New house, electrics are old and seem not safe
June 3, 2015 12:04 PM   Subscribe

We moved house last week and realised that the electrics we've inherited are not great.

The previous owner lived there for ~40 years and did a lot of bad DIY on the place. Before we moved, the inspection found one electrical panel which was illegally wired and one that was corroded. We've had a new panel put in to deal with that but things still feel not safe. Every wall socket in the house is two pin so we've bought some adaptors so we can plug in appliances. Yesterday we plugged the vacuum cleaner in and the motor started running really fast and loud so we turned it off straight away. Is there anything we can do to somehow test the house's electrics or is this strictly an electrician's territory? Will a load of surge protectors help protect our appliances or is it best to keep things turned off?
posted by TheDonF to Home & Garden (26 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Get an electrician in there. Based on my vast knowledge of home improvement TV shows, electrical issues are nothing for an amateur to mess around with, and not to be ignored. If Scott McGillivray has taught me anything, it's that your house could be moments away from burning down at any time. I say that semi in jest, but if you're seeing funky power surges and other wonky stuff, get someone in there who knows what they're doing.
posted by amro at 12:08 PM on June 3, 2015 [3 favorites]

Did you talk to the electrician that performed the panel replacement? How about asking the inspector why the ungrounded outlets were not on the report?
posted by JoeZydeco at 12:15 PM on June 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

My favorite bumper sticker from way back: "wiring is not a hobby". I've been through this. Long story short, the stuff was so hairy it needed a master electrician to fix. Hire a good contractor.
posted by borges at 12:16 PM on June 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Unless I mistake my house construction lore that's the right age for a house to possibly have aluminum wiring so check for that.
posted by XMLicious at 12:18 PM on June 3, 2015

Surge protectors won't do much of anything to mitigate risks from dodgy wiring.

Your 2-3 prong adapters need to be properly grounded to work. If they don't have ground tabs to attach to the face plate screw or if your face plates aren't grounded you shouldn't use the adapters. An electrician can upgrade non grounded plugs with gfcis. There are a lot of sketchy ways of "upgrading" so hiring an electrian rather than a handyman for this is a good idea.
posted by Mitheral at 12:20 PM on June 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

As someone who nearly lost their childhood home to an electrical fire, bring in the experts. Bad wiring puts your lives in danger. No exaggeration.
posted by cecic at 12:21 PM on June 3, 2015 [4 favorites]

Yeah you are probably going to want to do some serious rewiring.

First the house is old so even if it was once up to code it probably isn't anymore. The demands of modern living are pretty different now.

As someone who was once electrocuted plugging in a hot air popcorn popper at my childhood home I don't mess around with this kind of stuff. It took me several days before my arm felt normal and it is only because I wasn't touching anything with my other hand that the current didn't run across my chest and stop my heart.

After I mentioned it to my parents they said "Oh yeah that outlet has always been bad". We had lived in that house for around 30 years at that point. (Then there is my mom's beliefs about food poisoning. How I survived I don't really know.)
posted by srboisvert at 12:22 PM on June 3, 2015 [3 favorites]

This was a house inspector hired for the real estate transaction, yes? In my experience, I have found that they are not always the best at electrical. Sounds like s/he missed very key things. Was this inspector recommended by your real estate agent or the sellers agent? If by your agent, you should tell him or her that the inspection was not thorough - they will want to know.

That said, it's time to get an electrician back in -- did the inspector recommend the electrician? If so, you might want to talk to another one. But please don't delay. I have lived with antique can be very dangerous. I also got a very bad shock once -- it could have been a lot worse.
posted by Lescha at 12:41 PM on June 3, 2015 [3 favorites]

I've wired a basement before, and 90% of it is easy, but the last 10% will kill you and everyone you love. The easiest solution is to get a "real" electrician in to do an estimate for rewiring the house. Make sure he pulls all the permits and has proper inspections. Don't trust anyone to say "it's good enough".

If you're curious about something you see, get a copy of the building codes from your local city/state planning office. They should have some pamphlets/guides that tell you what is required. Ungrounded outlets are ok in some jurisdictions, but not in others. There are also simple rules-of-thumb for how many outlets can be on one circuit, how they should be spaced on the walls, etc. Knowledge is power.

