Just bought a 95 year old condo, need electrical advice!

Discussion in 'Homesteading Questions' started by ElectricUpdate?, Jan 11, 2005.

  1. I just bought an old condo (top floor, right below the attic), and as expected, there is an old electrical system. The two biggest issues I need to deal with is
    1. adding plugs to a couple of rooms, which has been estimated at $150/plug, and
    2. deciding whether to get a subpanel through the attic, which I've been told will add voltage to my system and offer me a circuit breaker system that's more accessible, and possibly even allow for central air conditioning for that unit in the future.

    Can anyone give me an estimate for #2, and tell me if the logic is correct, or does the whole house have to be gutted to such an endeavour? Any insight would be helpful...
     
  2. Janon

    Janon 993cc Geo Metro

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    Electrical updates to old structures are usually labour intensive... and each is unique (depending on what on and in the walls). Fishing through old walls can be a real challenge. Map out exactly where you'd like everything (approximately, since you may have to compromise), exactly where everything currently is and create a list of everything you need. You'll also need an electrician, even just to familiarize you with the code, give you valuable advice on the updates and to check your completed work.

    Your condo should have its own electrical service and its own meter. If the wiring is knob and tube... you most likely will have to rewire it all.

    cheers,
     

  3. ElectricUpdates

    ElectricUpdates New Member

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    It is a knob and tube house (in Massachusetts), and I know the other owners of the condos do not want to rewire, so I'm on my own with this one.

    So a circuitbreaker unit subpanel from the attic is not feasible on a knob&tube basement system?
    What are the options with this setup?
    Does the $150/plug estimate sound fair?
    Is central AC for this unit ever really possible without replacing the whole house's wiring?
    If just one unit can be rewired, do you know how much a 1,030 sqft unit would possibly be?
    Thanks Janon (and whoever else replies)

     
  4. jack_c-ville

    jack_c-ville Well-Known Member

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    Fishing wires through those walls will be tough. And cutting through the wall to access the wiring is a pretty big proposition. A 95 year old building, unless it has been updated, probably has plaster & lathe walls. Possibly horsehair-backed. That is going to be very expensive and difficult to patch properly. It's not like drywall (which is hard enough to get right) - this is highly skilled labor.

    Unless maybe you could cut through the wall along the height of a chair rail. Perhaps if this were done very carefully you could get tight access to the old wiring (to pull it out) and/or have a much easier time fishing wires for new outlets or all new wiring for the whole unit. When the electrician is finished, fill the holes in with strips of gypsum board (for fire protection) and cover the unsightly patchs with the widest pre-selected chair rail moulding that you can find. This would save a lot of money on plaster work.

    Realistically, you are going to be spending many thousands of dollars if you want to rewire the whole unit, assuming that the electrical circumstances of the rest of the building would even allow that to be practical.

    I wonder if you could get a whole seperate line coming just into your unit through the attic. Making your electrical system totally seperate from the rest of the house and no longer dependant on the limitations of other unit owners' wiring.

    -Jack
     
  5. rambler

    rambler Well-Known Member Supporter

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    Could you better describe what this is exactly? I'll guess a lot of us are not familiar with condos - what is allowed, who owns what, etc. At least, I'm not sure what 'through the attic' means really.

    Is it possible for you to run conduit up the outside of the building to your space, install a sub-pannel, and wire your place from here? Currently you are limited by whatever wires are feeding to your space, and we don't know what they are. Pehaps this is the install you are talking about?

    Then the difficult part will be running wire throught your space - basically rewiring the whole area. That gets to be expensive. Rapidly. With old constuction, the new quick methods don't work, so you will pay a lot of labor to get through the old construction stuff - as others mention.

    If you can live with surface mount wire runs & boxes and that is allowed by code & condo rules, their are ways to make it cheaper & faster - if a bit uglier. But it will never be 'cheap' to rewire totally.

    --->Paul
     
  6. CraftyDiva

    CraftyDiva Is anybody here?

