Peter McCarthy Electric Co., Inc. - Specializing in Older Buildings in Chicago
Adventures in Old House Wiring....

Cloth-covered wire

Cloth-covered wire NEVER gets better with age

South Side electrician chicagoI started rewiring a 1940s Georgian home today on the SW side of Chicago. There are a lot of guys who say "Oh, its fine as long as you don't touch it."

I have never been one of those guys.

What do you have in YOUR walls?

ALWAYS LOOK BELOW THE SURFACE!!! (Or above the ceiling)

Old wiring Chicago South side
.I want to dedicate these pictures to all the handymen and "ELECTRICIANS" WHO SAY THAT "THE OLD CLOTH-COVERED WIRE IS OK AS LONG AS YOU DON'T TOUCH IT."

These are all real-life examples of deteriorated cloth-covered wire that were still in use, carrying 120v current, waiting to burn the house down. It always BREAKS my HEART when I come into a house where the walls and ceilings are freshly painted, there is nice new tile on the kitchen wall and stainless steel appliances gleaming, and the defective, dangerous wiring has been just ignored (or sometimes hidden) by unscrupulous rehabbers who know "out of site is out of mind."  

Old wiring Chicago South sideQuality electrical work is not inexpensive, and its not nearly as fun or sexy as a cool new IKEA light fixture. But Please, please, please be sure you get a bona-fide electrician to evaluate the actual wiring if you are purchasing an older (1950 or earlier) home, or condo in a building that age. It can save your life and your purse or wallet!

Cloth-covered 1920s wire; A FIRE waiting to happen!!!

Electrical contractor Hyde Park Chicago  RewiringElectrical contractor Hyde Park Chicago  RewiringElectrical contractor Hyde Park Chicago  RewiringElectrical contractor Hyde Park Chicago  RewiringI started to rewire a 1920s condominium on Dorchester Ave. in Hyde Park this week. This vintage unit really needed rewiring. The cloth-covered wiring was in very bad shape; it was quite a fire hazard in my opinion. I am glad the owner decided to do the rewire. It was really a matter of electrical safety. 

In the top picture, a wire nut that had been burning in the wall is shown. Wire nuts are used to connect copper wires to each other. The copper wires are twisted together to make a splice, so the electricity can flow from one to the next. The splice has to be made up tight and solid. The spliced wires must be wrapped tightly against each other so the electrons can flow from the surface of the first wire to the second wire easily and without resistance. If the splice is poorly made or loose, such that there are air gaps between the wires, the electricity "jumps" through the air from one wire to the other. That is called arcing. When wires arc they overheat and can start a fire, especially with the little "hairs" and frayed-end fibers being in immediate contact, as is found where cloth-covered wire has be deteriorating for generations.

This is very clear in the second picture, as well as the third and forth. In the third picture, two pieces of BX cable with cloth-covered wire can be seen, with the actual wire insulation at the  connection point being very frayed and combustible.
The bottom picture shows two more of these BX cables, with the outlet box having been removed.

In the second picture, you can see that the insulation itelf has completely fallen off the hot wire. The bare metal portion is visible just above the red wire nut. This exposed, hot wire could have caused a short-circuit easily. It is not a good idea to overload any old cloth covered wire. Depending on the circuit breaker to disconnect the current flow before a fire can begin is a fallacy. It won't, unless it is an AFCI. Arc-fault circuit breakers have been designed specifically for disconnecting the circuit when they detect even a small arc, which is where many electrical fires begin. Unfortunately, you can not install an AFCI circuit breaker without rewiring first. You could not just connect it to pre-existing wiring unless it has been specially designed to accept it.

I will post again later as this job progresses.

Nice new fixture in Hyde Park

Hyde Park Chicago Electrician South side old wiring cloth-coveredHyde Park Chicago Electrician South side old wiring cloth-coveredHyde Park Chicago Electrician South side old wiring cloth-coveredHyde Park Chicago Electrician South side old wiring cloth-coveredHyde Park Chicago Electrician South side old wiring cloth-covered
I have a lovely client who lives on Dorchester in a 1920s brick courtyard building. She has been using us for several years, and we have done work for her parents as well. Like many of our clients, she is on the faculty at the University. She probably has more brains in her thumb than I have in my cranium....

But I digress.

Yesterday she had me over to change out a light fixture in the hallway. The one that was there (3rd picture down) was functioning, but the way the glass was held up by a threaded cap that had to be taken on and off to change bulbs had gotten to be a real pain to her. She was in the market for a new fixture, and found this sharp little number on the North side. (2nd picture down)  It definitely gives that entry foyer a bit more pizazz than that bright gold brass fixture did. Sometimes a change as simple as a new fixture really spruces things up. Everybody knows that feeling of having remodeled a kitchen , tiled a bathroom, freshly painted or sanded and varnished the floors, or a hundred different projects in the home, large or small, and how good they make you feel. Unfortunately, my dear wife has been deprived of that feeling for way too long.....