Oh, and remember, inspectors will tell you if it meets MINIMUM safety codes. Not if it's a good/bad idea, etc.
posted by blue_beetle at 12:43 PM on June 3, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'm surprised the electrician who redid the panel didn't tell you about any of the other issues. We bought a house three years ago where the downstairs had been updated but the upstairs was still knob and tube. We had all the knob and tube replaced, modern outlets put in, a new panel, etc. for about $8,000 (Canadian). He was very good about telling us what was not up to code and must be replaced, what was ok but not too the best safety standards, what would be an extra but would be worth it, etc. Oh, he also installed new smoke alarms with carbon monoxide detectors.

Definitely definitely get a couple electricians to come out, assess the problems, and give you quotes.

Even if they have to tear up some walls and it takes awhile for you to put them back together, I'd say it's worth it to have peace of mind.
posted by betsybetsy at 12:50 PM on June 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

Speaking as someone who bought a DIY 1958 house with later DIY additions, do not plug anything you care about into that house unless the new panel has whole-house surge protection. Zorch is no fun.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 12:56 PM on June 3, 2015

What your vacuum did sounds very much like that outlet is getting 220 instead of 110.

You need to hire a professional to get in there and assess the situation.
posted by humboldt32 at 1:06 PM on June 3, 2015

What your vacuum did sounds very much like that outlet is getting 220 instead of 110.

Yep, this happened to an outlet in a friends house that had been questionably wired and burned out their washing machine.

Speaking as someone who bought a DIY 1958 house with later DIY additions, do not plug anything you care about into that house unless the new panel has whole-house surge protection. Zorch is no fun.

Yep. I lost two nice computers to shitty wiring. Never again.

This will likely cost a bunch of money, but what you've described already sounds like a huge safety risk. I've seen stupid DIY electrical stuff break expensive things and once even burn a house down. Nopeeeeee.
posted by emptythought at 1:08 PM on June 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

There's nothing inherently wrong with aluminum wiring. Even a brand new house will most likely have aluminum wiring for anything over 8 gauge. Copper is prohibitively expensive in those cases.
posted by humboldt32 at 1:09 PM on June 3, 2015

Just an FYI. A fast running motor could indicate that the outlet is wired for 220v. This could occur with shoddy DIY wiring where they have linked together two circuits.
posted by Gungho at 1:43 PM on June 3, 2015

That's what NOALOX is for. ;-)
posted by humboldt32 at 1:53 PM on June 3, 2015

You should hire an electrician to solve your problems, but also consider buying one of these outlet testers. They're cheap, and will tell you if an outlet is wired correctly (including ground, etc). That way you can avoid using ones that have issues.
posted by jeffamaphone at 2:20 PM on June 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

I bought an old house with DIY wiring in it. Among the treats I found: Two circuits were wired to the same outlet, which meant that I had to turn of both before doing any work on it. I am glad I discovered this before opening the outlet. And there was an outdoor flood light with the switch on the return side rather than the hot side, meaning that the outlet was always hot and waiting for some unsuspecting fool (me) to cross the wrong wires.

I did a lot of testing and some rewiring. I bypassed whole sets of wires that I could not trust with new wiring. If I had known at the beginning of the adventure what I was going to find I would have paid a professional.

If you plan to sell this house to someone else at some point in the future you would do well to have properly repaired and inspected wiring in it.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 2:21 PM on June 3, 2015

Oh geez, you really, really need actually grounded outlets. Don't use an "adapter" to make your 3-prong plug fit into the 2-prong outlet. That's the first thing.
posted by amtho at 3:21 PM on June 3, 2015

Make sure you have working smoke detectors and try not to leave anything plugged in, let alone switched on when you go out.

LED lights draw the least amount of power - they might be a safer option as a temporary measure, less likely to overload the bad lines than incandescent bulbs in aged fixtures that won't take compact fluorescents. A string of white LED fairy lights are inexpensive and easy to find, can plug into any outlet that is not exposed to water, and provide enough light for most things except reading or close work like sewing.

If you can't afford to get extensive wiring done get one circuit put in by a qualified electrician with the wiring on the outside of the walls. If you get one circuit passed as safe you can live on that circuit and otherwise make do with long indoor-outdoor heavy duty extension cords, only when necessary.

