three prongs good, two prongs bad. no prongs unacceptable!
September 29, 2016 4:04 PM   Subscribe

I need to find the best and most diplomatic way of getting my landlord to fix some of the electrical work in my apartment, and could use some help regarding finer points about the National and Massachusetts Electric Codes, and/or Tenant's Rights.

I moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Belmont, MA last year, and recently renewed the lease for another year. The apartment is a 2-bedroom unit in a four-unit apartment house, and was built sometime before 1931. The landlord is a decent man in his 60's; a bit quiet and hands-off but at the same time he likes to fix things himself. He works at the local True Value hardware store (also owned by his family). I have two issues I'd like him to fix but he's being pokey about it and I don't know if I have a leg to stand on getting him to work on these.

1. There are no electrical outlets in the bathroom. My son uses an electric razor and I have an electric toothbrush; we'd really like to use these appliances in the bathroom. I know bathrooms these days are required to have a GFCI outlet. Don't know if this means that older houses are required to have one, or if they were grandfathered out of that requirement whenever the code was updated.

2. The largest room in the house, 12' x 13.5', has one double/two-prong outlet, which I assume is ungrounded. The "hallways" – a stairwell from the front door leading up to an atrium/landing, connected to another common room leading to a balcony – also have one double/two-prong outlet (at the bottom of the stairwell at that), and one double/three-prong outlet in the second part of the hallway. The National Code seems to point to that there need to be more outlets in these rooms, so that I don't need to be snaking extension cords or using 3-prong cheaters. How many more outlets should I be entitled to?

3. Some, but not all, of the outlets in the house seem to have interference on them. While my computer is powered through certain three-prong supposedly grounded outlets, when I plug anything into the audio input jack of my computer, the output sound contains heavy radio signals (WMEX 1510 AM to be specific), no matter if other appliances are plugged in, or where I carry the computer in the room. When the computer's plugged into other three-prongers, though, radio noise generally doesn't occur. Is this a grounding issue? When I mentioned that possibility to the landlord, his response was, to paraphrase, "Well, this is an old house, we can't be grounding every outlet."

I've skimmed through landlord-tenant law but don't see these things specifically outlined. I figure that "no outlet in the bathroom" isn't likely up to code, but I don't know what might or might not be grandfathered in. I'd like to make a strong case that the landlord should fix these things. If you have local knowledge about codes or rights, please drop some of that knowledge on me.

I'm also not sure of the best way to demand this; I'd like to approach it diplomatically but forcefully. Could you give me any tips on how to present these issues to my landlord in such a way? Thanks!!
posted by not_on_display to Grab Bag (18 answers total)
Best answer: Lack of outlets and ungrounded outlets are both grandfathered in. If he did major renovations he'd have to do all the electrical work to modern code but code is that everything can stay as-is if it's left alone.

If there are three-prong outlets that aren't properly grounded then that's bad. You can get a ground tester at a hardware store cheap and it'll tell you in two seconds if an outlet isn't properly grounded. That's bad. Sadly sometimes people install three-prong outlets in places where there isn't a ground wire because sometimes it's hard to find new two-prong outlets when something breaks. If you find an ungrounded outlet he should fix it although the fix might be to put in a two-prong outlet which makes plugging in grounded cords difficult.

I've never rented in such a house but I have bought two houses with ooooold electrical systems and it's perfectly legal and a total pain in the ass.
posted by GuyZero at 4:15 PM on September 29, 2016 [5 favorites]

I think you can present him this information just as you have here.

That being said you have to understand that it's common for houses of that vintage to have deficient electrical systems in the ways you describe.

To me, unless the existing system poses a danger the landlord isn't really obligated to upgrade (I'm no expert, this is my opinion). What you describe are all inconveniences.

It will be no small undertaking to address the items you list. And in all likelihood the entire system as a whole may not be ready for such upgrades. Is the main breaker panel a 200 amp panel? Is there ROMEX in the walls, or post and wrapped?
posted by humboldt32 at 4:16 PM on September 29, 2016 [3 favorites]

Here's the checklist of what your landlord is required to provide. It lists references to the appropriate part of the sanitation code that governs each thing. So you can start looking through the code, but I don't think you'll have anything actionable.
posted by MsMolly at 4:29 PM on September 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

Could you give me any tips on how to present these issues to my landlord in such a way? Thanks!!

