Gerald Bostock, Age 8

It was Carole’s turn to come to our house this weekend. By the time she left Sunday afternoon, surely she had tired of my saying how glad I was to live in Chester. The theme of the past week has definitely been electricity, the central example being the big blackout up east. Carole had called us as we were making our way south on the interstate Friday afternoon, anxiously asking if we knew anything. My first thoughts at hearing the news: “Whether it’s terrorism or hot summer weather..Not a day goes by that I’m not glad we’re in Chester”. No self-respecting terriorist would want the publicity from attacking a tiny little town like Chester. There aren’t enough air conditioners owned by the 8000 or so permanent residents to create a blip on any power company’s montioring system. DeShawn and I went about our normal Friday afternoon business, confident that 118 Henry Street would be there, as normal, when we were ready to be home.

While power company technicians and nosy politicians spent the weekend trying to figure out why and how such a blackout had occurred, we spent the weekend figuring out the new wiring in the upstairs. Beginning with a lunchtime visit to the local home supply store on Thursday, my goals sounded straightforward. First, resolve and eliminate the cross-connected circuit(s) left by the electricians; second, mitigate all the code violations in the wire routing in the main attic. I’d had already psyched out the general configuration of the cross-connect, and cable routing in the attic seemed to be more about enduring the 100+ degree heat than any technical challenge.

Our house is described as a 1 1/2 story Colonial Revival style. “Colonial Revival” is demonstrated by the window layout, the main entrance, and the porch details. What’s a 1-1/2 story? Essentially the floorplan of the upstairs is smaller than the downstairs. The construction and sight of this old house was, I’m sure, quite something to see in Chester, 1921. It’s appearance is very different from traditional southern, residential architecture. The 1 1/2 story layout was rarely seen, the inverse dormers doubly so.

The positioning of the upstairs rooms over the downstairs and the inverse dormers creates a multi-part attic. There’s a back attic and a front attic that are on a level with the floor of the upstairs rooms. Then there’s a main attic that sits upon the ceiling of the 2nd story. The front and back attic are connected by the space between the downstairs ceiling and the upstairs floor. The main attic is connected to the other attics near the end of the roof joists. Suffice to say, you gotta see it to visualize it.

The main breaker box is in the mud room under the east side of the back attic. All the wires feeding the upstairs, except the old knob and tube, originate here. In addition to the new wires placed in the last weeks, my bet is that there is at least 2 other generations of re-wiring in this attic. Last week, after the electrians left, I ran 3 new wires to the breaker box that became extensions to the ones they had placed. They had lain the cables diagonally across the joists in the attic floor, thus violating electrical code. The extensions were added so that there would be enough length to run the new wiring parallel and perpendicular to the joists. Also, the wires as left to me, were completely unprotected. Anyone in the attic could step directly on the wire, either on the joists or between them. Similiarly in the main attic, wires were lain in straight lines from point-to-point with no protection.

With DeShawn settling in on Friday evening, my making a circuit map of the upstairs was a relatively quiet pursuit. Several round trips from the breaker box, up the stairs, to one of the attics and then back down to the breaker box, were required. Unfortunately, the more I came to comprehend the physical map of the wiring, the less sure I was of the electrician’s design. My suspicions about the location of the cross-connect were correct. In the front attic, they had directly connected the end of one of their new circuits to the end of an older circuit. If all the upstairs lights were on one breaker and all the receptacles on another, why were there 3 cables going into the main attic? Shouldn’t there be only 2?

Figuring that resolving the cross-connect would take about 2 hours and that re-routing the cables in the attic would take about 4 hours, I started work about 7:30 Saturday morning. By 3:30 pm Saturday afternoon, sure, the cross-connect was taken care of, but the scope of work for the weekend had grown, like all other old house projects, 3 times normal size. Removing the cross-connected wire led to Scope Change 1: removing some old wiring on the same circuit that went to the defunct kitchen island downstairs. This circuit also lights the back addition and, surprisely, was not grounded. I moved the junction box/light that begins this circuit and connected it anew with grounded cable back to the breaker box. Total old ungrounded cable removed with the cross-connect and kitchen wiring: approximately 75′. Total time: 2 hours.

