What I'm Seeing Now

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A Mish Mash Of Old Wiring

They say to never say never, and never say always.  Well, when I do inspections on old homes, I almost ALWAYS have a mish mash of wiring!  And why not?  Things changed over the decades and certainly the first, and really old product, cannot survive forever.  This particular house is just over 100 years old.

This is a knob from the old "knob and tube wiring."  Made of porcelain (essentially glass) the knobs were non-conductive and provided a safe base for the wiring which extended throughout the house.  And you can see a little sleeve through which the wiring was run through floors and walls.  It was used from the 1880's all the way into the 1930's.

Generally the wiring was run in odd and dangerous areas.  It was covered with insulation, had various haphazard repairs and new junctions added by happy homeowners when new wiring came out and new things were to be installed.  Such additional work was often unprofessional and unsafe, where the original wiring might not have been.

Insurance companies now routinely ask if your new house has knob and tube wiring!  It is considered unsafe due to its age and what I say above.  I see it all the time in Virginia.  Very seldom, though, do I see it hot!

This is an example of wiring old to "new."  A new cable came out in 1916, called the Hochstadter cable, named for its inventor.  It included a protective metal and conductive  jacket around the cables.  The metal jacket was used in many instances as a ground line.  Initially used commercially, it became popular for residential use.

Here a "new," what we call, BX cable is used to connect a "new" fixture.  The installer broke it apart to create a junction to get power from the older knob and tube lines.  You can even see the frayed fabric wrap on the older wiring!

And this wiring is hot!  It is still being used to power a single-bulb light fixture, hanging from its original wires, likely installed in the 20's or 30's.  It is one of the three lights for this cellar!

How do I know the wiring is hot?

Of course I have a tool!

While you can't see the orange light or hear the beep of my tester, this wiring is hot.  The old and the new!  And come copper piping right beside and touching everything.  While the copper tube is not electrified now, it could be one day!

Sometimes I tease my female clients and ask them to hold my hand while I check to see if wiring is hot.  They politely extend their hand and then quickly pull it back, realizing that it could hurt!  It gets me a giggle.

I have seen older electricians swipe wiring across the back of their hands to see if it is hot!  Hey, why use a new-fangled tool when your hand is available!?

Personally I prefer the tool...

My recommendation:  Older houses will have a mish mash of lots of things - electrical, plumbing, paint, flooring and structure.  EXPECT that.  But also hire a home inspector in INSPECT it!  Then you and your clients will know if it is good, bad or indifferent.

Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC  

Based in Bristow, serving all of Northern Virginia.

Office (703) 330-6388   Cell (703) 585-7560

www.jaymarinspect.com


Comment balloon 20 commentsJay Markanich • July 27 2010 08:04AM

Comments

What a great history lesson!  I may appreciate this one more than most, since my dad and grandfather worked in the field during those early years you describe - in fact, my grandfather apprenticed under Thomas Edison and participated in wiring the first fully electrified building in Washington, D.C. - McMahon Hall on the campus of Catholic University.  I'll have to share this post with my brothers, one of whom is in the field today.

Posted by Margaret Woda, Maryland Real Estate & Military Relocation (Long & Foster Real Estate, Inc.) about 8 years ago

Margaret - we had knob and tube because Edison LOST the debate with Nicoli Tesla over which form of electricity to use in our homes - direct or alternating current.  Tesla's alternating current is what we use today!

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) about 8 years ago

Jay - I LOVE your posts! They are always jam packed with useful information!!!!!

Posted by Barbara-Jo Roberts Berberi, MA, PSA, TRC - Greater Clearwater Florida Residential Real Estate Professional, Palm Harbor, Dunedin, Clearwater, Safety Harbor (Charles Rutenberg Realty) about 8 years ago

Thank you Barbara-Jo.  I am glad you can use them!

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) about 8 years ago

Mr Jay,

I assures you that we have the same mashed potato wiring here.

Nutsy

Posted by Steven L. Smith, Bellingham WA Home Inspector (King of the House Home Inspection, Inc.) about 8 years ago

Well, Steve, Nutsy looks wired!  I don't see the potato - under the insulation?

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) about 8 years ago

Really looks like a blaze trying to find a place to start.

Posted by Jack Gilleland (Home Inspection and Investor Services, Clayton) about 8 years ago

You should have seen the lights, Jack!  They looked right out of the 30's, hanging down, with the little ceramic on/off switch that turns 180 degrees on, then 180 degrees off.  The cable was the old intertwining stuff, fabric wrap, and about 3" long.  There was so much suspect down there.  My client asked what was needed.  I said, "An electrician, and you are looking at tracing all these old cables and replacing them with modern stuff."  It was a LOT of old cabling too!

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) about 8 years ago

Hi Jay, great post on the progression of wiring and the potential for problems ($S) in older homes.

Posted by Dale Ganfield about 8 years ago

But isn't it always the same in older homes Dale?  A mish mash of this and that.  Such it is!

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) about 8 years ago

I think wiring scares more people than anything in a home.

Posted by Damon Gettier, Broker/Owner ABRM, GRI, CDPE (Damon Gettier & Associates, REALTORS- Roanoke Va Short Sale Expert) about 8 years ago

That's probably true Damon, and then they go about creating the most awful circumstances!

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) about 8 years ago

just think Jay...if you had been actively employed in 1925....whatever would you have done ?

Posted by Sally K. & David L. Hanson, WI Realtors - Luxury - Divorce (EXP Realty 414-525-0563) about 8 years ago

Sally - probably worked at my grandfather's water purification plant in downtown DC - called "Tri-Pure Water Company."  I think that in those days the builders were the inspectors!

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) about 8 years ago

Around here when I find K&T it is almost always live. I let my clients know almost no homeowners insurance company will insure a house with K&T.

Posted by James Quarello, Connecticut Home Inspector (JRV Home Inspection Services, LLC) about 8 years ago

Jim - I don't know if they do here or not, but I warned my clients that it might be difficult to get it.  If it is not covered there, what do people do?

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) about 8 years ago

Jay, here I am :)  Around here there is still tons of K&T.  Some insurance companies will insure some won't.  The newest home with K&T that I have found was 1956.

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) about 8 years ago

Yo, Mr. C!  Good you could stop by!  I think this house had the old K&T wired up with some newer BX, which was the first time I had seen that.  Apparently someone was trying to save some time?

Wow, 1956 is a bit late, isn't it?  By the time I came along, my grandmother's house had changed over from K&T to the "new" BX!  Grounded the old-fashioned way.

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) about 8 years ago

Jay, I see BX and K&T together all the time.  They often used BX in the basement where it was more exposed and used K&T everywhere else.  That ball shaped connector you showed was a very standard way of transitioning from one to the other.

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) about 8 years ago

Well, I see the remnants a lot, but not very often hot like it was in that house.

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) about 8 years ago

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