Read "Getting to Yes." It is a quick read and research based.

Best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 4:45 PM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

According to this document, all that is required for a bathroom is an electric light, no outlet necessary. I know the electricity situation in older houses can be a huge pain the butt.
posted by pintapicasso at 4:53 PM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Lack of outlets and ungrounded outlets are both grandfathered in. If he did major renovations he'd have to do all the electrical work to modern code but code is that everything can stay as-is if it's left alone.

This is almost certainly right and I very strongly doubt you are going to get anywhere if you go in with the approach that the landlord is legally obligated to make these upgrades for you. Generally I think you're misinterpreting the code: it's not that "bathrooms must have GFCI outlets" (affirmatively requiring the presence of outlets); it's that "any bathroom outlets must be GFCI" (requiring a level of quality for ones that happen to be installed).

Also as implied by humboldt23, this stuff can be very expensive in an old building. You might be requesting literally thousands of dollars of work, once they open walls to run wires and have to patch them back up, etc. Be ready to compromise and figure out which aspects are most important to you.

The bathroom upgrades are almost certainly the most expensive so I would not press that. Get battery powered toothbrushes and shavers and charge them in your bedroom or something.

Adding outlets in the rooms might be straightforward if they can be added directly opposite an existing outlet in the hallway - then they only have to open one wall, and only a small patch. Does that describe your layout? If so maybe focus on that upgrade. But yeah, if there are no ground wires running yet it is not too likely they will be able to add properly grounded outlets.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 5:09 PM on September 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

Yeah, sorry, unless some of these outlets pose a danger (and you should get a tester like GuyZero mentioned, or come on over and I'll let you borrow one) I don't think he's going to be required to do anything. Adding an outlet where there isn't one, especially in a possibly tiled bathroom exterior wall, isn't always easy.

You could present it as being in his best interest, as not having these outlets make the apartment less appealing to future renters, or you could point out the potential safety issues of using so many ungrounded extension cords, but I'm not sure you could throw the code at him in such an old place.

I had a 1930s house for a while and some of the electrical cable used flexible metal conduit, so I was able to ground a three-pronged outlet to the metal. Chances are your cabling doesn't have a separate ground wire. Upgrading the outlets is very possibly non-trivial.

For the audio interference, I forget what they're called but you can get magnetic coil thingie to wrap your cables around that will help somewhat.
posted by bondcliff at 5:15 PM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

My house was built in the 1930's and I can attest that what you'd be asking for is not an easy or inexpensive fix. It's likely that your wiring is still the original knob and tube and your circuits are unprepared for the kinds of loads we have expectations of with our modern appliances and electrical equipment (so you can't just easily add more outlets or overload the ones you have). When I finally bit the bullet to upgrade, it involved bringing a larger amount of electricity into the building, a new electrical panel, all new wiring inside the walls (which means opening walls and ceilings) and modern outlets (GFCI in cases where they were warranted), and more outlets to match current code. No law or regulation required me to do it whether it was for myself or renters, but for many of the reasons you point out, I wanted a more modern set-up. It cost many, many thousands of dollars.

Make sure you don't overload the outlets you have and also make sure you have enough working smoke detectors. Knob and tube wiring is generally safe, but you have an aging system and you don't know what kinds of amateur adjustments have already been made. If you overload your system, you could be taking unnecessary risk and could end up with fire in your walls.
posted by quince at 5:30 PM on September 29, 2016

Oh, also, it's very possible he knows if he brings in an electrician to do a small bit of electrical work he will open a Pandora's Box of electrical nightmares that will end up costing a fortune.
posted by bondcliff at 5:34 PM on September 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: For the audio interference, I forget what they're called but you can get magnetic coil thingie to wrap your cables around that will help somewhat.