Although nominally on schedule, Scope Change 2 quickly followed: Re-position the junction box in the front attic where the cross-connect happened. After working in the dark of the back attic for a couple of hours, it made great sense to move the junction box up on the front attic wall and mount a light fixture. Great idea, and only 1 hour added to the project so far. It was during Scope Change 2 that the project got out of hand.

Laying in the small front attic space, outside air temperature slowly rising and heating up the attic, while staring at the wires running from under the upstairs floor into the front attic space then up to the main attic, I realized why there were 3 wires running up there. The electrician had run the cable powering the receptacles all the way from the breaker box, under the 2nd story floor, up into the main attic to get to one isolated outlet in the west bedroom, approximately an 85′ single run. From this outlet, he ran a wire back up into the main attic, and then back down into the front attic to power the remaining receptacles. Instead of powering the receptacles in the front attic first, THEN running a single cable to the lone outlet in the west bedroom wall, they had run approximately 50% more cable length than needed AND had an extra cable to route in the main attic.

Scope Change 3 seemed like a relatively simple solution, namely remove the extra wire going into the attic and power the wall outlets first. Ultimately, it took all the rest of Saturday to design and begin to implement. Mid afternoon, I realized a trip to the home supply store was required for another junction box. I called it quits for the day and got cleaned up.

With the scope changes in the weekend’s work, it was evident that Goal 2: Re-routing the cables in the attic wasn’t going to happen right now. Our relaxed Sunday morning and late start to work was, nevertheless, easy to rationalize as there was less total work to be done on Goal 2 with one of the cables removed, and the overall wiring logic MUCH less complicated. At about 1pm, I slithered back into the front attic thinking about an hour was all that was needed to call it a weeks work. Now this is where the old house part of the story really begins.

Before purchasing 118 Henry Street, we had a home inspector do a detailed (and expensive) walkthru. He spent about 4 1/2 hours looking under the crawlspace, up in the attics, on the roof, in the closets, testing the HVAC, etc. etc. During one of his documentation breaks, he said, although there were still quite a few of the old 2 prong, knob and tube outlets, that all the three prong outlets in the house were grounded except one. He found this unusual based on his experience with old houses. As a result of his assessment, last week, my instructions to the electricians was not to replace any of the grounded circuits upstairs. Tie into them as needed to make the circuits work, but no need to replace. As such, they did not replace out the wiring on most of the upstairs receptacles.

About a half hour after beginning work today, I began splicing the older wiring on the receptacles into the junction box with the new wires. Cutting into the old wire, it soon became painfully evident that all of those receptacle outlets were ungrounded. All of the old cable had only the 2 main conductors! No way, no how were they ever grounded. On top of the misrepresentation of the home inspector (mistake or otherwise), the electricians had perpetuated the problem.

Voila! Scope Change 4: Re-wiring 4 upstairs outlets. Before running out of electrical cable at 430ish today, I got 2 of them rewired. Bottom line, another trip to the home supply store and another 2 hours before getting to the attic. Sigh. The good news in all of this is multipart. I’ve learned enough to feel confident about re-wiring the downstairs by myself. I’ve learned enough to feel confident re-wiring Carole’s 1 story house. I’ve learned a lot about the structure of 118 Henry Street, much of which will be very useful on the future projects.

Invisible Sun

DeShawn and I worked upstairs for about 2 hours tonight. At first, my intent was to continue working on the ceiling shims in the west bedroom. Before going to bed last night, I made some measurements from the level reference line (thanks again, wonderful laser level!), to the shims already in place. The goal being to double check that the new ceiling height would be the same, and hopefully level, across the length of the room. Measuring every couple of feet along the wall, parallel to the shims/joists, I discovered that the ceiling is as much curved as it is unlevel. At the high end, there is a distinct bow, from the highest point, along the wall to the middle of the room, with most of the “unlevelness” in this half of the ceiling. From the middle of the room to the low end, there is much less variance.

