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Dangerous rooftop exposed wiring

Posted on December 1, 2014 at 10:27 PM Comments comments (88135)
South Side Electrician Hyde Park
South Side Electrician Hyde Park
Believe it or not, this pipe (first 2 pics from top) that had been beaten up and pulled far apart was still live. Those wires between the two pulled apart section of pipe were very live when we got up there. Amazing.

The pipe we ran was set off the surface of the roof and attached to wooden blocks that are eventually painted to retard water seepage and then glued down to the roof. I learned a long time ago NEVER EVER shoot a screw into a sealed flat roof. This piping was to provide power for an additional down-spout de-icing cable that needs a dedicated GFCI circuit.

Also, you can't see it here, but whenever I run conduit outside like this I always pule and additional grounding conductor for a redundant grounding safety measure. The Chicago and National Electrical Code don't require it in this situation; the metallic pipe itself provides the ground. But I have seen too many situations where the pipe has rusted away or been banged apart or subject to some type of physical damage, which separates the two pieces, breaks the metallic continuity and therefore compromises the integrity of the grounding. It is only a small additional investment to pull a dedicated grounding conductor along with the power wires you are pulling anyway. I think all electricians should do this.

Intercoms should not be plugged in randomly!

Posted on March 11, 2014 at 2:05 PM Comments comments (229)
Electrician Hyde Park Chicago Rewiring
Electrician Hyde Park Chicago Rewiring
Electrician Hyde Park Chicago Rewiring
Recently I got a call from a Condo Association I have worked for off and on over the years. They said the doorbuzzer/intercom system was repeatedly going out. This was a slightly more complicated than average system because it utilizes the phone lines.  They had had it installed last summer. It worked fine all summer and fall but now was going out.

It turns out the new system has several transformers. The folks who installed it were not very good craftsmen, in my opinion. There was one outlet in the basement by the panels, and they plugged two cord strips into it and rigged the transformers with extension cords. That was pretty sloppy. But the kicker was, the outlet they plugged into was a GFCI outlet that had been installed to provide GFCI protection to the circuit that went outside and up the back porch to power the de-icing cable in the gutter. So when there was flooding and extreme moisture permeating those gutters, the GFCI protector tripped, as it should. You don't want 120v power "live" laying in soaking-wet metal gutters! Normally, after the severe moisture passed, one would simply re-set the GFCI protected outlet. It was never intended to be used for other loads, especially not an intercom system that controls the building entryway. Since there was an on/off switch right next to the GFCI outlet, so that the de-icing cables can be turned off during the summer months, I would have thought the idea of plugging an intercom system into it would be off the table. Just by the co-incidence that no one at that condo association was paying attention to these things, and the de-icing cable power was not turned off for the summer, that the system worked in the first place.

I installed an array of receptacles so that each transformer would be plugged in separately, and all of them are now powered by a new, dedicated circuit. Big improvement.

If you live in a condominium or multi-residence building, it is a good idea to be sure all of your critical systems, such as furnace or boiler, hot water heaters, and door buzzer/intercom systems are on separate dedicated circuits so that if something unrelated goes down, you are not left out in the cold!

TOP: How I found it. (The plug-strips had been plugged into the GFCI outlet next to the switch.

MIDDLE: Transformers and plug-strips temporarily hung during work.

BOTTOM: Finished Product.


Posted on October 21, 2013 at 1:02 PM Comments comments (1140)
Lord Have Mercy.

Again, this is a post where the two pics on top inexplicably show up horizontal when they are vertical on my desktop. I tried rotating them on my desktop and then uploading, but to no avail. So until Peter McCarthy Electric Has an IT person on-board, I hope you can bear with me.

I'm afraid the smallness of the pictures plus the dark shading and the improper orientation will take away from the impact of this post. If you are an electrician you will see it right away. If you are a laymen, perhaps not.

I had a service call over the weekend on the North side of Chicago. A power outage due to faulty wiring; nothing unusual. But when I was finished, the client told me "Let me show you the wires outside. The last electrician said there was something funny about them."   I went out to take a look. I have to admit, I am reaching that age where I think I have "seen it all." But from time to time, I see things that I have never ever seen, or imagined I would have seen.

