11 February, 2009

Fan Installation Step One, or Eliminating One Electrical Fire Hazard

Mom has spent the last week in Texas, visiting my brother and his family. Ted and I had planned to have a new ceiling fan installed in the living room as a surprise for her return. But like all projects at The Box House, what we thought was a simple matter quickly grew complicated.

At present, there are no ceiling fixtures in the living room, although there is a (capped) box in the ceiling for one. There are also no light switches, just half a dozen receptacles for plugging in floor and table lamps. We want to install a ceiling fan/overhead light combo, and have it controlled by a switch.
The fan. Hampton Bay 54 inch Sauterne in Antique Umber.
We picked it up on clearance at The Home Depot.
If it looks good in place, we'll get one for the upstairs unit's living room as well.

The first step for the fan project was to trace the existing wiring to the ceiling box. With walkie talkies in hand, Ted worked upstairs testing wires and I controlled the switches in the circuit box down in the basement. Here's what we found out:

The ceiling box in the living room and the ceiling box in the dining room are on the same circuit, as is one receptacle in the living room (the rest are on another circuit entirely). Unlike the other receptacles, this one looks like a later addition. Some previous owner had cut into the baseboard trim to install it instead of cutting into the plaster, which would have to be patched around any cuts. Grrr. It upsets me every time I see a "shortcut" like that. So while the rest of the receptacles are a few inches above the baseboard, this one is in it.

Arrgh. Can you believe a previous owner cut into the baseboard like this?

Anyway, we know that the wires go up from this baseboard receptacle to the box in the living room ceiling. The problem is this: The wires leaving the baseboard receptacle are BX cable, the other end of the wires coming into the box in the ceiling are in conduit. Somewhere in the wall there is a hidden box where the BX and conduit meet--a definite hazard, since we don't know where it is. Electrical code (not to mention common sense) dictates that electrical boxes need to be accessible, not hidden behind plaster.

A view of the ceiling, with the old wires coming out of conduit.

Our guess is that in the past there was a ceiling fixture and a light switch to control it. At some point, the fixture was removed and the ceiling box capped, the light switch was removed and the box in the wall plastered over, and the wires were dropped down to a new receptacle in the baseboard.

So here's where we put on our forensics caps and searched the wall for evidence of a hidden box. There was a patch at about switch height where the wall was ever so slightly rough, and when we ran our hand along it, it dipped slightly. I had never noticed it before.

There was only one way to know for sure if this was our hidden box, and that was to do a test drill; and so Ted drilled a hole into the wall where we suspected the box was. Voila! We found it.

A few test holes.

We removed enough plaster to reveal the box, and discovered--to our horror--that a previous owner had filled the box with crumpled newspaper before plastering over it. Ted's best guess is that they did this to create a supportive surface for the plaster. It's bad enough that they plastered over a box; did they have to fill it with a highly flammable material first? If the wires deteriorated and sparked (which we found evidence for in another room before replacing those wires), there was a nice wad of material to get a good ol' fire going.

We pulled the paper out, which nearly crumbled in our hands, and smoothed out the bits to see if we could catch a date.

Turns out it's an advertising circular for Sears, with the address of the location on Lawrence Avenue in Chicago where my grandfather was a display manager for many years. (He would have gotten a kick out of that.) We couldn't find an exact date, but based on a few of the products advertised, including an 8 mm Revere 80 projector, our best guess is that someone in the late forties/early fifties wadded up the paper, stuffed it in the wall, and plastered over the box.

Here's a partial bit of the ad circular we found in the wall. If someone can help us date this camera more precisely, we'd appreciate it.

Bella and the bits of paper from the wall.

The discovery of this box in the wall makes one step of the fan installation easier to accomplish--adding a light switch to the circuit. The box is already there. But now I've been Shanghaied into helping Ted rewire the line, which includes pulling the old cloth wires out and threading the new stuff through.
The taped wires lunging out of the wall made me think of a hydra, its many heads rearing up.

We won't have the fan installed by the time we have to get Mom from the airport, but the project is turning out to be more interesting than I first suspected. I wonder what other treasures (or hidden dangers) are in the walls of this old house.

Ted pulled the drawer of our sideboard all the way out to access some electrical equipment we had (temporarily) stored in it; it took all of five seconds for the kittens to discover the new hiding spot. Our six-month-old kittens now weigh a hefty ten and eight pounds, although they're still only half grown. I don't think we'll be able to call them "kittens" for much longer.


Anonymous said...

I feel for ya. My house had been "rewired" in the 1950's, a half-baked update from knob and tube and an electrical box that had screw in fuses instead of the shotgun shell style. I thought I was living high because the rooms all had ceiling fixtures, a definite rarity in a house over 100 years old. The problem was, some of the ceiling fixtures, when moved would spark, no lie. So some of them were never turned on; I taped over the switches so they couldn't be activated. Then I had the whole house rewired about a year ago.

I hate when PO's cut baseboard to install outlets!

At one time, the PO's for my house carved holes through the floors for outlets. I'm not kidding, each room, on every wall, had a small rectangle dug through the 3/4" hardwood and the sub floor, and then they never used them. I have yet to finish my floors and I'm still not sure how to handle the holes to the basement....for now they are covered with masking tape.

Be glad you have a good idea what you are doing, when I was faced with wonky wiring I shut down because I have a huge fear of electrocuting myself and don't understand it well enough to fool with it.

Jen said...

My skin crawled when I saw you pulled newspaper out of the box. Gesh.

Almost all out our outlets are in the baseboards. Only in the walls that we replaced, the outlets are in the wall.

Andy said...

I don't understand why people are so STUPID. I never will.

I mean, everyone cuts corners sometimes, you know? But to stuff newspaper into an electrical box? Why don't you just pour gasoline in there too?

Could people have possibly been that stupid back then? I'd like to think not, but good lord...it's not like paper wasn't considered flammable back then, and suddenly, it was deemed flammable some time later (like, say, the problems that arose with asbestos, as an opposing example).

Joanne said...

Anonymous--I know just enough about electricity to make a decent Girl Friday on these projects; it's Ted who is pretty well versed in wiring. My brother is an electrician, so that helps, too.

Jenni--I know, I shudder every time I think about some of the stupid things we've encountered around here...

Andy--It's crazy, isn't it? I'm genuinely surprised some previous owner didn't burn down the house.

Anonymous said...

The electrical system discoveries are horrifying! Why not pack gunpowder in there while they were at it? ;-)

Bella and Seamus are just adorable. Bodies like adults, behavior like kittens. So sweet.