits done in a few hours without having to hire anyone or rent equipment. This was very satisfying. I bonded the conduit to the copper ground wire at both ends so one-way surges won't be stopped up by an inductive choke.

The next day I shut off power to the house, got an extension cord hookup from our neighbor, and pulled down all the old conduit. I enlarged the hole in the service entrance box (fortunately the hole in the stucco was already big enough) and sealed in the new conduit with rubber sealant, then with Joy's help ran the conduit in sections slipping conduit over wire rather than pulling wire through conduit which is not really possible with wires this big going around corners. I got the cables terminated in the panel, wired in all my new circuits, and then untangled the mess of kitchen circuit wires in the attic and fed them in to the new panel. The electrician who did that job left a mess of wires and twice used 3-conductor wire to power two circuits with a shared neutral without using a double-pole breaker, a hazardous configuration that was hard to detect (I could have shut off one circuit to work on it while the neutral still carried 20 amps from the other circuit). I used the right breakers, so it is now legal though a neutral fault will supply 240 volts to half the things in my kitchen, and the double pole breakers were more than twice the cost of two single pole breakers. Oh well, having it done beats cutting into the kitchen walls to run new wire. As dusk arrived, I switched on the power and we had light! Except for the living and dining rooms, that is; they are next in line for re-wiring.
the new subpanel; old panel at right the main breaker and ground wires


July 2011: I opened a trench to the back yard shed where I plan to build a woodworking shop. The plan was to run three 6-gauge stranded conductors plus an 8-gauge stranded copper ground conductor through watertight 1-inch plastic tubing, transitioning to steel EMT under the house. Eventually I accomplished this but it was far harder to pull the wire than I expected. Even the slightest bends and spirals in the hose would add up; tension is, after all, an exponential function of the number of spirals times friction. Rather than pull the whole bundle of wire through at once I had to do one wire at a time, with plenty of cable lube. One of the neighbor's sprinkler loops was broken and my trench kept filling with sixty gallons of water, which I would have to bail out. Finally it was done, with the metal EMT grounded properly at both ends to prevent it forming an inductive choke in lightning storms, etc. The plastic hose is 18 inches down. About 14 inches down in the same trench, I lay water pipe for new sprinkler loops.

My electrical inspector recommended that I have the power company come by and convert this unprofessional line connection to something more durable and safe. Evidently handyman electricians will connect the house to the lines themselves to avoid having to schedule the electric company to do this. There was a permit for the service upgrade, but I did not look up the inspection status for it. In any case now it is all cleaned up with nifty finger-trap crimped cable connectors.
watertight tube in trench the tube emerging in the shed pulling wire
EMT in the crawlspace grounding at the plastic to metal transition to avoid inductive choke open trench to the shed, 18 inches deep
finished water and power.  Wrapped power hose with PVC tape to protect from sunlight. hack job service connection new professional service connection, thanks PGE
new kitchen receptacle and fan control switch boxes painting in the kitchen old wiring debris
knob and tube porcelain insulators


March 2012: After some summer trips in 2011, I got to work on the dining room and living room. I worked all through the summer, fall, and winter and finally by March the dining room and half of the living room, including the lighting circuits, are done. No more extension cords and floor lamps! Actually there will be one floor lamp in the living room, on a receptacle controlled by two switches. I tried out all sorts of wall sconce ideas but we settled on this as being the most flexible and best looking. I had a real battle with paint blisters on the living room wall. After hours of internet research, consulting with the paint store salesmen, and scrutinizing the blisters, I still am not sure what causes them or how to prevent them. The blisters bubble out within a few minutes of laying on a coat of paint, and they are concentrated around the perimeter of my plaster patches. They don't happen elsewhere on the wall so I think it has something to do with the sandpaper scoring the original paint, which then allows moisture from the new paint to seep behind the older paint and displace air which jets out making little blisters from 1mm to several mm across. Some even looked like mushrooms, tall and skinny, clearly the result of a gas pushing out. Exasperated by all the gouges in my new wall, so painstakingly tooled and smoothed to look like the rest of the plaster, I scraped off the new paint and re-plastered. This time I applied a premium primer/sealer of the same brand as the topcoat paint, rather than the generic one I had used, working with a very dry paint roller and making many layers. I still got blisters, but not so many, and after cutting away and spot priming them I put on the top coat in many thin layers starting out mottled and gradually filling in with color. That seems to have worked, preventing moisture from getting back to the poorly adhered paint layer. The lesson is that a sloppy surface preparation will doom painters for decades to come, so pay for a good crew or do it right yourself. I hope I don't have to repaint for decades. If I do, it may be better to spray on thin coats.
dining room roughed out painting dining room finished dining room
doorbell transformer in garage garage light switch garage light
porch light porch motion sensor rebuilt Rittenhouse doorbell sans cover