My client has an electrical service like most in the city; where there are ComEd poles and transformers in the alley behind the house, and the "service drop" (the Edison wires that are suspended in the air over the back yard, which attach to the house on one side and the Edison line on the other) wires are strung overhead. There are junction points in the ComEd cables where it is most optimal for ComEd to splice the service drop wires to the feeder cables. These rarely line up exactly with the lot lines of your property. The utility company has a blanket easement that allows them to hang the service drop wires in the free air over your neighbor's yard if that gives them a more direct shot to their connection point. This is very common. In my client's case, her service drop had come off her house at about a 70 degree angle (90 degrees being perpendicular and running straight over her yard to the alley) such that it slanted over her neighbors back yard to reach the ComEd lines in the alley. Again, common standard practice.  But that was where the standard practice part ended. Her next door neighbor, or more likely, his contractor, had done something that I have never, ever seen, or even imagined someone could be so stupid as to do. Honestly.

In the trade, some things just go without saying. Like when you contract to have someone do a new roof, I don't think there is a line there that says it has to go on top of the house. Or when you get landscaping, its assumed they will put the sod over the dirt, not over the concrete driveway or on the roof of your garage. Similarly, when a service drop is originally installed by ComEd, it is subject to numerous rules and regulations. ComEd send out and engineer who looks over the situation and approves the point of attachment on the house, where the wires will join your premises Electrical wires, and the obstacles or clear path in the air leading overhead to the alley, where the service drop will hang freely without impinging on roofs, trees, ect.

It (should) go without saying that a main ComEd power cable in the air is a dangerous thing, and if you don't want an explosion, a fire or a human being electrocuted, you make sure it has plenty of space and clearance all around it. So when the installation procedures are followed properly by legitimate contractors, permits are taken from the city, insuring there will be a paper trail indicating what was done and inspectors will come out to see that things are done properly. ComEd requires that a permit from the city be pulled when a new electrical service is done, again, to keep track of things and be sure (safety) rules and regulations have been adhered to.  However, when jobs are done with no permit, with no supervision by the authorities, some astoundingly dangerous things can result.

Usually, the homeowner has no idea how the permit process works. Many times his or her contractor will either not tell them a permit is required or will convince them that they don't want to get one, because then "The city will be out poking around and writing up all kinds of violations, and you never know where it will end."  This line of reasoning can hold a strong appeal to a homeowner's sense of frugality, or can play on he fear of "a nightmare" of inspectors making him change everything in his house.  I totally get that. But the flip side is that they are entirely dependent on their contractor doing things right, or at least not ridiculously, or in this case hazardously wrong. In this case, the contractor who installed this new iron metal porch obviously did everything off the books and with no notice to anyone. I am truly  astounded that the homeowner accepted the product and paid him.

At one time, there was plenty of clearance between the old porch and the hanging service drop. But when they tore down the old porch, the new one obviously extended much further out, and it required the service drop to be changed or re-routed. Normal procedures would have dictated he contact ComEd and ask them if the service drop could be moved or modified in some way.  Of course that would requires licensing, permits, ect. This contractor apparently decided to just build the porch around the live ComEd main service drop cables. This is so far out of the range of safe or normal, beyond all boundaries of common sense, I was just flabbergasted.

If you look at the picture where the brick wall meets the siding, you can see the service drop cable disappear into the siding. When I saw that, I almost fell over. How stupid could someone be? Either they were entirely unaware of what they were doing and the risk they were creating, or they were one of those truly crooked contractors that you see on the news being busted (hopefully.) I looked further and saw the other side of the cable threaded through the metallic posts and platforms of the iron porch. Since I didn't have a zoom lense,  you will have to look really closely to see the cable. As it passed through, it seems to be rubbing up against the metal framework. It has some kind of tape or insulation or something that has been wrapped around it where it touches the grounded metal framework. This can be seen best in the second to the top picture, just behind the white chair. It is kind of a light-colored, sort of tootsie-roll shaped cartridge-type thing. As it looks from below, the electrical service cables pass right through or right next to the space where people sit or walk. I do not know if the people living there have any idea that they are at severe risk of fatal shock, or an explosion if the insulation on the main electrical service cable happens to become compromised to where it contacts the grounded metal frame of the porch, either from actually making direct contact, or water seeping into a nick or cut in the wire and then making a connection to ground. Like I said, I am astounded.

