Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Slaying the Giant Electron Octopus

The abridged version.
Its dead, drawn and quartered remnants baking in the sun on the deck.
Replaced by this beautiful yet somewhat costly Romex wire in two flavors. 14-2 and 12-2
When we last left you we still had the ceiling over the back entry door in place. Well I figured I might as well go whole hog and do it right, so that came down leaving two wires running across the newly vaulted stairwell ceiling that needed to be dealt with. So started the saga with the Great Electron Octopus. I easily determined that the white wire daisy-chained the upstairs outlets together. But the old gnarly black wire went in to the wall on the right of the above photo.
To this mess at the light switch. The two lower fat wires with the yellow wire nuts are that black wire running across my newly vaulted ceiling. I guess it is time to shut the power off to the breaker that feeds that.
But as nothing is labeled in the basement breaker box, a bit of sorting is in order. For European readers used to seeing 220 volts, the standard here in the US is 110 volts. The big grey line coming in to the box is two lines of 110. That's the two big fat wires that are divided in to two banks of 110 volts with two columns of breakers. About 12 hours of head scratching and wire tracing in this mess allows me . . . .
. . . . to make a legend so I know what breaker is tied in to what wire and what else is piggybacked on to it further down the line. Seventy years of hacks messing with things and hiding them behind walls is a frightening thing.
Back tracing the black wire in the stairwell brings us to a couple of these totally illegal and positively monkey rigged affairs.
So finish cutting out the drywall in the back room and start snipping wires.
The black wire fed the light switch in the back room, which fed the overhead light, and then went from there to . . . .
 . . . the middle wire in this photo of the ceiling light  fixture in the master bedroom, and fed the light switch in the wall by the bedroom door . . .
. . . . that then fed the switch for the light over the front door of the house. (lovely wall paper eh!) that then . . .
. . . fed the head of the Great Electron Octopus at the top of the stairs via the lower entry into that gang-box seen in the photo above. The image is just the mess I saw when I pulled down the ceiling drywall at the top of the stairs on the second floor. Can you say hacked? Not even put together, just all hanging off one nail not even properly affixed to the rafters.
Which I happened to find while tracing out the old stairwell light wire to its source after about 15 hours of messing with all the outlets upstairs to sort out what was piggybacked on to what, and determining that there had to be a junction box hidden somewhere in the peak of the house and removing the remaining drywall in the stairwell ceiling was the only logical solution.
That then allowed me to install new insulation in the stairwell ceiling.
And finally make up a schematic of what was tied to what and how everything was being fed by one single 15 amp breaker feeding the back door light switch, that fed the back mud room and outside lights, and the back room ceiling light, that fed the master bedroom ceiling light, that fed the outside front lights, and the upstairs head of the Great Electron Octopus, that fed the outlets upstairs and the stairwell light.
I have now run two new feed wires up to the second floor in order to feed each bedroom from a separate breaker. Also rewired the bathroom lights and ceiling fan, that never went anywhere.
So I installed a new bathroom fan with a proper vent . . .
and the corresponding duct work
to vent the bathroom outside . . .  to prevent the mold that I was trying to clean up when I started this whole process 10 days ago.
So I finished removing the wall paper in the bathroom
Lovely stuff, isn't it?
And that is the short and sweet version of the story . . . I think I am making headway.


  1. Que buen trabajo Mike! ¡Cuanto tendrás que pedir cuando vendas la casa!

    1. If I can break even and make my investment in the house back I will be happy. Doing this work might just allow me to keep my head above water when I sell the place in ten years time by making it slightly more attractive than it was when we bought it.

  2. Honestly. I think you are genius:)

    1. Ha, now if I could only convince others that I am a genius I'd have it made. No, Yael not genius, simple stubbornness and a lot of trial and error is what saw me through this one. Several sleepless nights pondering possibilities and a lot of head scratching testing for continuity and power. I know just enough about electricity to get in trouble but just barely. I know to hook up black to black and white to white. Much more than that and I get confused. There were several three way switches in this mess that had me stumped so I deleted them and all their associated wiring. The big problem was that in the old times it was common to feed the whole house from one circuit, and daisy chain things on and on from there. Add 70 years of people adding things here and there and you have a real mess. Today that is highly illegal and the cause of many fires in old houses. And as our houses here are all built out of wood they go up quite readily. Takes all of 15 minutes and its all a pile of blackened rubble. At least once a week there is one on the news. When we bought it ten years ago the house had a new electric panel and a bunch of new wiring visible in the basement, but it was all mostly decoration to give the foolish buyer (Me) the idea that it had modern wiring. Like I said before if there was a way to possibly mess things up, even if it meant going out of their way to do so, they did it.

    2. It is very interesting. I steel think not every one can do such amazing work.

    3. Yael: It has had it challenges, but it is mostly a mater of being persistent and by process of elimination (wire snips) learning what connects to what. Disconnect a wire and see what else it shuts off in the house besides what I expected. I think I have finally sorted most of the problems out and have a good idea on what is happening and how to correct the rest of the issues. We are making progress now. We have new wires and breakers so that each bedroom has a separate circuit and none will be too overloaded.

  3. It is amazing what you can run into with an old house, this has been quite the adventure for you. Ours was built in 1916 and in the 40 years we have lived here most of the improvements are finished. It still has the old wiring but the load has been taken off it with three new breaker boxes handling the new additions to the old place. At one point the entire back of the house was removed or opened and all exposed old wiring was replaced as well. But it is never finished.

    1. Hi Doc, this one was built in 1937 by poor folk, so they cut corners everywhere they could. And has been owned by a succession of folks that did not have much either. It has been the source of so many problems. Five years ago I rebuilt the exterior of the house after the cat brought a mouse from the basement and I found where it got in at a rotted corner. New sheathing, insulation, windows, framing where needed, new mud room, new sheathing, proper boxed out overhangs with sophit and fascia and new siding. It has been five years between the first phase of the renovation and this one but I think I sorted out the worst of it by now and can work forward from there dressing it up a bit.