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    How many units are in this condo bldg.? Don't most condo associations require permission for any major work done on individual units? I know some condo associations can be a PIA, there was one bldg that required all unites to have the same drapes so the bldg looked uniform from the outside. That's a little too much, but there are condo rules. Read your condo by-laws to see just what you can and cannot do before undertaking this. You could be fined.
     
  7. fin29

    fin29 Well-Known Member

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    It might not be that hard, since many homes of that vintage are balloon framed, meaning the studs are one piece from the foundation to the eves. If that's the case, you just have to fish a tape and pull it through.

    I think $150 is a lot to do an outlet. If your electrician can run a subpanel so that the box is in your space, then it's just a matter of running the wires. I had my entire house rewired, and I would guess it cost about $3000 total, including installing a new 200 amp panel in the house and moving the old 100 amp panel into the barn. It is messy to patch plaster, but if you cut carefully, any holes you make solely for the sake of running the wires can be patched with the chunk you removed. We used a Rotozip with a carbide bit. Dusty but neat.

    Since you're right under the attic (which I assume isn't being used), your wiring should be easier. The wires can be fished up the studs into the attic, run to where you need them, then fished back down through the studs where you need your outlet, and all you're using are the holes where the boxes will be. Ceiling fixtures are even easier.
     
  8. Janon

    Janon 993cc Geo Metro

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    Here, I don't believe you can actually sell seperate units of one building (i.e. condo) if they do not have seperate services. What they may have done is located all the services and meters for each seperate condo in the basement and left the knob and tube wiring in each of the units. Electrical code varies from place to place... so who knows whats in there or what they've done.

    Again, it all depends on what is exactly there. In very difficult situations, I've seen new walls which are only chair rail height placed against existing walls, and all the electrical run through that. The advantage here is that you can pretty much demo the existing walls below where it will be hidden by the new false wall. There are also "wiremold" products available, basically plastic electrical runways which are mounted to the surface of the walls. With old structures, you have to often be creative.

    $150 per plug? Who knows... some plugs may take 30 minutes to install, others may take 4 hours. Again, if your entire condo unit is knob and tube, you almost have to rewire it all.

    Central Air? Sure its possible, you'll need the proper electrical feed as well as a way to transmit the air. Many old building do not have ductwork, so you may be faced with another retrofit there. A few quality sleeve AC units should do the trick for 1000 sq foot, so you may want to consider those in your electrical upgrades. One of the disadvantages of "top floor" is that heat rises.

    cheers,
     
  9. ElectricUpdate?

    ElectricUpdate? Member

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    Jack, the idea of a separate line through the attic seems to be the simplest, and also saves me the trouble of rewiring and splitting current plugs.
    Is this the same thing as running a conduit up the outside of the building to install a subpanel that Rambler mentioned, or are those two different techniques?

    I'm uncertain if its balloon-framed, would that come out in an inspection or only from the electrician's assessment?

    I believe my unit does have ductwork, since the heat is generated that way through the attic, so I think central AC may eventually be doable, though expensive.

    As for condo association rules, I'm fortunate enough to be in a 3 unit house, and the docs are pretty leniant. As long as its work within my unit and the attic, I'm OK (besides, my heating is coming from the attic already, so it would be hard for them to refuse these renovations...)

    So since I'm getting an estimate for the electrician on Thursday, are these the questions I should be asking, and what am I missing?:

    1. What are the walls made of? (plaster&lathe, horsehair-backed = tricky; drywall = better)
    2. Can I create a separate line through the attic affordably?
    3. What is the framework of the house? (balloon or other)

    Any additions?
    Thanks for the crash course... I wish I could follow more of what you're all writing, but its a start...
     
  10. fin29

    fin29 Well-Known Member

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    The electrician can figure out the framing by trying to run a tape from your unit all the way to the basement. If he can run enough tape to suggest he's there, then it's balloon framed.