I think a call to Edison is in order this morning. 

Your HVAC guy is NOT your electrician!

Posted on June 11, 2013 at 2:39 PM Comments comments (796)
Old wire Chicago Electrician Hyde Park south sideOld wire Chicago Electrician Hyde Park south sideOld wire Chicago Electrician Hyde Park south sideOld wire Chicago Electrician Hyde Park south sideI have a long list of topics I would like  to study and master. I have an even longer list of things I would like to study and gain at least a fundamental understanding of. HVAC is one of them. Yes, I had a Heating and Air Conditioning class in trade school as an apprentice. That was in 1980. A lot of things have changed since then, my capacity to retain information chief among them. I would like to learn the basics of furnaces, AC units, condensers, freon, and so forth. To have a little understanding. If nothing else, just to know what I don't know.

But after doing this work for a long time, there are a few things I do know . One of them is that there are HVAC technicians who are dumb, others who are lazy, and still others that are kind of crooked. Now don't get me wrong, we all make mistakes, including me. I try my best to do things right and pay attention to the details, but like everyone I have mental slips from time to time. However I do endeavor to be honest with people, and admit that I may be wrong, and re-examine or double-check things to be sure what I thought was certain the first time around still is. Even then, at times I make a mistake. Being adamant about "I know I'm right because I have been doing this for 25 years!" is both foolhardy and arrogant. We ALL make mistakes.

The above notwithstanding, I have come to notice that during the first week of really hot weather, HVAC technicians are prone to make a lot of mistakes. To be fair, when you have 100 calls a day, are overbooked and way overheated, concentration can be a problem. So I give everybody the benefit of the doubt. But one thing that drives me nuts is when an HVAC tech gives a client total misinformation, and does it (perhaps) because he knows the client has no technical background with which to evaluate it.

About 10 days ago, when we had our first blush of hot weather, folks all over were firing up the central AC for the first time this year. I got a call from a friend and client whose kids go my my daughter's school. " The AC doesn't work, and the HVAC guy says its an electrical problem. How soon can you get over to look at it?" Now this puts me in a bit of a jam, because my time is pretty tight. But these are good friends, and a sweltering Victorian house is no fun. So I jump and say I can't be there today, but can be there in the morning.

I already know there are only a few ways it can truly be "an electrical problem," and based on the info he gave me it did not sound likely. ( I can elaborate on the technical details later if you wish) But long story short, I was pretty certain it would not be "an electrical problem." I started to explain the tests they can run themselves to verify it is not "an electrical problem," thinking I could save me time and them the money. But her husband had already left for work, and it was going to be another hot day, and what they really needed, and what was "good customer service," was for me to come over asap and test things. It may be too strong to say my customers have "emotional needs" that are as important as electrical ones. But to some degree that is true. Being told "I can't get there, I'm too busy right now" or "You can try these 3 tests yourself" does not send the message that "you are important to me." So I made it my business to be right over in the morning and push everything else on the schedule back.

When I got there, it did not take me very long to determine the problem was not "electrical" as the man said. Sure, every time they tried to operate the AC it would trip the breaker. Many clients see the breaker as indicative of the electrical system. I don't know if this guy made a mistaken diagnosis or just knew he could easily pawn this off and get out. But when the breaker trips every time you try to run the machine, then you disconnect the machine from the premises wiring and then reset the breaker. Viola! With no condenser connected to it, the breaker no longer trips! So much for "It"s an electrical problem"  One could take it a step further and reconnect the AC condenser, but BE SURE to turn the thermostat to "heat" rather then "cool", so you know after power is restored, the machine will not be immediately connected to the live power feed. In fact, it won't be connected until the thermostat tells it to "turn on."  At that point, the premises wiring will again be connected to the internal wiring of the AC condenser. and guess what? The breaker will trip again!

