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Buying Old House, Old Wiring

Posted by anele (My Page) on
Mon, Aug 6, 12 at 11:52

We just had a home inspection for a 20's property. It has fuses (we knew this) and the wiring is "b/x and pipe . . ." The report says "old ragwire exists."

From what I've read, replacing wiring is a huge job, involving removing walls and costing at least $15K (the home is about 2000 sq ft). We would not have the budget for that anytime soon, nor would I want to live through that much construction (we have 5 young children).

"Old ragwire" sounds creepy, like a fire hazard. Our inspector was an electrician and not worried, but couldn't it start fraying at any time? Is there any way to approach this a little at a time?


Follow-Up Postings:

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RE: Buying Old House, Old Wiring

You should get a person with a clue about wiring to inspect things. Things may be fine or you might have serious problems. The terminology given is indicative of someone with hardly a clue about wiring. Old ragwire is creepy, but mostly because that's not a real term. Even if he's talking about cloth insulated wiring, it would depend on just what you had and it's condition to indicate whether you have a problem.

Rewiring, if that is required, does not entail "removing walls". Some holes will need to be made.

I'd seriously recommend finding an inspector who knows something about wiring (perhaps an electrician who is familiar with older construction).


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RE: Buying Old House, Old Wiring

"From what I've read, replacing wiring is a huge job, involving removing walls"

No, you fish new cables into the walls from an accessible place (basement or attic).

It is easier sometimes to sacrifice stud bay on the first floor and second floor of a house to use as a chance for a larger run to a subpanel and then continue t into the attic to drop individual branch circuit runs.

you can run new water lines in the same stud bay.
If they mean 'knob & tube' wiring it is actually fine unless it has been altered.

Some insurance companies have a cow about it though.

It is actually still in the NEC and is grandfathered.


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RE: Buying Old House, Old Wiring

"Our inspector was an electrician and not worried"

Because your inspector is also an electrician, maybe you should consider his input in the matter that it is not a problem. I have seen many installations from the 20s with cloth covered conductors that don't worry me in the least. My own house was built in 1928. Cloth covered conductors, knob and tube, the whole deal. Never had a problem. I did add new circuits in NM cable as needed. It sounds like he was simply stating what he finds. That is his job as your inspector. The term "ragwire" is just a regional contractor slang for cloth covered conductors. He didn't say it was dangerous or in need of repair, did he? If so, take his advice and address the issues he points out. Otherwise don't let your imagination/paranoia about old wiring get to you. You can replace it a bit at a time if that is what you want. Get references, find a good contractor and let him know your situation. He should be able to accommodate your needs.


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RE: Buying Old House, Old Wiring

Just a thought, it seems the house has survived somewhere between 85 and 90 years presumably with the present wiring.


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RE: Buying Old House, Old Wiring

You folks are fooling only yourselves to say you think that old wiring is ok and not a fire hazard.

Call your local fire department (many will do complimentary fire inspections), have them come by, see what they have to say.

Circuits in old houses are often overloaded (they were wired to serve what got plugged in long ago, not to serve today's uses), often ungrounded, and often have deteriorating insulation and splices. It's not unusual for people in such places to use things like three to one adapters (to plug three items in to one socket) and three to two pin adapters (to connect a grounded plug to an ungrounded socket). Be sure to ask the fire inspector what he or she thinkgs of those practices.

If I were looking for a safe place for myself and however many young children, it wouldn't be in a house with antique wiring. YMMV


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RE: Buying Old House, Old Wiring

Hmm-- well, the back and forth here is pretty much what has gone on in my own head, minus the technical terms. :) And oops about what I wrote regarding removing walls . . .what I meant is putting holes in them. Is that correct?

I definitely have paranoia about this as btharmy says. The thought of a house fire is pretty horrible. But, as some of you have pointed out-- he was a professional, and I need to trust his opinion. I thought we lucked out getting an electrician for the inspection.

Interesting idea about calling the FD for an inspection.

Thank you, everyone!


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RE: Buying Old House, Old Wiring

"holes in walls" -> maybe for new outlets and switches. Normally, you drill through the top from the attic or through the bottom from the basement/crawlspace.