    Consider cutting all the plaster yourself. You'll probably have time to do it cleaner, and you won't charge yourself $50 an hour to do it. These guys are electricians, not plasterers--let 'em do what they do best. Chances are your walls are either horsehair or drywall over horsehair.

    You should be able to run the line for your subpanel right through the walls, even if it's not balloon framed. My electrician had a flexible 5' bit to cut through the joists. Again, since any work you do in the attic is okay, you're golden. It's fast and easy to run the wiring over the ceiling joists and into the walls.

    What does your homeowner's insurance say about the knob and tube? If they haven't asked, don't tell...
     
  11. ElectricUpdate?

    ElectricUpdate? Member

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    I'm actually having a painter come and assess the place at the same time, so maybe we can coordinate plaster responsibilities so the electrician knows how to leave it... better than me cutting up my walls with no skill whatsoever.

    So can you walk me through the steps to putting in the subpanel exactly, and what kind of costs (best and worst case scenario) you can imagine?

    The homeowner's insurance knows its there, since the age of the house is a dead giveaway in that neighborhood. but i think that's region-specific, so its just inspected more often... so I'm not too worried about that piece...

     
  12. fin29

    fin29 Well-Known Member

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    What about just running your own power from the pole? My 200 amp panel cost me about $200, but you probably won't need one so big, as I'm running a catering kitchen that's wired so that every appliance and light fixture can be running at once without tripping anything. I can only guess at the total cost of the new box, the grounding rod, the cable to the box from the junction box outside, and the labor, but I would put it at about $750.

    If you're bent on doing the subpanel, you can do a lot of the work yourself. You can mount the box, run the cable if you can borrow or buy a tape, etc. Then just call the electrician in to connect things. Here's a good link:

    http://www.electrical-online.com/howtoarticles/subpanel.htm

    You might want to ask your electrician about a used 100 amp panel, since a lot of people are switching to 200A.
     
  13. BamaSuzy

    BamaSuzy Well-Known Member

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    If you are in a condo that old and the owners are not wanting to rewire, you need to MAKE SURE you have several battery-operated smoke detectors in the different areas of your condo....

    Even if you are sure that the wiring in your individual condo is o.k. you can't be sure about the wiring in the rest of it...

    My husband is a licensed electrician. We have also lost a house to fire because of an electrical problem in 1983. There were two fire fatalities in our rural county early Saturday morning and they didn't have working smoke detectors. please just be careful and be prepared.
     
  14. Janon

    Janon 993cc Geo Metro

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    A few months ago, an older building in this city was lost to fire. Apparantly, some older structures did not use cross-members in the wooden walls, resulting in long spans of open vertical wall cavities. Apparantly this creates some type of chimney effect which allows fire to spread extremely quickly. I've worked on my share of older buildings, but never gave any consideration to how a wall cavity would affect how quickly a fire would spread.

    Your smoke detector advice is certainly appropriate, and perhaps even escape ladders since the condo is on the top floor.

    cheers,
     
  15. jack_c-ville

    jack_c-ville Well-Known Member

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    These are just 2 different methods of accomplishing the same thing. The goal is getting a seperate power line from the nearest pole directly to your condo unit, making it a seperate electrical entity from the rest of the building. Probably running it up the side of the building would be cheaper if you can do it. That way you don't have to pay for a cherry-picker to come out. But the other condo owners may have a problem with running the cable up the side of the house and maybe local building and electrical code won't allow it.

    Note that the ductwork for the heating system is only useful to you if it is a seperate, closed system apart from the other units. Do you want to provide them with free AC? If you close off your existing ducts from the others then you might be shutting off either their heat or yours.

    As for the framing, if it was built in 1910 then I'm 90% certain that it is either masonry or balloon framing. Check the inspection report that you ordered when you bought the condo (you *did* get an inspection before buying, right?)

    Altogether, you are dealing with electrical work, climate-control systems, plasterwork and possibly other trades as well depending on what other strange things you run into. If you are going to do anything more than just add a couple of outlets then this looks like a job for a general contractor. A GC understands all of these building systems and how they work together.

