Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Miles And Miles Of Wire

With the back of the house modifications done, it was time to switch gears and get the "systems" of the house up to snuff....

In a past life, I was a residential/commercial electrician (even taught basic home electricity at the local community college for a brief time) - but then found out there was more money in making electricity than getting it to your toaster. So now instead of playing with measly 120/240V circuits, I get to play with 480 volts, 4160 volts, and yes even up to 13.2 kV - fun stuff! Yep, that's me on the right wiring up a cooling tower fan motor in the pouring rain... what a good day that was. So fortunately for me, tackling the electrical system was just another day on the job. During my time as an electrician, I was fortunate enough to get to work in the Main-Line area of Philadelphia (Villanova, Bryn Mawr, etc.) and had the opportunity to work in some great old houses... well, more like mansions. I think this is when the old house bug really got me. Remember the movie Money Pit with Tom Hanks? Well I actually worked on a project that was true life to that movie, complete with a hole in the front foyer floor and all! The carriage house for this place was bigger than my first house. Also recall working in one place that had it's own ballroom! Any who, the majority of the work I did involved working with very old electrical systems which now will really pay off with updating this place. Another benefit of those projects was getting to see other craftsman at "their" line of work and picking up tricks of their trades.

OK, back to the house. The wiring in this place was pretty much a lost cause. Between the old knob and tube and the poorly done modification to make an apartment (but still only had one service??!) I decided to just start from scratch. I did however salvage some of the romex I demoed since this stuff has skyrocketed in price.

My first order of business was to upgrade the service. I was fortunate in that the service was upgraded to 200 amps probably during the 1971 conversion and had an old Federal Pacific circuit breaker panel. Problem is, breakers for these panels are super expensive now and FP panels have a bad habit of catching fire - yep. The service cable was in good shape, though it does need a weather head installed (never had one). So the FP panel was removed, a nice big backer board mounted, and a new Square D panel installed. I temporarily powered the old circuits in the new panel, and will slowly remove and switch to new as the new circuits are ready to be powered up. You will also see the white panel, which will handle all my low voltage circuits - cable, phone, etc. There is a timer for the front outside lights, a service receptacle that doubles for my CO2 detector, and finally the doorbell transformer. Now everything is neat, organized, and easy to work on. Also to note, a grounding rod was added to ground the service. These must be at least 8 feet long and you can't go into the ground any more than a 45 degree angle - giving you at least 4 feet of depth. Just make sure you don't hit anything buried under ground! Also made sure water meter was bonded. And water pipe grounded to service. All the grounds in your house don't do you much good if these steps aren't taken.

I tried to keep some order to my wiring runs, as you can see in the above, photo. All of my circuits come out of the panel and either run along the outside walls towards the back, or run straight to the middle beam and then towards the back. High voltage and low voltage wires are separated. Sometimes stray voltage can be induced into coax when running to close to your circuits, causing interference in your cable signal. This also makes life easier when tracing wires.

My plan for circuit load was simple - I ran one 20 amp receptacle circuit, one 15 amp lighting circuit, and a coax and CAT5 cable to each room as needed. This system, though a bit overkill, will keep my loads well under limit and make for easy isolation of circuits when a room needs to be shut off - no circuits with this in that room and something in another..... you know the deal.

Another item I highly recommend is installing a hard-wired smoke detector system. In the picture above you can see the one I installed at the base of my main staircase. I also installed one at the bottom of the basement steps, one at the base of the butler stairs, one in the 2nd story center hall, and finally up on the third floor. Especially in a three story house like this one, if a fire were to start in the basement, the detectors are all daisy-chained together, so if one goes off they all go off. If I were on the third floor I would here this right away, but if I just used a battery alarm, I may never hear it four floors up till it was too late.

The 2nd floor hallway is quite busy. Here I have doorbell wire, thermostat for 2nd AC unit, then wires for a 3-way and 4-way lights. The hall light can be switched from here, the base of the back stairs, and from the foyer. The foyer light can also be switched from here and the foyer.

While the walls were opened up downstairs, now was the ideal time to run new feeds to the 2nd floor rooms. Here you can see my 12-2, 14-2, coax and CAT5 wires, each room having a dedicated bundle like this. When these room are done later on, I will decommission the old feeds and switch to new. Sure beats fishin wire!

Another item I took care of now was running my lines to the third floor. In the third floor closet, I plan to locate an AC unit to do the 2nd and 3rd floors. With the walls opened up, I discovered a common wall (on the main staircase) that went from the closet straight to the basement - what luck! So I ran a 50 amp (6-3 wire) line to feed a sub panel in the closet. The extra wire in the line is for the neutral. When feeding a sub panel, the ground and neutral must have dedicated wires by code. You can't use the same wire for both ground and neutral from the main panel to the sub. This will power the AC plus handle any 3rd floor circuits still on knob and tube (3rd floor already has some updating). Next I needed to run thermostat wire. Then I had t0 run my refrigerant lines and insulate these. Finally I ran the condensate drain, which instead of having unsightly PVC running down the side of the house, or hidden in a downspout, it will be totally concealed and exit outside from the basement.

The old Hall House has now taken it's first steps into the 21st century...


Readerman said...

We are needing to update the wiring in our old house. We currently have the "Federal" box that you mentioned. I didn't realize that they had a propensity to catch on fire! (We were, however, told they were expensive.) I appreciate the mini-lesson in wiring, and now appreciate just how complicated it is. Thanks.

mike & rachel said...

It's not something that needs to come out right away, but when the opportunity arrises would recommend. I think it was an issue of the breaker design and how they make contact with the bus bars in the back of the panel. It's rare for a fire, but you do see the bus bars get burned up from arcing. Probably why that breaker design hasn't been around in years.

the reluctant remodeler said...

Wow, great blog! I am absolutely drooooling over your kitchen finds. That table -- amazing. (Although I agree with R about the fridge, sorry.) Thanks for your kind comment on my blog, and I'll show this helpful post to my husband. We have a Zinnsco panel here. No fires yet!

mike & rachel said...

You would be surprised how many of those are still around, but another fun one to by breakers for. Actually they were a pretty well built panel.

You have to learn to pick and choose your battles... and this one will probably go to Rach...I only paid $50 for the 2 door Monitor Top, so could make a killing selling after restoration - but I think it will end up in the basement "museum".

Christopher Busta-Peck said...

I'm not sure what this says about me that I'm drooling over the sexy (and perhaps over-redundant) wiring. Perhaps that the purchase of my project house can't come soon enough?