Upgrading Wiring with Vermiculite Insulation

makingitourhomeJuly 2, 2013

Hi everyone,

The question is just as it sounds... is it possible to upgrade the electrical wiring in an old house if there is vermiculite insulation in the exterior walls?

Was aware it was in the attic, but when I had a contractor come and do some work in our kitchen, I found out the hard way it was in the walls too. He didn't even know what it was (I was stunned) and let about half of it out of our walls and just dumped it in the garbage. Naturally I flipped out, and even though I am over it now (though, I will never hire him again), I am afraid to do anything major with this house.

However, I want this house to be our "forever home" and it is in desperate need of a wiring upgrade. The house is from the early 1940s and most of our wiring is cloth-wrapped. We have a 200 amp electrical panel, but the whole house dims when the microwave or vacuum cleaner is running. I should also mention that the main cutoff switch is a Federal Pacific unit, which should probably be replaced as well, given their reputation.

Is it possible or even wise to upgrade the electrical? What's more dangerous... disturbing the vermiculite during abatement or leaving old/questionable electrical wiring in the walls? Can electricians somehow replace wiring without opening up the walls enough to let the vermiculite out? If I had to hire an asbestos removal specialist first, how much would something like that cost? Any ideas?

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It's wise to be concerned about handling asbestos-containing materials properly, but not all vermiculite contains asbestos. The first step would be to take a sample of the material to a certified test lab to determine what you are dealing with. If it does contain asbestos, it still may be possible to rewire without disturbing the loose-fill vermiculite very much. I don't think the walls need to be opened up to re-wire: a capable electrician should be able to snake new wire through without doing this, although it will be more difficult. If the vermiculite is asbestos-containing, and you do need to open the walls in places, an asbestos removal firm should be able to vacuum out the places where new wires will go at not a huge cost.

    Bookmark   July 2, 2013 at 10:20PM
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Ron Natalie

If you've got asbestos containing insulation in the wall, even pulling wire would be dangerous regardless of whether you have to cut holes in the wall. You need to get this tested and if required mitigated by an approved asbestos firm. Believe me, I had my crew pulling some network cables once disturb some asbestos. It *IS* a big deal.

    Bookmark   July 3, 2013 at 9:46AM
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" If the vermiculite is asbestos-containing, and you do need to open the walls in places, an asbestos removal firm should be able to vacuum out the places where new wires will go at not a huge cost."

I think it is possible to do this DIY safely for a lot less money than it will cost to hire someone. Read up on it and decide for yourself. I have never considered working with vermiculite so I can say nothing about it for sure. I have studied up on working with asbestos. With other forms, siding, for example, it is not that hard to deal with. Vermiculite insulation will have its own special challenges for sure.

There is no way I would use a conventional vacuum cleaner to pick up asbestos-contaminated vermiculite without checking into it. Without a HEPA filter, a vacuum cleaner is a great way to spread small particles all over the place and a good way to suspend a dry aerosol so you can get it deep into your lungs.

    Bookmark   July 3, 2013 at 2:34PM
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Ron Natalie

I'm sorry but I do not agree. Poking around in asbestos containing insulation is NOT a DIY stuff. A HEPA vacuum is just the beginning of the stuff you need to do this correctly. Unlike fully encapsulated pipe insulation and asbestos flooring and siding which you can leave safely unmolested, vermiculite (if it came from one of the sources that had asbestos) is in it's friable form and frankly you don't even want to blow on the stuff.