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RE: Buying Old House, Old Wiring

"Call your local fire department (many will do complimentary fire inspections), have them come by, see what they have to say. "

Cause they know SO MUCH about electrical wiring.

'Electrical problem' is a catch all issue for many fires, with scant actual proof.

"Circuits in old houses are often overloaded (they were wired to serve what got plugged in long ago, not to serve today's uses), often ungrounded, and often have deteriorating insulation and splices. "

And then fuses blow.

Ungrounded is not a fire hazard, it is a hazard that can allow electric shock.
A personnel hazard.

"deteriorating insulation and splices" ia also mostly BS.

If the insulation is deteriorated the wires in a cable short. Fuse goes, power off.
While old knob & tube may have insulation falling off the wires, they are physically separated except when they enter equipment to use the power.
If the insulation fails there, the fuse blows.

You are just spouting a bunch of nonsense likely born out of ignorance.

You can require a house with very little damage to plaster if you want to take the time.

You will need to add new receptacles, but the receptacle fills the hole in the plaster, the same with switches.

The issue is that it takes an electrician a lot longer to avoid plaster damage.

Weigh their hourly charge against the cost of plaster repair (and plaster is easily repaired unless it is textured).
Even textured can be repaired, but the cost starts going up (though it can approach the cost of an electrician if the plaster is deeply textured).


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RE: Buying Old House, Old Wiring

"You folks are fooling only yourselves to say you think that old wiring is ok and not a fire hazard.
Call your local fire department (many will do complimentary fire inspections), have them come by, see what they have to say."

While you're at it, call your dentist to tell you if the brakes on your car are safe or not. Geez, what a bunch of nonsense. When did you get your masters license? Are you even an electrician? As far as the rest of your ramblings, it was regarding what people do to make their perfectly safe electrical system dangerous, with all the splitters and adapters. It has nothing to do with the system itself being dangerous. In a brand new house, with brand new wiring, a homeowner can put a 30a breaker in the place of a 15 that "just keeps tripping" and make it dangerous. Does that mean their whole electrical system needs to be replaced? I think I'm done now. Carry on.


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RE: Buying Old House, Old Wiring

Older houses have far fewer recepticles than newer ones, and so splitters and adapters are much more commonly used. And while few homeowners would know how to or even consider replaceing a 15 breaker with a 30, any idiot can buy and put in higher amp fuses. And, in my experience, they often do.

There are a lot of things people have one of, opinions are on that list. You and brickeye can have yours, I have mine. If I were looking for a safe home for a family with young kids, I'd hope to afford something safer than OP has implied and described.

Thanks for the idea, I just might call my dentist to check my brakes. For non-emergency preventive work, his hourly rate is lower than my mechanic's.


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RE: Buying Old House, Old Wiring

"And while few homeowners would know how to or even consider replaceing a 15 breaker with a 30,"

Even since the big box stores started having breakers on the shelf you would not believe then things ignorant owners have done.

Breakers have mostly been 'plug in' for a long time in anything but 3-phase panels.

Snap one out, snap a new one in.

The handle tie requirement for ALL multi-wire circuits should at least limit some of the stupidity that has been occurring.


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RE: Buying Old House, Old Wiring

And not just homeowners. I've seen some pretty scary stuff done by general contractors who think they know something about electricity.


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RE: Buying Old House, Old Wiring

Presuming the OP and his/her family will be the only occupants of the home, it is their choice and their responsibility whether or not they overload circuits and put 30A fuses in 15A holes. I think we could be spending time and energy a lot more wisely by recommending that they not, rather than trying to scare them by describing what SOMEONE ELSE might do.

I agree with brickeyee's assessment except for the slight possibility of insulation damage leading to arc'ing where a k&t conductor passes through a device box. The arc current may be low enough to not blow a fuse, while still generating enough heat to start a fire.


My current home is a mix of almost every wiring method ever used. My lights and one livingroom outlet are k&t, the kitchen is partially modern NM, partially cloth. Most of the remaining receptacles are cloth, but a few are BX. I know what's what, what goes where from where. The wiring to the major appliances, fridge not included, has been updated - the rest is old. This is BETTER condition than my last few homes. Not one of them has torched itself yet.