But I digress.

In hanging this fixture, I noticed the very large and distinct warning label on it. It says "RISK OF FIRE. MOST BUILDINGS BUILT BEFORE 1985 HAVE SUPPLY WIRES RATED 60 DEGREES. CONSULT A QUALIFIED ELECTRICIAN BEFORE INSTALLING. FOR SUPPLY CONNECTIONS USE WIRE RATED FOR AT LEAST 90 DEGREES (Celsius)     I think this warning label speaks volumes.

In the Chicago Electrical code,   Table 18-27-310.16  "Allowable Ampacities of Insulated Conductors"  lists the ampacity ratings of the various types of wire in use in residential and commercial construction today.  There are many. The salient point here , however, is that only the modern, THHN, THWN, THW-2, XHHW, FEPB and other conductors have 90 degree ratings. This is based on the insulation around the copper, and its a science unto itself. The modern wire usually has a thermoplastic base insulation and some version of a neoprene high temperature resistant plastic jacket. The point is OLD CLOTH-COVERED WIRE DOES NOT MEET EVEN THE MINIMUM STANDARD that light fixture manufacturers call for.  Even when it was brand new it didn't. Now that it is 70 years old and falling apart, it definitely doesn't.

So the next time your electrician tells you some version of "the old wire is OK if you don't overload it, or if you don't move it around too much," or some such observation, take it with a grain of salt. He may not fully understand this issue, or he (or she) may not be well-versed in retrofitting old wiring systems. But in either case, it's YOUR safety that's on the line, not his. These light fixture companies are very large and have very competent lawyers and research teams on their side. If they tell you, right out, IF YOU CONNECT THIS FIXTURE TO OLD CLOTH-COVERED WIRE AND YOU HAVE A FIRE, WE TAKE NO RESPONSIBILITY!  that should tell you something.

A word to the wise, as my dad used to say....

Wire lasts years, not generations!

Old wiring Hyde Park Chicago SouthOld wiring Hyde Park Chicago SouthOld wiring Hyde Park Chicago SouthOK. I get it.

As a small businessman, I wear many hats. Electrician, supervisor, account executive, marketing manager, outreach co-coordinator, chief engineer. And Blog/online/IT guy. Of this post, I was never trained. I I grew up to late to have computer pics be intuitive to me in any way shape or form. Hence, these 4 pictures that were vertical on my desktop appear horizontal on my web page. Already out of time, cant spend 45 minutes figuring out how to rotate them. Bear with me. 

BE THAT AS IT MAY.......

We are rewiring the public stairwells in a twelve unit building here in Hyde Park. It is a 1910s or 20s building, with the lovely period detail and elegant architecture. In this case, however, it also has the original cloth covered wire that has aged so far beyond its natural safe life span that it was was I consider a "Clear and present danger." The top two pictures are one ceiling chandelier and one wall sconce. These fixtures are original to the building and as it looks to me have never been changed, modernized or examined for safety. Behind the wall sconces and above the ceiling fixture canopies the wire had just crumbled away to being bare. Years, decades even, of overheating, drying out, general wear and the inherent limitation of the materials in vogue in the "Bees knees and 23-skidoo days" are abundantly clear. This was, no doubt, a fire waiting to happen. 

If you have old fixtures that look like this in your building, you would be well advised to have a real electrician check things for you. You may be very, very glad later!

Rewiring a condominium on Woodlawn.

RewiringRewiring  ChicagoIt has been a very busy several weeks for me. I have not written here in perhaps a month. Christmas preparations, my daughter on vacation, you name it-seems a million things sucked up my time. No writing was done.

Rewiring  ChicagoThe past two weeks we have been re-wiring a vintage condo on Woodlawn. Old cloth-covered wire everywhere, falling apart in many cases. The only place where the wire was new was in the kitchen, where it was done wrong. My client just purchased this condo; the previous owner either was planning to flip it or had done some "fix ups" to make it more sale-able. So he remodeled and rewired the kitchen. Except that in the kitchen he used illegal plastic romex that is not permitted by the Chicago code. Not only that, he used the kind without a grounding conductor, which meant that the GFCI outlets he put above the kitchen counter were were ungrounded. He fooled the inspector by using a "bootleg" ground. He took a wire off the neutral splice (which is grounded, but is also a current carrying conductor) and connected it to the ground terminal of the GFCIs. In other words, the GFCI outlets were not really grounded, and by virtue  of connecting the neutral wire to the grounding terminal, which is common to the junction box metallic casing, it made all of the junction box a shock hazard.