    This whole job can be done as a DIY project with a little help from an electrician, but I would suggest getting a lot more experience before doing this type of project yourself in a condo (where others must suffer for your learning curve). I see some people suggesting that you even do some of the work installing a subpanel yourself, but if you aren't able to put in an outlet yourself then you *definitely* shouldn't be trying to tackle this on your own.

    I've been renovating an old house for the last 18 months. I spent about 2 months just buying and reading books and practicing with mockups before I so much as touched a wire. Carpentry, cabinets and drywall are things that you can afford to screw up somewhat as you start learning (God knows I've screwed up plenty of things). No real harm will be done and you can go back and fix it when you have learned more. But when you screw up with electricity you could very well be dead before you even know what happened.

    -Jack



     
  16. ElectricUpdate?

    ElectricUpdate? Member

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    Wow. Nice to see all the advice I'm getting.
    I did get the inspection, though glancing over the paperwork I do not see them listing the type of framing. But I will know soon enough.

    As for the two methods, it looks like the only feasible one is running a line up the side of the building, but I will check with the 2 other owners to make sure they're ok with it.

    My short-term goals do not include the AC ductwork, so I will not mess with that right now. My only pressing issue is adding a subpanel, only for the purpose of 1. not causing a blown fuse every time my girlfriend uses the hairdryer with the AC window unit on, and 2. adding convenience to the living room and bedrooms, since they have so few plugs that we'd be surrounded by extension cords. The rest can come much later.

    In my opinion, I see these 2 goals as adding a lot of value to the place for the future as well, so the up-front costs shouldn't scare me off. Does anyone disagree?

    As for fire concerns, I do have them (and lord knows my girlfriend does after some of your posts :) ), and I will have active detectors, and our back entrance is clear and accessible so I don't think a 3rd escape is necessary....

    So given all this advice, what are your guesses that I'll be quoted tomorrow, when I meet this reputible electrician?

     
  17. rambler

    rambler Well-Known Member Supporter

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    I can agree with that. You will get value while you are there, & can gain a bit more resale value when you sell. It sounds like a worthwhile project - with the usual isues if you can afford it, is allowed, etc. etc.

    I really don't know the cost. We could guess the materials pretty well, $200 - 400 for them depending how long the runs are. Most of your money will go to labor, it's tough fitting new wie in very old structures.

    I'm looking at reqwiring my whole farm place, new box in the house, new wires to the house & 10 outbuildings, some new boxes in them too. I'll bet it will be $5000 - 10,000 for me.

    And then I get to put in better wiring within the buildings myself, another $1000 and lots of time.....

    --->Paul
     
  18. Shygal

    Shygal Unreality star Supporter

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    Here they dont cut through the walls to add a plug or rewire, they run the wire on the inside of the walls, covered by a conduit.
     
  19. jack_c-ville

    jack_c-ville Well-Known Member

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    It took me about an hour to fish a wire up from my basement and install a GFCI outlet to run a garbage disposal. I am far from a real professional, so a pro would probably have done that in half the time..

    The actual cost of the materials will probably be less than $3 per outlet so the highly skilled labor is pretty much the entire bill. I'm going to guess under $50 per outlet, but it really depends on the demand for skilled labor in your area. I would also suggest that a job wouldn't be worth his bothering with for less than $150. Again, demand and local labor costs are the key.

    -Jack
     
  20. ElectricUpdate?

    ElectricUpdate? Member

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    Update: Well the painter showed, but the 1st electrician didn't. Big surprise. So now I'm scheduled to meet with the 2nd electrician tomorrow. Meanwhile, the painter assessed the 1,000+ sqft condo as needing apprx. $2,800 in painting, $1,500 at the least (the majority of the unit is horse-hair covered with wallpaper, so i'd have to remove, plaster, and paint). I'm already well over my budgeted amount, so when the electrician gets there tomorrow I may be having panic attacks.


    more tomorrow.