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Replacing the Decks

  Electrical  
 
 


The house came with a 60-amp FPE-brand panel. Apparently FPEs are bad news, so, before signing the purchase agreement, we had the panel upgraded to 200 amp. Upgrading the panel was nice, but it doesn't solve as much as some might think. All the existing wiring had been served by a 60-amp panel. The wealth of additional breakers would be useful for adding new dedicated outlets, but wouldn't solve the fact that some existing breakers served as many as 15 outlets and built-in lights. Plus half the outlets in the house were not grounded. Never mind the safety issue - that meant that these outlets were useless for many of the electrical devices in a typical house.

I went on Craigslist and, over the next year, hired a few electricians to help me make the place a bit safer/more useable. But the fact remained: the place would never be close to modern without stripping the sheetrock, and rewiring to spread the load across the additional breakers now available.

Two years later, with the foundation remodel in full swing, many of the walls are open. There are still areas where two prong outlets will survive because I cannot get to them, but this is the opportunity to upgrade much of the electrical. 

Mapping What You've Got

The first thing I needed was a map of what I had. Right now, some breakers were labeled with phrases like "Lwr Bthrm." OK - but does that mean the lights, or the lights and fan and heater, or...?

I started with a schematic of each floor, and walked room by room, putting a mark on the drawing depicting the location of every outlet, built-in light, wall heater, wall fan, etc. Then I labeled every breaker, numbering them 1 through 20.

The next step was to collect as many small, plug-in electrical devices as possible. I bought a half-dozen nightlights, but put every other device imaginable to work as well, from electric toothbrushes, to shavers. The technique was to plug something visible or audible into every outlet, turn off all the breakers, then turn them on one by one. When breaker #1 was turned on, every light and outlet impacted would be labeled "1". Then the process would be repeated for breaker #2, etc.

We started one Saturday at dusk, Terry upstairs, and me downstairs. With the exterior wall torn off, it was easy for me to flip breakers and immediately be inside the house, checking outlets. One short-cut was to top bring the activity to us, rather than having us try to chase down the activity. In other words, instead of flipping breaker #1, then searching the house for every light that was on (and likely having to move some night lights to cover every possible outlet) I switched off all breakers then "on-offed" each one until I found the one that controlled the lights in the room that Terry happened to be in. She'd then be able to label 8 to 15 outlets/lights, perhaps calling down to be to give that particular breaker another on-off so that she could spot other impacted outlets that she might have missed the first time. Then Terry would move to another main room, and I'd find her again, flipping breakers until I was impacting the outlets where she was. In this manner we quickly labeled 90% of the outlets/lights. Then we plodded through the last 10%.

Later I used high-lighters on the schematics to color code the breaker numbers that were particularly common. This way, at a glance, I can see if my map makes sense. Most of it does - I just need to double-check that that upstairs bathroom fan really is part of the downstairs bedroom's circuitry!

House Rewiring Project

With downstairs and the pantry torn apart, and upstairs soon to be torn apart, it's time to get quotes for electrical. Although I'm used to shopping on Craigslist for these services, Servicemagic.com has once again proven to be the most efficient way to get contractors by. The following vendors impressed me:

Clay Hassinger, owner of Cycles Electric, Ran Rafael 415-298-0599

Moe Zahawi, owner of MZ Electrician, Sonoma 707-738-1551

Lonnie Vincent, Summit Electric, Santa Rosa 707-542-4776

Paul Brunner, Synapse Electric 415-819-0668

Val Dimitrov, owner of Value Electric, San Francisco 415-420-0695

My big mistake: not having stamped architectural plans available for the bidders. Had plans been ready when they visited, the bids would be easy to compare.

Update: I've hired Moe Zahawi, owner of MZ Electrician. I asked him and Val Dimitrov, owner of Value Electric for a bid on just the downstairs. Moe was a bit less expensive.

The latest development: I am replacing the 200-amp panel with a new panel that allows two separate meters. This is a late-developing decision, but a call to PG&E indicated that their charge would be "less than a couple-hundred," so I'm going for it. Although I will need to pay an additional ~$2,000 to replace the panel, I guess it really is better than me being the energy-police, every time the tenant leaves his/her lights on.

Update: After being very satisfied with Moe Zahawi, I hired him to do the upstairs. Upstairs is a massive project. All electrical has been torn-out, and we're starting from scratch.

Update #2: I am pleased with Moe's attention to detail upstairs, and have hired him to do the house's low voltage wiring: phone, CAT-6, and cable.

 
     
 
The old panel. Tape on a breaker is never a good sign!

Adding a dedicated circuit.

Testing the night-lights before testing the outlets.
Moe Zahawi making sense of a mess of wires at the new double panel.

Ladder work.

 
 
 
 
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Last Updated Feb 2014.