I opened the machine up, did all these tests, and verified that the 240V from the house premises wiring was perfectly fine. Note the pictures of my "wiggy," the voltage tester we commonly use, reading 240v with the little red indicator line settled in at 240V mark, the lower of the two sets of numbers on the green background. No problem, the electricity is just fine. I then showed my client all of this and explained it to her. The HVAC guy was just wrong. After I re-make the connections and put all the covers back, she asked how much she owes me. Our company's normal service call charge is 150.00 for the first hour of labor. This covers the travel and so forth. But it always feels very philistine of me to demand my full fee when I have not really "done anything."  Of course, I have "done something,"  and the knowledge I brought to the situation and the correct diagnosis is very valuable. But I always feel like a client will feel "Oh, great, first I pay this HVAC guy to come out and tell me I have an electrical problem, and  now I have to pay this guy to tell me I don't."  It often boils down to a "he said/she said" situation and the client usually lacks the technical understanding to see that I am right and the other guy is wrong. That is why I try to give demonstrations and explanations.Hopefully my reputation as honest and competent, along with them, will lend credence to my point of view. I still could probably use to be a bit more hard-nosed in business, because I said "You don't owe me anything."  They are good friends, and nice people, and it was really on my way from dropping Sarah at school anyway. I just don't feel right about asking people for their money in those situations. But she absolutely insisted, and I said OK, 75.00 is half. I'll send you a bill. 

So my lesson is to try to  reconcile the emotional and human side of my operation with the financial and business side of it. It is mandatory to be fair with people and fine to be a little generous, but I have to remember I have bills to pay and a business to run too. This particular client is a very good friend, so I'm happy with how it worked out.

But I do recommend that when your AC goes out the first hot week of the year, and you call for service, you inquire as much as you can about the terms your service people will apply. If possible, ask what their refund policy if they turn out to be wrong in their diagnosis. It couldn't hurt. Maybe that's "pie-in-the-sky" thinking on my part. If its 93 degrees out the HVAC company may just say "NO SOUP FOR YOU! NEXT!!!"  But it might be worth a try. It just bugs me to know they probably paid good money for useless information.

BTW....One of the things I want to study and master? How to work my computer, my photo program, and all that so when a photo that is vertical on my desktop shows up as horizontal when I upload it to my blog, I have some understanding of how to fix it....ah,, some day....

Another hazardous installation corrected!

Posted on April 14, 2013 at 11:29 AM Comments comments (189)
Electrician hyde park chicago old wiring cloth wiringElectrician hyde park chicago old wiring cloth wiringElectrician hyde park chicago old wiring cloth wiringElectrician hyde park chicago old wiring cloth wiringA few weeks ago I had a service call in an apartment where there had been some flooding the day before. The children in the apartment above had overfilled the bathtub and water spilled down through the floor and walls to the apartment below. This is not a totally uncommon occurrence in city apartment buildings. Accidents happen, kids are forgetful (so are grown-ups) and water always flows downhill. The water had leaked into the ceiling and walls below, and the breaker tripped, leaving the tenant in the dark. It tripped again immediately when they reset it. So I was asked to come and check things out.

Electrician hyde park chicago old wiring cloth wiringThe next day I was able to get over there and take a look. I identified the location of the circuit and opened up the light fixtures, outlets and switches that were connected to it. These water-induced shorts tend to clear fairly quickly as things dry up, unless there is a worse problem that had gone undetected. I opened all of the connections and splices in the area that had been soaked, and remade them by trimming back the copper wire that had been saturated. This is very important, because oxidation and corrosion on the copper surface over time can form an insulator that inhibits the electricity from flowing easily between the two wires. It is analogous to if you took the bare copper ends and than put plastic wrap over them, and then twisted them together. The electricity would have a much harder time passing from one piece of copper to the other. In the case of corrosion, it would not be a total insulator that completely blocked the current flow, but it would inhibit it. The electricity would have to "fight through" the "blockage" that corrosion created. It would create resistance, and in overcoming that resistance the wires could overheat and possibly cause a fire.  So I make it a practice to remake every splice that had been saturated when I find a situation like this. 