Sounds like a Ferrite Core. OP, this might be worth a shot if interference continues to be an issue. Loop the cord you want to use it on 2-3 times then snap the core around the wires (pics in the link).
posted by photo guy at 5:38 PM on September 29, 2016 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Yes! A Ferrite Core is indeed what I'm talking about. I used one once on some computer speakers and it helped.
posted by bondcliff at 5:42 PM on September 29, 2016

Landlord of an old small building here as well. In most cases, (1) insurance dictates that commercial property wiring can only be done by a qualified electrician -- I can't replace a light fixture or a plug, technically -- and (2) an electrician can't retrofit non-code wiring (i.e. adding a ground wire to existing knob-and-tube, or some equally ridiculous solution). Once they start retrofitting, they kind of can't stop, because of code.

Your complaint about interference is a valid one, but recognize that what you are talking about it literally (potentially many) thousands of dollars of work that, if I were in his shoes, I would be squeamish about embarking on as well (old wiring is the worst Pandora's box to open).

Yes, it should be done, but contrary to what some might think, landlords of small rental properties make their properties profitable by doing practically everything themselves -- and electrical retrofits are hella expensive. Figure out what is the minimum you could live with him doing (I'd think asking for one grounded plug somewhere, and a solution to the interference issue might be good start), and ask about that.
posted by liquado at 7:58 PM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone. The landlord called literally three minutes after I posted this, but I let it go to voicemail until your comments came in. At least now I know a little bit more about what I'm asking for, and it sounds like the landlord does too. But it also sounds to me like he's willing to come over and look at some things next week, so we'll see what he's willing to do or not do. I feel I have a pretty good tenant-relationship with him, and he seems to appreciate when I do point out things that need fixing. But this gave him pause, and now I know why.

Meantime, I'll pick up a ground tester next week and one of those Ferrite Cores; they seem like cheap and potentially useful things. (And thanks for the offer to lend, bondcliff!)
posted by not_on_display at 9:30 PM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Depending on the cable run, adding a receptacle to the bathroom might not be a big deal. It is often quite possible to fish new romex in old walls without a lot of fuss. It depends on the electrician's skill to some extent and since its a bathroom it is only one receptacle on one run from the panel. It has to be its own circuit anyway.
posted by Pembquist at 11:23 PM on September 29, 2016

Of all the things you mentioned, the one that might be illegal is your funky 3 prong outlet - you're not supposed to install a 3 prong outlet and not ground it properly. OTOH, I'm pretty sure an acceptable fix would be to replace it with a 2 prong outlet, still available at HomeDepot.

If, as many of us suspect, the wiring is original knob-and-tube, any upgrades would have to use new wire all the way back to the main circuit panel. Depending on circumstances (e.g. what floor you're on), some upgrades are easier than others. I'm currently renovating a first-floor apartment in Arlington MA, and the electrical work will be nearly half the bill.
posted by mr vino at 8:54 AM on September 30, 2016

1931 shouldn't be knob and tube - just very old metal-armored cable. If it's knob and tube, then the house is older than that.

Existing legal-at-the-time electrical installations are (with few exceptions) grandfathered in, so it's not in violation of electrical code. Things like the NEC rules for outlet placement in rooms are for new installations. Sorry. There may be some occupancy requirements, but nothing you've described sounds particularly out of whack except *possibly* the 3 prong outlet if it's not grounded. I don't know if it's legal to replace/install 2 prong outlets any more, at least not off the top of my head; it used to be, but rules around outlets in dwellings have tightened up a lot since I was working in the trade. That outlet might need to be replaced with a dual GFCI/AFCI - although just doing anything to it might require protecting that entire circuit with arc fault protection. The NEC went gaga for arc fault protection a few code cycles back, which is great for keeping people from burning up in house fires but kind of a pain in the ass or at least the wallet for installations.
posted by rmd1023 at 2:29 PM on September 30, 2016

Response by poster: Do you live particularly close to the transmitter?

I've just learned that I live 750 meters from the transmitter. I can hear Michael Savage. It's just awful.
posted by not_on_display at 10:38 PM on September 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I got the Ferrite Core and it seems to be doing wonders for interference. There's still a little static noise in the signal but at least I'm not listening to Michael Savage anymore. THAT'S A BIG IMPROVEMENT! Thanks for ferreting out the ferrite fix for some future fine fershuigginah fun music fer sherr.
posted by not_on_display at 4:55 PM on October 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

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