    Bookmark   July 3, 2013 at 3:14PM
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The special challenges do not put it out of reach of an intelligent, thoughtful person. Off the top of my head, making sure the area is under negative pressure, wearing the proper protective equipment, the most important of which is a a properly-fitted respirator, and keeping the material moist would be sufficient. You can rent blowers, you can get a respirator fitted at any commercial occupational health provider. Showing you how to use it will be part of the fitting. Other than that, it is a matter of reading up on some fairly common-sense procedures. In summary, put the area under negative pressure. Cover yourself up and use your fitted respirator, probably a full-face version. Make sure the material is damp with water mixed with a wetting agent. Scoop and place it in bags gently so that dust is minimized. Use a HEPA vacuum cleaner when necessary. Seal the bags. Clean up the area with detergent and water. Remove the protective clothing gently while turning it inside out. Put on fresh gloves and clean the outside of your respirator.

Anyone attempting this should know the physical characteristics of the asbestos, and the potential health issues. I would not tackle the project if I were a smoker.

    Bookmark   July 3, 2013 at 7:46PM
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Ron Natalie

And where are you going to dispose of the material? A DIYer will not likely have the paperwork needed to get the disposal place to accept it.

    Bookmark   July 4, 2013 at 1:03PM
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Disposal depends on locality. In my area, it's not a problem finding a landfill permitted to accept asbestos-containing material from homeowners, but I'm sure it varies.

    Bookmark   July 4, 2013 at 1:20PM
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Some day, the EPA is going to admit that the asbestos thing was way overblown. That will probably be after those that overblew it retire.

In my neighborhood, disposal is in bags at the curb. I must live in the land of the free. Happy 4th everyone!

    Bookmark   July 4, 2013 at 2:50PM
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I guess reasonable people can disagree on whether they want to minimize their exposure to asbestos or not, just like they are free to choose to smoke or not wear a seatbelt....

    Bookmark   July 4, 2013 at 3:15PM
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Don't forget the relative nature of risk. Depending on how far I have to drive to get a respirator fitted. That drive may be more risky than reasonable or unreasonable handling the vermiculite insulation.

Exposure should be as low as reasonably attainable while getting the job done.

    Bookmark   July 4, 2013 at 3:36PM
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Where you live seatbelts are optional?

    Bookmark   July 4, 2013 at 3:43PM
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I didn't say it was a legal option. Just because the law may require appropriate handling of asbestos materials or wearing a seat belt, it doesn't mean that people always follow the requirements. We're free to do what we want..and deal with the consequences.
I know all about the relative nature of risk having worked in the environmental arena in both the public and private sector for decades. I don't think every asbestos exposure is equal or will give you mesothelioma. But I also try to limit my risks.

    Bookmark   July 4, 2013 at 4:05PM
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"I don't think every asbestos exposure is equal or will give you mesothelioma"

Hope you're right. I shudder when I think of all the Vermiculite and cement
siding I've handled without so much as a dust mask.

    Bookmark   July 4, 2013 at 4:34PM
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SALTCEDAR. Exactly. this asbestos thing is so far out of
whack it is getting out of control. They just invented a new job for asbestos removal . I've been in the automotive trade and the AC trade for most of my life.
ALL brake shoes back then had asbestos in them. We blew that stuff all over the shop with an air hose to clean the wheels. No one is dead or sick from that. I worked for my friends father plastering walls. They used asbestos to hold the plaster together. We used to play in that stuff. Put your hand in a 50 lb bag and your arm
got really warm but you felt nothing on your skin. was neat. My lungs are fine. If you get cancer or mesothelioma you probably have about 5 different diseases in your body already and just need something
extra to trigger it out. We had toy soldgiers with lead paint. If your reading this i'm fine. You see all these adds
about mesothelioma. Just try to prove it and prove where you got it. They don't tell you that. Just a heads up
My experiance. Evereone may believe what they want.
Happy 4th of july to all my southern friends.

    Bookmark   July 5, 2013 at 4:13PM
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Effects of low level exposure are difficult to extrapolate from studies with high level exposure (animal studies and work place exposure). Low level exposure studies are difficult to do. Practical efforts to limit exposure to asbestos are warranted given current available data. That means that I would not be sticking my arms in it or blowing it around the shop. I would take vermiculite out of my own walls or attic, remove my own floor or ceiling tiles, etc. I would take practical precautions to limit my exposure.