Upon taking down the bathroom fixture over the mirror, I discovered an all-too-common practice. The folks who put in the light cut a few corners. They did not bother to install a junction box to support the fixture and contain the live splices as code requires. The just punched a hole in the drywall, fished a piece of BX from the switch box up to that hole, and screwed the fixture mounting strap right onto the face of the drywall. They did not bother to install a connector on the end of the BX. The insulation on the copper wire had been nicked by the sharp edge of the metal shield as a result. This little nick was not enough to short the wires when they were dry, but saturate them in water and guess what happens? A dead short.  This installation could not have been any worse, really. There was no grounding to the fixture at all, since there was no metal box to bond it to and no connector to bond the metallic shield of the BX to. It was the classic case of "Out of sight, out of mind." 

I was able to clean up the BX and install a proper fitting on it. I cut in a round "pancake box" and attached to the stud in the wall with for solid support. (The paper bag taped to the wall was to catch the plaster dust as it fell, as to not create an awful mess below. I am rather challenged in the IT world and have no idea why these pictures turned sideways when I put them up.) These pancake boxes come in handy in this situation because they are shallow enough to be secured directly to the 2x4 in the wall yet not protrude out past the face of the drywall. That allowed the fixture to be re-installed on a grounded junction box that contained the live wires (they were free floating in the wall cavity before.) Ironically, the 2x4 stud was right next to where the center location over the mirror would have called for, so when I re-did the job the centering of the fixture over the mirror was only off by a small amount. I say ironically because it would have been so easy for the first guy to just mount a proper junction box on the stud before the drywall went up. These kind of things really irritate me. I can't say whether he didn't know any better or didn't care. But the result is the same. So in a way maybe it was good that the flooding occurred and drew attention to this sub-standard work before anyone got hurt.

Crooks or Idiots? You make the call!

Posted on December 9, 2012 at 9:11 PM Comments comments (96)
We had a service call last week where a client was concerned about bulbs burning out frequently in his recessed lighting, coupled with wanting a general check-up on them. The neighbors upstairs had flooded a sink and water had been dripping down from his recessed lighting. He was concerned about getting it checked out before using it again.

Upon removing first the bulb, the the trim ring, and finally the recessed fixture housing, I discovered that the crook or idiot who put the lighting in did one of those "I'll be long gone before this gets discovered" deals.  The fixture housings were ungrounded, and the conductors emanating from them were run in the free air above the ceiling. No junction box to contain the splices. Or the sparks that could start a fire. No metallic grounding path to bond the fixture housing, or the wiring leading to the other fixtures. There was no junction box anywhere. Just the BX cable bringing power to this light, the BX cable carrying it beyond to the next one, and the bare wires off this fixture. All spliced loosely and laying in the ceiling. No grounding, junction box, or even an attempt at using the outer metallic shield of the BX as a ground path as it is intended, even in a jerry-rigged way. Nothing.

Since the fixtures were not grounded, if there were ever an inadvertent contact between a hot connection or stray wire strand and the metal fixture, the entire fixture would become "hot." Then anyone who happened to touch that housing would be severely shocked if they themselves were grounded. Not much different than sticking your hand directly into the panel and grabbing the hot wire. Fortunately, since its a kitchen, there is never moisture on the floor, so that would never be a concern, would it? Being grounded yourself, that is.  (FYI standing on a moist floor would be grounding yourself, in essence waving a red flag in front of this electric bull shouting "here I am, come get me!")

But thank heavens, the fixture is up in the ceiling. Since the fixture is way up high, a person in contact with that moist floor would never be able to reach it, at least. Except if they were leaning against or touching the metal refrigerator that makes up about a 36" wide by 28" deep footprint directly below the fixture, which we all know no one would ever think of resting an arm on or leaning against or stabilizing themself on as they lean over the top of it to reach the lamp socket, Since the metal fridge has metal legs that reach right down into the moisture on the floor, its a pretty safe bet they would never forget that day the rest of their life, if it did not conclude on that day.

Crook or idiot? in the end, it doesn't matter, does it? It turns my stomach to find crap like this. It really does.

How not to throw up a fixture, pt. 2

Posted on August 8, 2012 at 12:07 PM Comments comments (44)
Hyde Park Electrician ChicagoHyde Park Electrician Chicago
Yesterday it was a florescent fixture in a kitchen. Today it's two strip lights in a bathroom. Again, notice the bare wires just run through the plaster into the back of the fixture. with no conduit, no protection, and no grounding wire. In a bathroom, right above a wet sink. What are these people thinking?

