Thursday, October 31, 2013

To Walk the Night

With Samhain approaching, its time to embrace darker days.

Fortunately for the [unfortunate] inhabitants of the Occupy site, we embrace darkness all year round. November coming fire be damned.

'Tis the season for witchcraft, mischief and haunted houses.   But for a truly horrifying experience, there is not substitute for the wiring in my basement

Photo from my basement, taken last night. These guys didn't even offer me a beer.

After wiring that three-way switch, its time to do a bit of basement clean up.  Some people have skeletons in their closest, but I have skeletons in my basement.  In fact, its more like a mass grave.

Let's confront these demons head on.

We begin by popping open the electric panel.

Scared yet?

Oh boy

What we have here is a new panel, and all the old BX cables that splice in with the knob and tube [K+T] set to the side in a junction box.   The big black wires are the 100A service coming in from the meter.

Circuit #1 used to power all overhead lighting upstairs.  Its been cut and out of service, I just have not removed it from the panel.  The tricky thing with this K+T wiring is that the neutrals are shared.  And its not as if anything is labeled. The wires are all independent runs, sheathed inside some cloth. No colors, no nothing.  In fact, the hot wire could go upstairs in the front of the house and juice a receptacle, then just catch a ride back on any neutral that is close by.. which may take a ride down the back of the house.  My point is: its not like modern wiring at all.  You can never be too sure what is going on as the hots and neutrals are not side by side.  And ground wires?  forget it... What are those anyway?

K+T servicing and running past this switch box on foyer.  Who's hot? Who's neutral? Who's out of service??   Who the f*** knows.

I have a number of absolutely filthy junction boxes in the basement.  You know, the ones that that when you unscrew the covers, you get one of these

I'm not joking.

I'll just come clean with you: I've spent hours looking at the electricity downstairs.  I'm baffled that it even works, at all.  The dead ends that go nowhere, the live wires hooked up via guitar strings, dirty splices everywhere... the list is endless.  (I actually took those pictures in those links above, and I must have pushed it out of my mind, because those photos are shocking!)

Anyway, I have no choice but to dig in... gittin it like Dale Jr.

Let's see if I can make some cuts

Always a Hail Mary moment. *SNIP*

An interesting way of "grounding" a wire.  "How 'bout I just wrap this here wire around this cloth, and call it day"

Tough situation beyond this point.  Circuit #1 shares a BX cable with live circuit #3, as they are 3-wire cables.  I can't just rip out the BX until circuit#3 is dead.  Let's just chase a label.

BX w/ Circuits #1 & #3, labeled
Now we can pull #1 from the panel, and chase that through the junction box.  This involves a lot of wire-jiggling: the junction box is jammed.

Wire nut identified and labeled, you can see why this might take a bit of time

With old circuit #1 officially dead, let's put in something fresh.  How does some grounded Romex sound?

Pullin' wire
Let's remove the old porcelain fixture with the receptacle that powers the washer. Classic K+T smoke and mirror show

Beginning to have my doubts, but let's push on.

Probably in between these photos I spend a few hours documenting, as best I could, every circuit in my basement.  It wasn't totally possible, but I have a much better understanding of what is happening... I think.  I I traced a labeled almost every wire in the entire basement.  The "shared neutrals" aspect of this is challenging to say the least.

Beginning to label an out of control JB

Example of a BX cable that I'm stuck with. 8:dead, 10 lives on.

Anyway, let's give up the ghost.. on to installing that new circuit.

I'm going to mount a new junction box on the side of the joist right next to this
Voila! Power in, looped in old grounded cloth Romex for living room (black on right). I also put in a grounded, tamper proof receptacle up there now.

Tied into the panel

The intent of this box is multifaceted
1) A general purpose junction, close to the panel, for whatever I need to stuff in there.  I'm anticipating some temporary wiring. One of my personal favorites
2) A switch let for the T8 fixture I have over the utility sink.  We have to manually plug that in now, and by "plug in" I mean plug into an extension cord.  In the future, I hope to wire this fixture into the main switch at the top of the stairs (currently circuit #5.. probably worth an entire post/rant).  That ain't happening right now, but it will at some point in the future.
3) A junction for new circuit #1.  I intend to power the living room on new circuit #1.  This is what we are wiring right now.

View of new box, when facing washer and utility sink.

Looking 180 degrees away from the new double gang box. Run some romex to a new receptacle upstairs.  You can see at the lower right a jack-in-the-box style junction box... that's where we are heading.

Straighten her our with some staples, to give illusion that there was actually a professional here.

Run right by the jack-in-the-box, and we'll run right next to that, *ahem*, small hole the "plumbers" hacked through  the floor

New receptacle on foyer wall, wired. You gotta love new work boxes.  Its like (1/10)*misery.

Bing!  Probably not the final placement of that lamp.

There you go folks-- one more light to fight the coming darkness of Samhain. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

I would rather not go back to the old house

And there is no turning back at this point.. This 100+ year old house is slowly changing.  For better or for worse, here are the current drawings from the sketch up model.

I had to grab some square foot and linear foot numbers so I plunked some numbers down one each floor.  Being the dinosaur that I am, I work best in AutoCAD.  I took on Sketchup for this house as an opportunity to learn by drawing.  It has some ups and some downs.  I think drawing dimensions and getting square foot numbers absolutely sucks in Sketchup.  Maybe I just suck at using the program? I think the real struggle for this program is the lack of pre-defining viewports, and simultaneously having the ability to save views that only show certain layers as well.  Perhaps I am stuck in the 1990s.  But I learned how to draw in AutoCAD in the machine shop in high school, where having the ability to explode details of very complex, interlocking parts was essential.   