To save money you could potentially get the wiring put in by a carpenter, or an apprentice electrician, and then get it hooked up and passed by the qualified electrician as both the carpenter and the apprentice electrician get paid at a lower rate than the fully qualified electrician. However many electricians will have apprentices to do the simple work and will check it is all hooked up properly at the end, so you might not have to search to get this work method done for you.

If there are any grounded outlets with the three prong recepticals get someone to take a look inside them. Our house was rewired with three prong outlets to wires that had no ground. They simply left it unconnected so it looked up to code on the outside.

The presence of any knob and tube wiring in your house may void your insurance, even if the wiring is not connected. If there is any you will definitely want to take it out.
posted by Jane the Brown at 3:45 PM on June 3, 2015

Please get an electrician in ASAP. I'm worried even about all the people in this thread who have had experiences being electrocuted, even mildly. I would've been in the camp that thought if you didn't die immediately from the shock you'd be ok but in my twenties I was chatting to a guy at a party and he'd gotten a mild shock, felt weird but mostly ok but his wife insisted he get checked out. At the hospital they took it VERY seriously and kept an eye on his heart (I think? I'm not a doctor and have no idea about the details) for quite a few hours. And he was in his mid twenties, a police officer in great health and very fit. Made me seriously re-think how I'd react.

The thing with dodgy wiring is that you have no idea what's going to happen any time you plug something in... or a visitor plugs something in. The consequences could be horrific.

I am not an electrician and know nowt about electricity so this is not official advice but in the meantime I would only be running things that were absolutely necessary and I'd be really reassessing "necessary". Modern life uses so many more electrical appliances than when your house was wired and that's even assuming it's all as good quality as it was back then (which if dodgy DIY, really likely isn't)
posted by kitten magic at 4:44 PM on June 3, 2015

Hey, I'm the one who ran the vacuum. I'm embarrassed about this, but it turns out the hyper rotation of the head was due to a large clog of dust, not too much electrical juice.

It seems that two-prong outlets are not inherently dangerous, just... old.
posted by Specklet at 5:57 PM on June 3, 2015

Thanks all for the replies. We went out and got an outlet tester and spoke to a couple of people who know about electrics about the state of the house and what needs fixing and how soon it needs to be done.

Thanks for all the adviceā€”it's been really useful.
posted by TheDonF at 6:45 PM on June 3, 2015

blue_beetle: "If you're curious about something you see, get a copy of the building codes from your local city/state planning office"

If you are interested in this sort of thing US building, fire, electrical, fuel/gas, and energy codes for most states are available for free download. (previously). But they are more legal document than how-to or easily digestible guidelines.

amtho: "Don't use an "adapter" to make your 3-prong plug fit into the 2-prong outlet. That's the first thing."

There is nothing wrong with using this style of three to two prong adapter as long as it is installed correctly to a grounded face plate screw. That's a big caveat but not an unusual condition.

Specklet: "It seems that two-prong outlets are not inherently dangerous, just... old."

They aren't inherently dangerous in that they are no more at risk of say catching fire than a three prong outlet; however, they also do not provide the same level of protection that a three prong receptacle does. IE: Three prong receptacles help protect you from being electrocuted by a ground fault failure in the connected appliance, two prong outlets do not.
posted by Mitheral at 7:34 PM on June 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

A well-maintained 2 prong outlet is fine, provided you are just plugging in 2-prong appliances. Except for the kitchen and bathroom (which were re-wired), the main floor of our old house is mostly 2 prong outlets, but they have all been inspected and worn 2-prong receptacles were replaced with new 2-prong receptacles. It is a bit inconvenient at times when you have to go to a room with a 3-prong outlet to plug something in, but the vast majority of electrical appliances only have 2-prong plugs anyways. Off the top of my head, the only 3-prong appliances we have are computers, fridge, microwave, espresso maker, and some power tools. We basically did the math and it was cheaper to put up with the inconvenience of the old system than re-wiring the whole floor.
posted by fimbulvetr at 9:05 AM on June 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

I don't, however, ever use those 2 to 3 prong adapt or things. I don't think they should ever be used. If the appliance needs 3-prongs, it gets plugged into the correct outlet.
posted by fimbulvetr at 9:07 AM on June 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

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