Just Do it right, Will ya?

How not to install a fixture. Part 1

Posted on August 7, 2012 at 1:46 PM Comments comments (72)
Three more reasons why it may not be worth it to have a handyman or UN-conscientious electrician "throw up" a florescent light fixture in your vintage building.

1. They didn't understand or didn't care that the neutral wires be spliced together properly. The code requires all wiring splices to be "electrically and mechanically sound." 0 for 2.  These wires were barely all held in contact by the wire-nut.

2. Premises wiring should be brought into the fixture through an approved knockout, with a proper fitting or at least a bushing to keep the sharp edge of the fixture knockout from slicing through the insulation and creating arcing. (and then a fire down the road.)

3. Ideally, the fixture will be installed such that the junction box in the ceiling will be metallically bonded (and thus grounded) by 6 or 8-32 machine screws to the actual metal fixture housing. "Throwing it up there" with some drywall screws or toggle bolts may keep it from  falling down on someones head, but it won't ground it. If its not grounded, it could be the source of a severe, if not fatal shock, if you contact the metal housing while in contact with moisture in the kitchen.

You don't always get what you pay for, but you never get what you don't pay for. Keep your family safe. Use a real electrician. Your kids will thank you for it someday!

Spend 30 cents or set the kitchen on Fire; You make the Call!

Posted on May 15, 2012 at 10:00 PM Comments comments (57)
Would you spend 30 cents to keep you kitchen from catching on fire? I know I would. I am sure my client would have too, except she was never given the choice. The idiot who left the time bomb with the 20 year fuse was long gone before she bought this high rise condo on the lakefront. She was never given the choice.

This small red plastic item is called an "anti-short bushing." Pretty self-explanatory name. It is a bushing that prevents shorts. A bushing is simply a part or piece of material that is inserted into a hole or opening where a sharp edge could do damage to the thing that is meant to be inserted into that hole. Like this one here, they are often shaped like a collar. This anti-short bushing, or "redhead" as it's nicknamed in the trade (everything has a nickname in this is used with armored cable, or what we call BX. BX is a metal-clad, factory-made cable assembly that comes in coil. It is comprised of 2, 3 or 4 wires inside a metal shield wrapped around the wires as a protective jacket. The metal shield on the outside looks like an armadillo's armor. In most unfinished basements of a certain vintage, you will see it run all over for electrical lighting and outlets. Years ago it was allowed for use in most locations.

In 1920s and 30s to late 40s homes, it is very common to have the original overhead lighting piped in black iron rigid conduit, with cloth-covered wires pulled into that piping, and to have first-generation BX cable run from the overhead black iron boxes down the walls to the outlets. It was an easier product to install than rigid conduit, which had to be cut, bent and threaded. This could simply be fished into the walls. And BX was a step up from Romex, the cable assembly that preceded it, because it had a metal shield. This provided a grounding path (Not a great one, but certainly better than totally ungrounded Romex) and also better mechanical protection for the wires. First-generation BX had cloth covered wire in it, and should always be replaced when possible. Later generations of BX cable  replaced cloth wire with TW and THW wire as plastic came on the scene. A bonding wire was added to improve grounding over the years. Nowadays, modern BX has its own fully insulated green copper ground wire in addition to the current carrying conductors.  It is still useful for the same reason as 60 years ago. It's flexible and you can fish it into existing walls without having to tear them down or cut a massive channel in them. But you have to know how to use it safely, and you have to use anti-short bushings. Here is what happens when you don't.

I can't believe I'm saying this, but When I started in this business, kid, things were different. LOL. I laugh to hear myself say that. In my memory I still see the faces and hear the voices of my dad and his whole cadre of guys in the trades-WWII vets mostly-who were the "old-timers" when I was a young pup in the late 70s. When my dad was an apprentice, the "old-timers" were the WWI vets, the guys who build all those 1920s buildings that made Chicago famous. When he was an apprentice, all pipe was threaded, and there no "wire nuts," (Those colored plastic caps that go on splices)  He used to have a ladle that he carried, and melted lead in it, When the lead was melted, they dipped the electrical connections in the molten lead and it solidified around the copper wire, making a continuous metal connection from wire to wire. Then they wrapped it in black friction tape. Again, no plastic tape.

