Friday, January 6, 2012

Knob and tube wiring. What you need to know.

Knob and tube? Is he poking fun at Jenny Gerbasi and Harvey Smith for giving cash to people who sing outside of the remand center?

No... not yet anyway, but gimme a few paragraphs and I might loose myself in that direction.

Knob and tube is the original electrical wiring, common in most homes built before the war. Which war? The last big one. Notice I said BEFORE, not during, or after, but before, so if you know when the war was...
The methodology used was to run two separate wires around the floor joist area, and also in the attic area. (basically) Off of these two runs, branch lines served lights and a few plugs. By a few plugs i mean a FEW plugs. Think about it. What was there to plug in BEFORE the war? Stop at "radio", 'cause that about summed it up... there weren't too many more things aside from some torcherie lamps, or end table/reading lights.
So? What's 'da problem?

Inherently, nothing... as described. But every few years in a homes history, someone comes along and wants to "improve" things. As people have more things to plug into an electrical outlet, they thought it easiest to "tap into" the existing k & t. Bad idea. In it's original state, a very good argument can be made for k & t wiring being SAFER than today's loomex wiring systems.
"Illegal" splices to add an outlet
I've seen it all, (I think), from purpose made transition fittings designed to have the k & t change to "modern" loomex type wire to a mess of wire nuts, aka Marrettes, joined together with more electrical tape than should be permitted unless you're trying to stop a plumbing leak. I've worked in places where an entire second floor had been "upgraded" with new loomex two wire throughout, all fed from a single k & t circuit, spliced in a wall, invisible to anyone until they knocked out a wall.
Here is where the problems start.
First, it's an unsafe manner in connecting wiring of ANY sort, second, the wires were never intended to supply that many outlets and lights, third, there was no way to access the splice.
This is the type of thing that is fairly common in k & t systems wherever they're found. Totally inadequate for today's electrical needs, people have always found it cheaper to modify it and utilize it, because no one wants an electrician or renovation contractor to say, "Well, that'll be an extra $1500 because we need to remove that part of the system, and replace it."
There is still another problem with k & t. Insulation. You're likely asking yourself, "What insulation? the stuff around the wire, or the pink stuff?", to which I answer,"Yes".
"Yes?", yes, as in both. The old insulation is a type of "cloth" that has become brittle. This is no "big deal" until you start using the wires in your basement to hang cloths on, but the pink stuff is different. Remember how I told you that they would run this stuff in the attic? Prewar houses were not known for having a lot of insulation. typically sawdust was laid between the ceiling rafters, and that was the end of it. If the k & t got hot that heat could dissipate. If you add insulation... say R40, OVER the k & t, now you could potentially have a problem.

Solutions? Not many. The first one is not to buy anything where the renovations look like they were done by someone who installed the taping compound with a spatula, (thinking, "We can sand that off later.") Those type of places are more than likely to have wiring that looks similar to the quality of the taping. Joints in k & t, lost neutral wires remedied by attaching a ground clamp to a bathroom sink drain, things hidden in walls and under attic insulation are all very hard to find. By way of making confessions, I've joined k & t in certain situations, albeit correctly, and in a junction box. There are times a lighting circuit is inaccessible. Is there wisdom in tearing the k & t out? I don't think so. By reducing all the load on the branch wiring to just that one light, I don't think we're increasing the risk, rather we're decreasing the potential pitfalls of k & t to being no more "risky" than any other type of electrical.

In comes the insurance industry. now let's sum up our "foe". These folks lay in wait for YEARS looking for a reason to raise rates. Along comes 9/11 and they have their excuse as a whole, claiming "enormous losses". Ya... right. As if Wawanesa lost a lot of coin as a result of 9/11. Maybe their "reinsurance" rates went up... maybe. Now they are again hunting for a "bad guy", and are black listing anything with k & t, giving people 90 days to remedy the problems. Here we have the insurance industry telling us our homes are unsafe, so at face value, one has to wonder why the City of Winnipeg hasn't done something about this matter. Could it be it's not as unsafe as we are led to believe? How many wiring related fires do we have in a year? What's next ? Not insuring houses NEXT to houses with k & t?
This type of thinking cannot be fought, as it's a smoke screen. It's a risk, as all insurance policies are, and they are in the business of minimizing their risk. State that you have k & t, no insurance. State that "to the best of my knowledge, there is no k & t", and in case of a fire they'll deny you coverage after the fact, no insurance. Have an electrical contractor inspect the place and there is still some k & t you didn't find feeding something, no insurance, so sue the contractors errors and omission policy, (as if electrical contractors carry consulting insurance, or an e & o clause).

Step in the Manitoba Real Estate Association. They see the issue for what it is, (I think), and are criticizing the insurance industry for their heavy handed approach, asking the Government to broker a solution.

Really? THIS government? Before they study it to death, they'll start selling home owners insurance through MPIC, possibly not a bad solution except that you can't trust MPI not to fudge the accounts and shift money from vehicles to home insurance, and lump everything into different categories. Remember when your MPI cheque was made out to the "Minister of Finance"? It's an organization that simply has run it's course and now serves itself with well paying jobs for the staff.

Currently there is a disclosure statement required on real estate transactions... why not add a clause regarding electrical? Asbestos in already in it, along with foundation leakage, roof leakage, non conforming additions, non permitted/inspected work, but that only covers the LAST seller, not the most recent owner. What to do?

I don't have any magic answers, but "buyer beware" continues to be a good maxim to hold tight to, as well as making insurability a part of your offer to purchase.

I think that we'll be seeing an "electrical inspection" boom in the next while, with the "inspectors" advising people to re wire their homes, at a great cost to many where it really isn't necessary, nor will it add any real "safety".

On CJOB Lorne Weiss asked "How safe do we need to be?" Take a look at the NDP record on "safety" in the workplace legislation and you'll find your answer. The "safe workplace" has become an industry unto itself.
With those people passing the rules we'll likely have grants available for people to upgrade their homes wiring, loans from Manitoba Hydro... I see this getting stupid fast.


  1. It's tough to insure K&T but not impossible. Some one I know was able to get insurance but only after they had an electrician sign off that it was safe.

  2. Agreed, but now the electricial could be liable if the wiring he can't see is suspect in a fire. I recently consulted on a home sale and redcommened an electricial to remedy the defects. The underwriters insisted on a 90 day repair. Total bill, over $5K.

  3. Good stuff, Random Guy! Very refreshing to see this down in B&W. As a Realtor, I am faced with this nonsense on a daily basis, we have to juggle protecting buyers from the evils of K&T while at the same time respecting their desire to buy 'character'. Doesn't help that we are in an atmosphere of "cleanest, highest offer wins".
    Don't get me started on vermiculite. Please.

  4. So if this is a problem why isn't Manitoba Hydro giving grants to help update??

  5. Manitoba Hydro financial plan is offering finance to upgrade knob and tube wiring but it is limited. It is not sufficient for replacing whole wiring of the house.