For the better part of three weeks out of the last month, our house has been the domain of electricians, as we worked with them on what turned into almost a complete rewire project.
This was — semi-planned. The electrical system of the house is the one big piece that had never been modernized, and in a 1956 era house, it was overdue. We were, in fact, still running on the original era 60 amp fuse system, not a more modern service box with circuit breakers.
And… I knew that we needed to have that box upgraded, beyond its age and that changing fuses is a pain in the ass and 60 amps isn’t enough power for a modern house: a couple of years ago the house next door to someone I know caught fire and burned to the ground. it was — yup — another Eichler house, and it had the same, or similar, service box to the one we had, and the fire started when the electrical service failed.
So I’ve been caught between “know I need to do this” and “nothing bad’s happened and I know once I open the hood it’s going to get big, complicated and expensive”. I have been researching electricians for months but hesitating to actually open that damned hood, because I knew what I was getting myself into.
A few weeks ago I finally did; Laurie went out of town for a few days between semesters, and I figured I could maybe get the work done while she was out of town, so I brought in the electrical group I’d chosen and scheduled them to replace the outlets in the old part of the house, and to get me a quote on the service box upgrade.
What I hadn’t planned on was that when they tried to change one of them it exploded (pretty literally) and tried to catch fire, and generally spew smoke and sparks around the room. Whoops.
That made it clear we had some wiring issues to deal with, and their inspection of the service box indicated it was more than time to replace it, and when we did a code/safety inspection of the entire house, we found some other issues; fortunately nothing too major, just differences between how things were done in the 1950’s and now.
This house was added onto by the original owner in the 1970s, with two new rooms. At the time, instead of updating the service box as part of the remodel, he wired the new rooms into the existing circuits in the service box. How that was approved in the permit inspections, we have no clue, but it was.
So I took a deep breath and scheduled in the service box replacement, which fortunately went off without a hitch, so now the house had a 200 Amp box with circuit breakers and nine house circuits instead of a 60 amp box with six circuits, and everything was properly fused and none of the circuits were overloaded.
But I took a deeper breath and sat down with the lead electrician and we worked over where things needed improvement, and we came up with a plan to modernize things and to replace some of the more questionable wiring pieces, and to add in circuits to bring the house up to modern code where we could, or to bring in extra power to areas where I felt we needed extra circuits.
Emptying the To Do list
And that’s been the last almost two weeks. And where things get a bit complicated.
This house is an Eichler, built in 1956. In fact, it’s one of the earliest Eichler tracts using one of his first designs. We were lucky to be able to get it with relatively few modifications and we’ve chosen to keep it that way, because we like the historical aspect of it and it’s actually quite a nice design — most of the time. But Eichler style houses have some challenges: they’re build on a slab (because they originally had radiant heat in the floors, which basically all failed after a few decades, so almost all of them have been retrofit with forced air), and they’re built with flat roofs with open beam ceilings. This means that there is no crawlspace or attic space to run wiring in from place to place.
One answer, of course, is to open up all of the walls and rewrite behind the drywall, which is okay if you’re gutting the place and living somewhere else doing it. In our case, not okay. You could potentially punch a bunch of small holes, drill the studs, and… and have electricians and drywall and painters and god knows who else in your life for a few months doing it.
So we went with plan B: they used conduit to build a wiring system on the outside of the building, punched holes through the wall into the areas we wanted to add power, and then wired those rooms from those entry points. Some Eichler owners do this putting the conduit across the roof, but our estimate was that would have tripled the (already signifiant) labor cost, and then you are creating new opportunity for roof leaks. So instead, we ran it along the eaves along one side of the house, and brought in power into three areas: My office, which is one room of the 70’s addition, the study, which is the other room of the new addition, and the garage, which, um, stay tuned.
In my room we added a 20 amp circuit for my office area, offloading all of that gear from the other circuits. And because I could, I added a ceiling fan, because one aspect of the new rooms of the house is that they have very poor air circulation because the HVAC systems aren’t well designed (that’s on the list of things to work on, after some plumbing and before the painters). We then carried it over to Laurie’s office and added a new 20 amp circuit into her office for her computer gear. This means there is exposed conduit in the room, but there really wasn’t any place to put things, and embedding stuff in the wall would have added a bunch more labor hours, and… Once we paint it it’ll mostly disappear visually.
In the study we added a 20 amp circuit, partly to replace the outlet we retired (the one that blew up originally) and partly to give me power for my birthday present, which I’ll write about later.
And then the garage…
The garage was an absolute mess. I describe it as having been wired by a senile chimpanzee, and I’m not really kidding. It had clearly been rewired by the owner, probably later than the formal remodel that added the two rooms because there’s no way it would pass any inspections. It was (I believe) later changed by tenants (without the owner’s permission) when they were running a repair shop in there on the side, part of a series of changes they made to this place when nobody was looking. Some of those I’d pulled out in my work in there, including one shop fixture that had been wired into the lighting circuit using an extension cord for the power lines and a piece of stereo cable for the found (no, seriously). It was also done with Nomex wiring, which is easy to use but not code. and very badly run.