The net consequences for my shim job is that the shims don’t have to be as long as I originally designed. Not only does this mean less work on the remaining shims, but, of course, it means additional work removing length from the shims already in place. Such is the learning curve in my continuing education on old house restoration. This evening, after a couple of confirming measurements, I went to remove the extra length on the 5 sets of shims already screwed to the ceiling. Only then did I realize that my drill was at the office. No surprise that it should still be there. It only took me 7 days to remember to take it to work.

These type of self-induced setbacks would have totally frustrated me 2 years ago when first setting up shop at 118 Henry Street. Now, with the hardknocks kind of wisdom from those 2 years, its very easy to redirect my energy at any of the 999 other tasks that can be done. It took me less than a minute to mentally switch gears from the ceiling shims to the electrician induced hole in the bathroom wall. Standing on the sides of the clawfoot bathtub, I could reach the hole, near the ceiling. After raking away the loose and broken plaster, I began pulling off the ragged paint surrounding the roughly 6″ hole. The paint came off in large, continuous sheets, likely the result of the previous owners painting directly onto the plaster surface.

In the overall order of room restoration, the upstairs bathroom is next on the list after the west bedroom. Over the last year, I’ve begun some of the demolition and prospecting as a prelude to dedicating all my time to it. I’ve removed the paneling in the closet (to be replaced with beaded board to match the downstairs bathroom closet), stripped the paint off the pine floor in the closet, and removed the window sill to see how much work will be needed inside the bottom of the window frame.

As recently as a couple of weeks ago, I did a timed paint stripping exercise where I stripped 4 layers of paint from half one of the door frames with a heat gun and carbide scraper. Turns out, I stripped about 6 1/2′ feet of door frame in about 20 minutes. Extrapolating to the whole bathroom, 5 hours to strip all the wood trim, not including epoxy repairs or finish sanding. Seriously, for flat wooden surfaces, nothing strips faster than a heat gun/scraper combo.


Upstairs bathroom original paint and hole courtesy of the electricians

This evening, the paint was coming off the wall so easily, I couldn’t resist trying some oldfashion elbow grease scraping. With minimal pushing on a 3″ scraper, sheets of paint 8-12″ long, 6-8″ wide and 2 layers thick were falling to floor every few seconds. Within an hour, a quarter of the total wall surface to be refinished was down to the original paint (a pinkish peach color) on the original plaster surface. At this rate, ALL the paint to be removed from the room will be gone in 8-10 hours, including trim, windows, and walls. This seems outlandishly fast to me after almost 2 years in the west bedroom. There are only 2 possible explanations: either there is now a warp in the time-space continuum on Henry Street or maybe, just maybe, I have learned something after all.

Some Better Than Shoganai

The middle school where Carole teaches starts the fall semester next week. The time machine of summer holidays is about to disembark us straight toward winter. Yet, the childhood paradox persists and the individual days seem long, sometimes laborious. At work this past week, we had new org structure, new team, and new teammates. Every day filled to the overflowing. At home, we had a lot of questions brought on by a recently dismissed teacher at DeShawn’s preschool. Still, progess continues….

Using phosphoric acid rust remover, a green scrubee, and some Rust-O-leum clear laquer, I’ve come to grips with another overanalyzed application of The Restoration Paradigm (capitalized for the first time in print; signifying not so much its importance, but more to the shear amount of processing time spent thinking about every decision to be made concerning work on the house…sigh). Most of the brass fixtures such as door and window hardware at 118 Henry Street are, in reality, brass plated steel. Simply cheaper to buy, plated hardware satisfied the decorating fashion of the time across most of North and South Carolina. Only in the heart of Charlotte or Charleston was solid brass hardware more common than plated. Some of the plated versions are so well done that only a magnet knows for sure.