So, getting back to the story at hand. When I began in 1978, TW wire was the most common type in residential and commercial wiring. It was a plastic based product, but it was much softer than the THHN wire we use now. (All of these letters refer to the insulation type, not the actual copper conductor. That hasn't changed in my lifetime)  The TW we used to install was much more susceptible to being cut or nicked while you were installing it. Catching the wire on a sharp edge of the junction box, or on a piece of conduit that was not fully reamed to a smooth surface would cut or gouge the wire. If it was a hot wire, and that bare copper portion you just accidentally created made contact with the metal inside the box, BOOM!  A big spark, the smell of burnt plastic, and the hunt was on to find where in the circuit the short was. If it was in the box, you could usually find it  by the big black scorch marks. If it was in the pipe itself, you might have to re-pull a lot of wire until you found it. Some times, the exposed bare copper portion of the hot wire would be laying in the pipe in such a fashion that it was not making direct contact with the grounded metal, and it would remain "fine" for years. This is often the case with nicked wire in an outside or underground conduit. It will be "fine" for years, maybe decades, until water gets in, either through direct seepage or via internal condensation. Then the water creates a path of current flow between the exposed copper portion of the wire (that had previously been in contact only with the air,) and the metal wall of the pipe. BOOM! There's your short. Time-delay style.

I hope this has been entertaining and informative, because I'm down to the last picture and have yet to get to the specifics of this particular job hazardous situation. Sorry about that, chief.

Long story short. The older TW wire in use when I first started was very vulnerable to these nicks and cuts, and you had to be MUCH more careful than today's THHN wire demands. Being the one who fed the wire required a much higher skill level than the one who pulled it, because you had to be very, very careful to feed the wire into the pipe smooth, straight, and keep it away from any edges. If it got cut, gouged or damaged, you were in trouble. The same reasoning applied to BX of this era. Even cutting BX was a much higher skill task in those days. The steel jacket was harder than today, yet the insulation protecting the inner copper wire was much softer. You held the BX cable on an angle and cut through it by hand with a hacksaw. You had to really be paying close attention to when you cut through the metal jacket, because you had to stop before your saw-blade cut into the insulation of the wire inside. Today, since the THHN wire inside is practically invincible, and the metal jacket is much lighter, you can just bend the BX by hand in a sharp 90 degree fashion until the metal shield snaps apart, then cut it with a tin snips or sharp pliers. In the old days, that would have never worked. You would cut through the TW wire insulation, for sure.

Since the BX metal jacket was often left with a sharp, ragged, rough edge when it was cut with a hacksaw, the manufacturers provided you with these anti-short bushings. You were supposed to slide them down into the freshly cut end of the BX cable. They would then provide a plastic shield between the sharp edge of the metal jacket and the insulated wire. So if the wire got pulled, pushed or yanked, it would not get yanked into a sharp edge that would cut it, and thus create a bare copper spot that could short out. Instead, it would get yanked into a nice protective plastic sleeve. They were a great invention. But guess what? They only worked when you used them. Which a lot of guys did not. "You don't need those damn things, kid!

Well, in this case, they did need them. In this case, the fellow who put this BX "whip" in the wall did not use redheads. But he did nick the hot wire at the point where it contacted the sharp edge of the metal jacket. There was a bare, uninsulated live hot wire that was contacting the grounded metal jacket. But this was a high-resistance short. It was not a full contact short that would  BOOM! as soon as current was applied. It was just enough contact where the stray electricity would "fight" through the air gap between the conducting surfaces, not creating the large current flow that a direct contact low-resistance short would create. Because of that, it never created the current inrush/overload to burn out the fuse. But it heated and heated and heated, year after year, with each usage of the microwave pulling more electricity, creating more heat, slowly melting away the insulation on the wire, thus exposing more copper to create more surface area to bleed more voltage and get even hotter, like a snowball rolling downhill but in reverse.  This high-resistance short acted exactly like the heating coils that glow red in the toaster. Eventually the heat was conducted by the receptacle itself, which over time burnt away (see the picture) and it also severely burnt the male prongs of the microwave oven cord. Eventually, the burning and melting became so sever that they shut off the microwave and unplugged it. That is when they called me. 