So the garage was a scrape job; on top of that, we needed to add a dedicated circuit for the garage opener and the laundry, neither of which existed in there. I also had them replace the existing fluorescent shop lights with LED lights. I also brought in two new circuits, one for our utility area and one for my workshop bench.
So, if you’re counting, that’s four new circuits: we ended up with the circuit that handles the lighting (and the study next to it), the existing circuit was dedicated to the laundry, and new 20 amp circuits for the utility and workbenches, and one for the opener. If you’re counting, that’s six new circuits, three in the garage (and two of those just to get us up to modern code).
As it turns out, there’s a seventh new circuit which we also ran into garage, which goes… Nowhere. for now. Because one other code issue we found is that the garbage disposal is supposed to be on a dedicated circuit, and it isn’t. But we don’t have to fix that until we do the kitchen remodel, which is on the plans for “reasonably soon now”. Because it was a lot cheaper to prepare for that now than run those wires later, we brought that circuit in so it’s ready to extend into the kitchen when we want to do that update.
We found one other code issue: the bathroom outlets are supposed to be on their own circuit, but they share life with a couple of other outlets. In our world this works, but when we decide to update one of the bathrooms we’ll have to fix it. We didn’t prep for that, but we know how to attack it when it’s time.
So if you’re counting, we added 7 circuits and 140 amps of potential capacity to a house that a month ago had a 60 amp service box and six circuit fuses (with nine circuits wired to them). And because we’re in an Eichler, we had to build a cable carry system in conduit since we have no crawlspaces to house them. That’s our Eichler tax in this project, and that amounts to about 400 linear feet of conduit, and about half the labor in this project.
If we’d chosen to do the conduit runs up on the roof and down into the house, we could easily triple that labor; and if we’d gone for putting them inside the walls and punching holes into the drywall, even more. So I don’t mind a bit of exposed conduit in my office, not one little bit….
Along the way, we did a bunch of other things as well: added another circuit for the back yard with outlets, where before, the electricity out there was tapped from one of the patio lights that was tied to the circuit in my office (and miswired, it turns out. My oops, the only one we found). I had them replace four fixtures on the outside of the house and upgrade all of the fixtures to code by adding or sealing boxes as needed. I had one other exterior outlet rewired and updated, because it’d been installed by the same idiot who installed the ones on the patio.
And every outlet and switch in the house were replaced, so it’s all shiny, new, with three hole plugs and proper grounding (in the old part of the house, that means replacing with GFI outlets, more expensive, but it means we’re code compliant). Doing this was two electricians for three full days by the time we were done.
The new service panel is already configured so a charging station can be added if we ever get an electric car (not currently planned), and already set up so we can add solar to the house if/when we decide (something I will look into after the other work is done). And none of this should need to be looked at for another 30 years or more, so whoever buys this from us for the next generation of life here will hopefully thank me, and not say things about me like I said about the previous owner.
And it’s all done to code (or better), under permits. And we’re due for inspections once we get them scheduled this week.
And I have to thank the folks at Mike Counsil Electric for their work. This was a big, complex, sometimes crazy job, and their teams — led by Joel and Anthony and Dave along with Paul and others who’s names I’ve misplaced — put in long hours in hot weather with a good attitude and a lot of hard work. I know enough about electrical work to know not to do it myself any more, and what good work and materials look like, and this is a stunningly professional and quality job. The team impressed the hell out of me.
This wasn’t a cheap job — we’re well into five digit land. But when you look at the scope of work and how much labor was needed, especially with the conduit work (which required a lot of complex bending and placement) I got very good value for my money; more importantly, the house is now properly wired and safe, which honestly wasn’t true before, like that other Eichler I mentioned, there was a risk of catastrophic failure, which is now resolved.
And better still, I now (finally) have that ceiling fan in my office…
Next up? The plumbers come in next week to replace a couple of fixtures, and I need to bring in the HVAC people to see about improving airflow into the new wing of the house. And once those two pieces are done, we can think about paint and carpets… And ultimately, we have a bathroom that needs updating, and the kitchen, which is in pretty good shape overall, but really could use new cabinets and counters and some updating…
But this piece? This piece was the big, ugly, too-long-ignored hunk of technical debt in the house, and once we finally decided to grapple with it, it was expensive, complicated and time consuming to resolve.
But now that it’s done… we don’t have to think about it again for a long, long time… it’s a debt that’s fully paid off.
P.S. The To Do list isn’t really empty
By the way, when I said we decided to empty the To Do list on electrical projects, I wasn’t really correct. my project file where I keep track of everything still has eight things in it, but six of them are in the kitchen or bathrooms. the other two I deferred out of cost (one of them was about $6K because it involved ditching the back yard, and, well, I don’t need it that badly) and being not all that important. Someday, maybe.
Which is, I guess, my quiet reminder that you shouldn’t ever think of being finished, merely of completing this phase of the endless project called life…
Sounds a lot like writing software, no?