June 2012: Repairing and painting the window sashes is tedious work but I like the way they look and don't want to invest in new windows now where the existing ones are still solid. I've been making various electrical upgrades - new programmable thermostat, new doorbell wire and a complete rebuild of the Rittenhouse mechanical doorbell including new paint, new rubber grommets, and eventually a new cover plate that is more keeping to our style. The old transformer was in the attic which is not to new code (it can overheat up there) so I installed the new one in the garage. There is a 4V voltage drop from the transformer to the bell but that puts the bell voltage closer to what the old supply delivered. I put in some new light fixtures including a motion sensor for the front door light (all the good motion sensors seem to be European; I was fortunate to find this one wired for 120V circuits). I also ran a PVC pipe down through the wall from the attic to where our tv will be, in addition to leaving a cord through the wall to pull cat5 up from the crawlspace where our existing data lines run. This way I can put in anything I want in the future - coax, more cat5 running to different rooms from a hub by the tv, and so forth. I also put a quad receptacle there so there will be no shortage of plugs. This does lock down where we can put our furniture, but we thought about it carefully and this is really the best arrangement.
new programmable thermostat smoke alarm installation new back door light
holes in the living room wall drilling for wire rough wiring
lath repaired mixing sand plaster finishing the living room
August 2012: Again we went on a fantastic summer trip and my projects ceased for a month or so, but in August I got back to work in the living room. Before final pastering and finishing I wanted to do the messy job of fixing the fireplace - removing the paint off the firebox brick and fixing the rusted-shut damper. It turned out beautifully, after a huge amount of work. Then I got back to plaster, paint, and electrical receptacles. This was a large room that took a long time to finish, especially all the wood trimmed windowpanes.
painting the window trim painting the window trim painting the window trim
April 2013: I roughed in the second bedroom and got it inspected in November, leaving me until May to get the next inspection and keep my permit active. As March arrived, I knew I had to make a final push and get things done. First I finish-wired the bedroom. Next was the unpleasant task of crawling around under the house to install metal tubing through the crawlspace to supply power to the washer/dryer area of the garage, and then I finished wiring in the garage. I even put in a short pvc pipe through the garage wall going outside, and plugged it with a screw-in pvc plug, so I can run holiday light cords through the wall from the shrubbery and eaves out front. That way the lights timer can be safe and dry inside. I also put up the old breaker box in the back shed and installed one GFCI-protected receptacle for running a new irrigation system back there. The rest of the shed project will have to wait until later. I drove two new ground rods at the shed to properly ground the subpanel, which also has a copper ground running back into the house. In the garage I tore out the old fusebox compartment and stuccoed over the opening in the wall. Inspector Chuck found nothing amiss and even complemented the neatness of the job; he gave his signature of approval on 02 May 2013 and with that my project is officially done! It cost less than $5000 for this ~1200 square foot house including all the wall repairs and electrical fixtures that I replaced. A significant part of that cost was wire, arc-fault and ground-fault breakers which are rather costly, and the load center itself.
May through July, 2013, I tiled by the tub and did plumbing upgrades and other work in the bathroom. Towards the end of July with the baby due just three months away it was time to get back to this bedroom and strip the wallpaper. There were two layers of paper under several coats of paint, and to remove it I scraped twice and washed three times before repairing the plaster and painting. What a mess! As this was likely lead paint I had the place sealed up well and used a respirator. Taking off the layers revealed every picture hanger and scratch and even some foot shaped holes in the wall that look like they were kicked in after slamming the door in anger. Imagine the stories these walls could tell of all the lives lived here since 1940!

The ceiling was cracked in many places and when I walk in the attic it creaks ominously. In some places the keys of plaster squeezed through the lath had broken off across large areas, and I was afraid parts of the ceiling might fall in a strong earthquake. Since the plaster weighs tens of pounds per square foot this could be dangerous for a child. Rather than tear down the plaster and put up gypsum board, I decided to apply fiberglass fabric and an acrylic-strengthened plaster with a hand troweled texture to match the other rooms in the house. Doing a texture was a new thing for me, and while it isn't quite the same (stronger texture, more obvious trowel marks) I'm pleased with it. I sanded and alkalai-washed the surface first, and put screws into the lath where the old plaster felt loose. I finished insulating the attic and ran data wires through the attic before I plastered so I should have no need to walk up there again for the forseeable future.

Once the walls were all clean (wallpaper paste is a real pain to scrub away!) I caulked and primed and painted everything and caulked around the baseboard. I installed new light fixtures in the closet and ceiling, having moved the ceiling light off center in the room before plastering the ceiling in order to be ready for our future third bedroom addition which will downsize this bedroom to make a hallway to the third bedroom. That way the ceiling won't need to be patched if we ever do that project. Finally by mid-September, with the door knobs cleaned up and replaced, everything is ready for baby!
the room before stripping the room before stripping removed loose plaster from ceiling
scraping wallpaper scraping wallpaper scrubbing with alkalai wash
fiberglass fabric over entire ceiling area materials to plaster ceiling plastered, sanded, and primed
gray paint going on finished painting replacing the door hardware
new fixtures all done


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