    Bookmark   July 5, 2013 at 4:21PM
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Your experience is precisely that...your experience. It's great that you don't have ill effects from all that asbestos exposure. People have varying reactions to toxic exposure. When asbestos first started to be regulated, part of the impetus was that some family members of asbestos industry workers were contracting asbestos-related illnesses and cancers simply by being exposed to the dust that came into their homes on the clothing of the asbestos workers. In some cases the workers didn't fall ill, but other family members died of mesothelioma...a cancer which only occurs from asbestos exposure. I personally know of one asbestos worker who is still relatively healthy at 89, and another person who died at 32 after 2 summers of working with asbestos. There may also be a genetic component at work with who becomes ill and who doesn't. Since one can't know in advance whether one is susceptible to disease from low level exposure or impervious to it, being prudent about exposure, as ionized and I have suggested, makes sense for people generally.

    Bookmark   July 5, 2013 at 6:02PM
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Hi everyone,

Thanks for the feedback. I realize what a polarizing topic asbestos can be - whether the effects of it are overblown, whether the heath risks are as dire as they say... I did plenty of research after my own exposure to the stuff following the contractor's egregious blunder. Considering he dumped half a wall's worth of vermiculite into my kitchen, and I wiped it up with a wet cloth and no face mask... I am obviously not super concerned. However, I don't want to expose myself any further if I can help it, and removing it myself is, in my mind, not an option. I am not a smoker, btw... which, from my research, has shown to be one of the biggest contributing factors in getting lung disease, when exposure to asbestos was also present.

In speaking with an asbestos abatement company in the area, he said that for the period my house was built in there was a high prevalence of Zonolite use, and given his experience with the area, there's about a 75%-80% chance that my vermiculite will test positive for asbestos. He also said that testing is not all it's cracked up to be, because different areas within the same house can have different levels of asbestos contamination. One area could test low or none, while another part could be much higher. Given all of that information, I am going to assume that somewhere in this house, my vermiculite contains asbestos, and treat it as such.

While I agree that to some extent, this whole asbestos thing has been blown out of proportion, I also know that many educated contractors in this area will outright refuse to work on houses that contain vermiculite insulation. I wanted to get my home weatherized and I had two different companies tell me they won't do anything with my attic since it has vermiculite. However, weatherization might lead to a much larger exposure than electrical wiring, assuming that it could be done without having to open up the walls - which is why I am wondering if it is possible to replace the wiring, without having to make any holes.

This isn't just for the sake of risking asbestos exposure either. This house has all original plaster, (other than the upstairs bath and the sunroom), and I am hesitant to open up the walls for risk of having to replace it. I adore my plaster walls (they are one of my favorite features of this house).

Also, I did some research, and given what I have seen by opening up various outlets in the house, we appear to have aluminum wiring... which is definitely cause for concern, as it appears to be a pretty widely-recognized fire hazard. Not sure what's more dangerous... asbestos or aluminum wiring.

    Bookmark   July 7, 2013 at 9:24AM
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Ron Natalie

So? Despite what people will tell you, you can fix holes in plaster. The materials are still available to do it right and it just takes someone one who knows plaster as opposed to drywall or is willing to learn.

    Bookmark   July 7, 2013 at 10:12AM
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"we appear to have aluminum wiring... which is definitely cause for concern, as it appears to be a pretty widely-recognized fire hazard."
Why do you believe it to be aluminum? Aluminum is a problem if it is not installed correctly, as is any other wire type. Aluminum is less forgiving of improper installation.
Yours could be tinned copper, which is not a problem as far as the conductor is concerned.
At my age, the remaining lifespan is not very long anyway. So I do not worry about asbestos or the like. Let each individual make their own choice-- and bear the consequences of that choice.

    Bookmark   July 8, 2013 at 10:47AM
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