They were under the impression that the outlet should be checked out "just in case."  This client is an old friend, and I told her I definitely should look at it before they do anything. When I got there and opened up the junction box and removed the outlet, the evidence was clear to anyone who knew how to read it. The outlet was burnt beyond the point of use. The BX cable contained a hot wire that had about 60% of its insulation completely melted off, and the remaining portion burnt such that it crumbled in my hands. Fortunately, I was able to take everything apart, remove the junction box, tie off the BX whip with both tape and cable ties (if it fell back into the wall while I was working on it, the outlet would be gone forever. Don't ask how I learned that.) and then pull out just enough slack on the BX cable where I could carefully unwind and peel back about 3-4 inches of the metal jacket. This allowed me to get to 3-4 inches of wire that had the insulation yet undamaged. I was able then to use that portion of the wire to re-feed the outlet with clean copper wire that did not constitute a fire hazard. From there I just had to put a new connector on the cable end, (with it securely tied off) lower it into the wall, re-install the junction box, pull the cable end back up into the junction box and tighten the lock-nut, terminate the wires on the receptacle, tape it, and put on the new trim plate. Viola! Like new! In this case, much better than new, actually. Another reminder that you can never be too safe in this business, and there really is no such thing as a "5 minute job."

Hazards lurk behind the walls....

Posted on April 2, 2012 at 1:33 PM Comments comments (44)
Hyde Park Chicago ElectricianHyde Park Chicago ElectricianHyde Park Chicago Electrician
We did a full blown rewire a few weeks ago on a vintage condo in Hyde Park. This unit had the double whammy of 1. Not having the wiring updated since the 1920s. (A lot of great innovations in electricity and fire safety since then!) and 2. It had been "flipped." Which means there had been some updates. And they were done wrong. Cheap. Stupid. Dangerous.

Case in point, middle picture. This switch and GFCI outlet in the bathroom had at least 3 issues. First, the white and the vanilla colors on the devices clash terribly. Second, as you can see above and behind the GFCI outlet, there is a BX cable brought into the box. That is the metallic tube shaped affair with the armadillo like coiled metal jacket. This BX is not allowed to be just pulled into the box and left hanging there like that. It is supposed to enter the junction box by way of an approved fitting, i.e. a BX connector. The connector attaches to the end of the cable, and fits tightly with a lock-nut into a knockout hole in the box. This allows for support of the cable AND more importantly provides a grounding connection to the BX, and thus to whatever box or device is at the other end of it. As it was, the light fixture this BX lead to was ungrounded. In a bathroom. Not too smart. The third defect was that they did not take the time to peel the combustible paper wrapping off the wires. What was it Ben Franklin said? " A penny saved is a house burned?"  Well, he flew kites in the rain so he is not my role model for electrical safety. The fourth problem, of course, is the cloth-covered wire that was left in the box. You can see with your own eyes it is falling apart.

The bottom picture shows something we discovered that is even worse. In the bathroom, at least they had the common courtesy to run BX. In the kitchen, they decided to add a light in a pass through area and they just ran some bare wires in the wall. No ground. No protection. NO BRAINS.

And as an added bonus, we discovered that two of the circuits powering the apartment we were rewiring were actually coming off of the neighbor's circuit breaker panel. If you look closely at the top picture, you see all the panels for this condo building. This installation is not original, it dates back to 1950s or early 60s. At that point, the smaller fuse panels were removed and these circuit breaker panels were installed. In so doing, all of the branch circuit conduits that you see coming down from the left and making 90 degree bends were routed into troughs (the metal "trays" with the grey covers that are below and above the circuit breaker boxes)  When they did that, they must have gotten confused, because they ran 2 of my client's circuits into her neighbors panel and vice versa. But with a little investigation and a little diplomacy, (when we had to tell the neighbors we wanted to shut off their power for a while and work on their breaker panel) we were able to get it all straightened out!

All's well that ends well.