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.