I am IT for a local call center. I have my own test system set up here with three rather-serious servers in a rack in the livingroom closet and six PCs set up around the house. A prior hobby was DJing so I also have quite high-power amplification. My TV is a Sony trinitron cube monitor which isn't exactly light in its power consumption either. I also have two window ACs (the larger of the two being 12.5K BTU)...

The point? Your average family, at least in my region, uses a crapload less power than I do, and provided they're not stupid about it (over-fusing circuits), probably doesn't need to be freaked out over some wiring not being the latest and "greatest".


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RE: Buying Old House, Old Wiring

I should add that I used to live in this building... Not saying this one isn't scary - it's currently condemned - much to the contrary, this definitely counts as a sample of what you SHOULD be afraid of.


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RE: Buying Old House, Old Wiring

'Cmon, in the open air those wires can carry twice the current!

That picture reminds me of the electrical room in a place I used to work in - scary.

We used film splicers that were heated and pretty dodgy - I talked the boss into putting a GFCI in (in that particular country, they tend to install a single GFCI that can protect all the outlet circuits, I don't know how it works) and possibly saved his life when he used a knife in a toaster - yes, he was that stupid.

As we were saying "that's not a good idea" he was saying "it's fine" when suddenly all the outlets went dead. He'd tripped the breaker. Another time he was adjusting the thermostat in a splicer while it was live, and he tripped it then too.


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RE: Buying Old House, Old Wiring

Not shown in the picture is the water meter, which I basically had to stand on to reach my fuse box.

I said a prayer each time I had to change my fuse... my... one... fuse. One of those boxes was mine. It contained four fuse spaces, three of which had wires attached... but only one actually did anything.


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RE: Buying Old House, Old Wiring

I love all of the missing covers. Looks like some circuits enter the fuse box from the open front instead of connectors in the box. Good stuff.


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RE: Buying Old House, Old Wiring

First of all-- thank you, thank you, thank you so much for taking the time to talk about this with me. No one else in my family wants to, as they think I am being paranoid, but I do not want to make a mistake.

I know pretty much nothing about electricity at all. Nothing! So-- let's assume I am clueless, because I am. :)

A little more background about the house-- the kitchen and bathrooms have been updated, so I would "think" they would have rewired? However, they did not install GFCIs anywhere. We asked them to do so, and they did . . .but this seems like a bad sign? Wouldn't an electrician automatically do this?

So-brickeyee-- seems like there are "built-in" protections? As in, if there is an issue, the fuse would go out? Now, again-- I know nothing-- what if we got a circuit breaker panel installed? Would it trip in the same way?

I just watched a show about home flipping, and they mentioned arc fault circuit interrupters. How is this installed? Is this part of or instead of a typical circuit breaker? As pharkus said, this seems to be where we may have a problem (arc current = fire). So-- if I got a new panel with AFCI, would this solve the problem? (Meaning, a whole-house rewiring would not be needed to prevent a fire?)

And pharkus . . .that IS scary. Whew! Hope this house does not look spooky in the walls . . .

I apologize for my ignorance. I am guessing that 99% of what I wrote does not even make sense!

THANK YOU!


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RE: Buying Old House, Old Wiring

"seems like there are "built-in" protections? As in, if there is an issue, the fuse would go out? Now, again-- I know nothing-- what if we got a circuit breaker panel installed? Would it trip in the same way? "

There is nothing wrong with fuses, and in very large sizes they are still routinely used even in new work.

The down side is that they only 'blow' once and then must be replaced.
As in a new fuse is required each and every time.

Smaller fuses screw in (same threads as a medium light bulb base, theones you are used to).
Larger fuses (called cartdige fuses) stqart at about 30 amps.
They are a long cylinder with metal end caps (and sometimes metal tabs on the end caps for larger sizes).

You may have a few cartridge fuses for things like dryers, ranges, central AC or other loads 30 amps and up.

Circuit breakers do not have to be replaced after they trip, you move the switch handle all the way to off, then back to on.

Since older fuses all used the same screw in base size, folks sometimes increased the fuse rating if they blew.
Type 'S' fuses and adapters have been available for a long time to prevent using the wrong fuse rating.
They 'customize' each position with a one way screw in adapter that only takes a single fuse size.


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