There is, to my eye, a beautiful patina to the aged plated hardware. Caused by variations or wear in the brass overcoat that allow the underlying steel to oxide, the surface varies in coloration from a steel grey to almost new brass. Patterns of color can be as extreme as leopard spots or marblized brass in appearance. One of the asthetic corollaries of The Restoration Paradigm is that I own an old house and it should retain the ambience and impression of an old house. Thus, having the hardware re-plated is not an option.

The problem is that the steel’s oxidation will utimately exfoliate all the brass plating if not suspended. Enter the phosporic acid to remove the existing oxidation and chemically condition the exposed steel surface. And, enter the clear laquer to prevent the steel from being exposed to the air and continuing to oxidize. A side benefit of the coating is the bright shine that brings out the colors similar to the effect of a glossy photograph. After experimenting on the window sash lifts in the west bedroom, I’ve decided to expand the program to all the hardware in the house, retro-treating the 3 sets of door hardware in the west bedroom. We’ll see how long before the doorknobs, sash lifts and other parts touched by human hands will need a re-application.

Shimming the uneven ceiling in the west bedroom has proven to be relatively easy. Only one futile purchase, a couple of failed experiments later and we are currently 2/3rds of the way toward the final drywall. Turns out, the 1/4″x2″ wood slats weren’t a completely futile purchase, I may be able to use them as replacement plaster lathing on the chimney wall in the east bedroom. For the west bedroom ceiling shims, I’ve ended up with 2″ wide strips of 1/4″ wallboard screwed along the ceiling joists. Stacked 2 or 3 deep at the high end of the room, tapering to none at the low end of the room, there is a nice gradual transistion to level. Cutting the shims and screwing to the joists has gone amazingly quick. On the geologic time scale of house restoration at 118 Henry Street, we may be doing the final ceiling drywall in a record 2 weeks or so. Blinding speed compared to 11 months to restore 3 windows!

West Bedroom ceiling shims and restored window

Last night, I realized that the sitting room downstairs (currently DeShawn’s playroom, eventually to be the library/study) has similar ceiling topology.

Lastly for the week, We had the electricians rewire the upstairs this weekend. Beginning on Friday at 8ish AM, they, the 2 of them, worked a total of 17 hours, finally calling it quits yesterday at 6ish PM. By their estimations, the job took about twice as long as they anticipated. It is very, very rare that I feel genuine ambivalence, the true conflict of emotions so pronounced that I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. This experience with electrical work generates simultaneous reactions in me of “dammit, I got screwed” and “what a great job/experience”.

Here’s the litany of darkness:
1) They misdrilled and punched a very big hole in the upstairs bathroom wall.
2) Their first plan for bringing new wires from the breaker box thru the wall to upstairs failed miserably after 3 hours of drilling, poking, and fishing.
3) Their second plan for bringing new wires from the breaker box to upstairs was devised by me after they left Friday night. This one succeeded, by the way.
4) Their wiring in the attic flagrantly violates the National Electrical Code by laying diagonally across the joists. In fact, there is nary any evidence of staples or any other wire fastener in all their work.
5) I spent an additonal $50 in materials and all the afternoon today cleaning up about 1/2 of the Code Violations.
6) They left me with a cross connected circuit. In simplest terms, one of the new circuits shorts out one of the existing circuits. Their solution: cut one of the new wires. While working in the attic this afternoon, I solved the logic puzzle that created the cross connect and will correct this week.

And, in the true spirit of shoganai, here’s the litany of light (pun very much intended):
1) Half the cost of similar work in Charlotte or Columbia, even with my 10% gratuity.
2) No more knob and tube wiring upstairs! Less than a 1/3rd of the house remains on the old wiring now.
3) DeShawn was wonderful, occupying himself throughout most of the chaos and never getting in the way.
4) Although with a dose of science, most of the effort I witnessed during the work was art. This was confirmed by code violation mitigation today.
5) Part of what I paid for was education that I got.
6) Learned a lot more about the house, specifically the internal structure and infrastructure.

The multi-hundreds dollar question: will they be back for the service upgrade and remainder of the wiring? The folowing answer from a person who has said that the best thing that every happened to him was a broken back. Candidly, I don’t know.