Exit strategy: Exploded view of the death ray I'm designing which may help end this renovation early

I also used to work in some of the big architecture firms in this city, and AutoCAD was the preferred overpriced software of choice.  Maybe I am just a fool, but my understanding of the idea behind most computer aided drafting programs was to have a working model (with references to other pieces of the model serviced by other disciplines [engineers, architects, interiors, plumbing, etc]), and then just create some views on that model in order to print.  Its a nice modular concept, in that it fosters collaboration and forces a central repository for all edits.  

Crude rendition of the site

However, AutoCAD always sucked for 3D stuff. It required too much memory, graphic cards, and who knows what else.  I don't know if AutoCAD still struggles in that market, but I can only imagine they do. Bottom line: Sketchup is free.

In terms of doing a quick and dirty sketch of something in 3D: it delivers.  I won't lie: I shopped around in the model warehouse just to get a base plan with dimensions to start designing a bed for the master bedroom.  The ability to import other models (in AutoCAD we called these "blocks") is awesome.  The social aspect of sharing these models is even better.  I even emailed the guy who designed a bed that I liked, and he forwarded me a more complete model to take apart.  This dude was just excited that someone else was interested in his design.  

While I know there are a ton of very complex models out there done in Sketchup, I think it works best as a proof-of-concept drawing aid, with high focus on the visual.  Not all of us are trained architects (myself included); thus, those aseptic plans and elevations done in the vector-based drawing programs do little to convince the general public of your idea.  On the designer's end, its really nice to be able to plunk a component in your drawing just to see the scale and overall juxtaposition vs. the other elements in your space.

Anyway, the plans with some interior dimensions:

1st Floor 
2nd Floor

Monday, October 28, 2013

Philadephia Three Way

Even though pulling wire is one of life's most miserable tasks, actually running electricity isn't terribly difficult.

However, wiring a three-way switch will separate the men from the boys fairly quickly.

Looks simple enough right?

And it really isn't that bad... until you meet up with the deadly romex squid

Squid : Boat :: Romex : Occupy
Oops, wrong photo! I mean:

Used with permission, Occupy archives. I should have drawn a boat on this wall.
Throw in lots of knob and tube, crumbly walls, and other 100 year old remedies, and you definitely have a titanic situation on your hands.

The players:

Existing downstairs switch on foyer wall (right-most switch is the current live 3-way for hall light, the bottom left powers the dining room overhead fixture... and the other switch? no clue after three years living here)

Existing upstairs 3-way switch, in the middle of hallway

Existing hallway light, coil of romex fished into this ceiling two years ago. 

The hall light is currently powered by the old knob and tube circuit, commonly referred to as circuit #3 on the occupy site.

I'll be quite honest: I have no idea how this light is fed.  The hot wire comes from somewhere, and the three-way system works. I am not exactly itching to redo this circuit.

Goal: To wire a 3-way switch, fed by a new circuit (circuit #12)

The good news:

The bad news:
  • I don't exactly love messing with this sketchy knob and tube.  The hots and neutrals are everywhere.. sharing neutrals back to the box, wiried with whatever metal these guys could pick up from the scrap yard.
  • Existing circuit #3 powers the overhead lights in both the kitchen and dining. I can't mess this up.

Since I love doing everything the hard way, let's jump into the upstairs switch first.  It is the most cramped in terms of space and has the hot feed to deal with.

Zoom into this photo.  You can see that neutral connected by a piece of guitar string or similar.  Holy shit.  Directly touching a metal box no less.

I've seen a lot of garbage in my life. This is pretty high on the list. Let's reach in deep and grab hold of the deadly romex squid

I was thinking about re-using the switch box at first, but there was just no way I was going to cram all those 12/2 wires back into that crumbly hole.
Shiver me timbers! The squid's got a hold on me.. better sketch up quick diagram to ensure that I weather the storm:

I actually didn't have an appropriate diagram from my electrical book, so I had to come up with my own interpretation.
Cut em short, stuff em into new box

I have no idea if any of these existing wires are the feeds or not.  In the meantime, I'll sling a lasso around them in case they fall into the abyss.

Roughed in
Making the connections.  

One down. While we are upstairs, let's focus on the wiring the fixture. this should be easy.

Reach into ceiling hole, grab romex.

Crap. No electrical box.  I better install one.  You all know know how much I love cutting into these ceilings.

Stuff box in there, pull wires through.
Install fixture, hook up wires


Two down.  Time to dig into the downstairs switch.

Look how tiny the switch is!
Old school 3-wire, color coded cloth for your convenience
I just had to drill some holes in these studs to bring the three wire across.

Pop in a 3-gang: 1) three-way hall light 2) dining room light 3) outside light

Wire up the new travelers to the 3-way (right), and the existing cloth romex for the dining room light (middle)

Flip the switches (*keeps fingers crossed*)


Success!  Always a good feeling, albeit a rare one on the occupy site.

Place a dummy switch in there for good measure, I still have to ace a hole through the bricks in the front of the house to make this a reality.  Not happening tonight.

Even though its like 12:30 am on a work night, that still qualifies for Beer:30

At least I'm not drinking in the dark. Until next time loyal reader.