This rewire was pretty basic; we replaced all the cloth-covered wire with new THHN copper thermoplastic wire and re-made the splices. WE Installed additional circuits from the panel up to the unit, we put in enclosed globe light fixtures as called for by the code, and we replaced the old cast iron pancake boxes with 40lb rated and fan approved junction boxes, which we anchored to structural members where necessary.

We did encounter one little complication at the outset of the job. We usually make a complete electrical plan and diagram of the existing layout when we start, drawing all the light fixture, outlet and switch locations and labeling them (by trial and error) with the circuit numbers. In the process of doing this, at one point we had all of the apartment breakers shut off. Yet the fridge and counter outlets remained on. It was a head-scratcher for a bit. But after we had every junction box open and all the pull boxes and troughs open in the basement between our panel and the riser conduit that brings the wires upstairs, we discovered that 2 circuits from the apartment we were re-wiring had been inadvertently routed into the neighbor's panel. And the same 2 circuits in the neighbor's apartment had been run into my client's panel. They were probably just transposed by accident years ago when the circuit breakers were installed and the riser wires (but not the actual premises wiring) were changed out. Lord knows how many years, or decades, these folks were paying for their neighbor's electricity.  We are done this this job now, and taking some time off until the new year comes.

Have a great holiday!

Rewiring and remodeling; Cloth-covered wire part 2

I originally wrote this as a reply to Kef on his comment. He had raised the point that away from the junction boxes, cloth-covered wire can seem "just fine."Thanks so much for your insight. You make some valid points. I think is most critical one is that at the point of use is where the cloth-covered wire insulation has generally deteriorated to the point of no return. I agree, I have pulled out some runs of 1930s -1950s cloth covered wire where other than being crunchy and non-pliable, it is just about as it was new, except for the last 6-8 inches at each side that has crumbled away to nothing. In general at the fixture locations where they have been subject to excessive heat as transferred through the sheet metal light fixture housing, that is where they are completely shot. That is where the fire hazard is most prominent. The fact that in most vintage fixtures, the bulbs were hanging further away from the wire than in the modern surface mounted fixture makes a big difference. Often that fixture was the only light in the room, so in some cases fixtures have been overlamped with 100 or even 150 watt bulbs for years. If you or your sister ever had an "easy bake oven" as a kid, the similarity is remarkable. Add to that the lack of air circulation/cooling space in the older style "pancake" boxes, which can be as shallow as 1/4" or 3/8", which force the wires to be crammed very tightly against the baking sheet metal housing, and its not a surprise that they decay and insulation crumbles away to nothing once they are disturbed. Unfortunately, they almost always do. If you look closely, most vintage fixtures had a fairly deep cup-shaped canopy. They assumed the building premises wiring would be contained there, and they allowed space for it. The 1 1/2" deep 1900 or 8-b (Octagon) boxes we use today, with their ample depth to provide air circulation, lower ambient temperatures, and to contain the wiring within the recessed box of the ceiling did not exist. Thus if you place a hot pan of sheet metal fixture housing and screw it up tight to the ceiling to look flush and proper to our modern eyes, you are asking for trouble in an old cloth-covered wired house. I try to recycle the copper wire so it is not completely lost. In a sense, its a shame that just the 6-8" of wire at each end can render the whole 25 or 30 foot piece useless. But I also find slight oxidation has occurred on the copper that has been exposed for generations, which is best to be rid of as well. With labor costs much higher than wire cost, it always makes economic sense to replace it. Plus, the gain in available space in the conduit when the thick cloth and rubber insulation has been extracted, which allows for higher conduit fill and more circuits to be pulled into the same size conduit more than offsets the loss at the other end. I like your long term perspective, Kef. Are you an engineer? Thanks, too, for your comment. It's nice to know this "pontificating" of mine is not just floating off into cyber-space and not doing the world any good! 

Cloth covered wire...How well does it Hold up? Judge for yourself....

Bad cloth covered wire. Note the damaged insulation. Think electrical safety always!
Peter McCarthy Electric Co., Inc.
Specializing in older Buildings!
Your favorite Hyde Park Electrician!Old cloth covered wire can become very dangerous! Think electrical safety always!
Peter McCarthy Electric Co., Inc.
Specializing in older Buildings!
Your favorite Hyde Park Electrician!Many is the time I have found this kind of wire in exactly this shape in a condo or house that has been "rehabbed."  Shameful what some folks out there pull over or pass off on an unsuspecting public.

Member of the NFPA Electrical section for several years now. Think electrical safety always!
Peter McCarthy Electric Co., Inc.
Specializing in older Buildings!
Your favorite Hyde Park Electrician!Stay safe!
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