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Electrical problems revealed and (temporarily) resolved

The previous owner of our house fancied himself as an electrician, although we don’t know whether he had a license or not. A neighbor told me that he had done electrical work for a local community center. That’s pretty scary considering the work he had done on his own house. I must point out here that I am not a licensed electrician myself, but the evidence shows that I certainly know more about the electrical code than the previous owner. My wiring would pass inspection whereas his would not.

And speaking of inspections, a word of warning:  any time you go mucking about with the electrical wiring in your house, you need to apply for the necessary permits and expect a visit from your friendly electrical inspector to ensure that any work you do is done correctly.

Removing the built-in pantry in the kitchen

pantry
Corner pantry

pantry
Not as much storage as you might think.

Item: built-in pantry. This triangular cabinet occupied a corner of the kitchen. The one wall contains the pipes for the radiator in our daughter’s bedroom upstairs. We are having our entire heating system re-plumbed. Removing this pantry and opening up that section of wall will give the plumber a way to easily feed the new, properly sized pipes between the basement and the second floor.

After removing the shelves and cutting a hole in the drywall to verify the location of the current pipes I realized that I could have preserved the pantry. However, despite its size, there really wasn’t much storage space inside. Because of its triangular shape, storage was awkward and cluttered, and we would tend to lose some items in the back corner. We decided to go ahead and take out the whole shebang.

As I took it apart, something strange happened. I was starting to admire how well-built it was. Could it be that I could finally respect something done by the previous homeowner?

Whoa!  Not so fast!

Buried behind the front wall of the pantry was the original wall, and in that wall was a plug, completely hidden and inaccessible behind the drywall.

hidden plug
Live plug was buried behind drywall.

Yup!  It’s live!

The electrical code does not allow for inaccessible junction points, never mind entombed live plugs. I investigated downstairs and discovered that this plug is in middle of a circuit. The wire going to the plug and the wire coming from the plug to go to the next fixture were easily accessible from the basement.  It would have been very simple to cut the wires and join them inside a junction box in the basement, abandoning the buried plug. The fact this wasn’t done is further indicative of the lack of attention to detail and a total disregard for safety by the previous homeowner.

But wait, there’s more….

Back in March, I discovered another electrical problem. An open junction box with a confusing mess of wires and connections in an awkward, but accessible, location in the basement. It took some trial and error– switching off breakers until I found the one supplying this circuit. And then it was a matter of following the wires to see where they went.

overloaded junction box
This is how the previous owner left the junction box.

This box shares the same overloaded circuit as the living room.

Here is what was on the circuit:

4  plugs in the living room
2 wall sconces in the front entrance hall
1 overhead light in front hall
2 outside lights at front door
1 plug in the kitchen (the one that was buried in the built-in pantry)
From this junction point there was a wire that went to another junction with the ends taped off.
1 plug behind the bar, directly behind the chiller unit so it was inaccessible. The plug supplied power for the chiller, which used the heating system’s water pipes to cool the house in the summer. A power bar shares the same outlet as the refrigerator. Both the fridge and the chiller should have been on separate dedicated circuits. In fact it is questionable whether 15 amps was even sufficient for just the chiller.

Plus there was another wire that I believe went to the built in entertainment center in the basement that I disconnected and capped last year.

Oh… and there was another wire going outside under the front porch that went to not one, but two junction boxes. Two wires came out of the second junction box– one went underground straight out front (no idea to where) and the other, which was actually an extension cord, ran exposed on the surface under the wood porch before disappearing underground at the addition.

ONE CIRCUIT!

With the basement now gutted, I was able to get rid of the plug feeding fridge and the chiller and the wire that went to the entertainment center.  I could also abandon the mystery wires going outside. That, at least, brought the circuit down below the maximum 12 fixtures allowed by code. It was not a difficult fix, but no doubt this was a dangerous situation– a tragedy waiting to happen.

Aluminum wire to nowhere

In the course of investigating the circuit, I discovered aluminum wire spliced to copper in one of the plug boxes. It is rather difficult to explain just how the electricity traveled through a maze of wires between a couple of junction boxes in the basement, but this copper to aluminum connection was indeed live. What’s worse is that I have no idea where the aluminum wire goes from that point.  No matter now. I have made sense of the rest of the maze in the basement and that connection is no longer live. Still, it would be nice to know where the aluminum wire goes and what purpose it served….

I feel much safer now

By taking care of the overloaded living room circuit, I believe I have addressed all the electrical issues in the old part of the house.

Safer for the plumber, too.

The main reason I took care of the wiring now was so the plumber would feel safe working in the basement.  If I had not cleaned up the wiring, he could have refused to do the job.

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2 Comments

  1. sian

    hi – I wonder if you can answer my question regarding the safety of leaving old wires in a wall. I just removed a hood fan from a basement suite stove. I switch off all the electricity in the house and cut the wires coming out of the wall into the hood fan, wrapped them in electrical tape and flipped the circuit back on. If I put the plastic wire caps at the end of each wire do you know if it is safe to leave this wire in the wall and patch over the hole in the drywall?

    • Thumb and Hammer

      If the circuit is still live, then absolutely NOT. While it’s a good idea to get rid of all the old wiring if possible, you can abandon wires in a wall if they are completely disconnected. To terminate live wires as you have described they must be in an accessible junction box.

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