Whole house electrical rewiring - what to do at same time?
April 8, 2021 1:07 PM   Subscribe

We will need to rewire our whole house in the near future. Are there other smart projects we should consider doing at the same time?

We recently moved into a 100-year-old house and it seems like we will need to rewire the whole darn thing. This will be expensive and disruptive, but there are enough positives like safety, having more outlets, adding light fixtures in dark areas, etc.

Are there other projects that we should be doing at the same time that the electricians are ripping open our walls? Like if we're thinking about solar, should we be doing it at the same time? Or getting more efficient HVAC systems? Or is there some computer network wiring thing we should be putting in?

We are in Chicago and most of the walls are still plaster. Feel free to answer by telling me what kind of professional I should be posing these questions to.
posted by Xalf to Home & Garden (35 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
If there are any layout changes you want to make, particularly if they involve moving plumbing then that might be helpful to think about now, at least so you don't do things you need to undo or move later.

On wiring, you might want to consider installing trunking so that you can more easily add network type cabling in the future.
posted by plonkee at 1:09 PM on April 8, 2021

Yeah, if you can afford to also make layout changes, HVAC updates, solar, or plumbing, now is the time to do it while the plaster is open. Depending on how much is opened you could also add insulation. Consider wiring for video doorbells or surveillance cameras, or additional exterior lights/outlets, if you have any interest in those things. You will be pulling a permit anyway for the electrical so if you want to do solar and hook up to the grid it's a good time to do that on the same permit. Remember the electrician has to be licensed to do solar work that connects to the grid, not just any master electrician, or at least that's how it is here in CO where I live.

My experience has been that contractors generally don't want to repair plaster and lathe walls in homes of that era, and will recommend that you get rid of it and replace it with normal drywall, or cover it over with drywall if possible. So potentially it will turn into a big project. If you are keeping the plaster and lathe and want it repaired, research how to repair it properly and make sure the person doing it actually has experience with that material and isn't just the company's random drywall guy who needed work that day.
posted by zdravo at 1:23 PM on April 8, 2021 [6 favorites]

Definitely run Cat6 network cables from every room back to a central location.

I mean, running conduit (with pull strings!) might be better, but just having network wires everywhere would save you endless WiFi woes.

The cabling & jacks are cheap, and a crimping tool isn't very pricey. You can certainly pay someone to do it, or get a nearby Nerd to teach you (because purely-online lessons might not be enough). Many electricians will do it.
posted by wenestvedt at 1:24 PM on April 8, 2021 [9 favorites]

Every night after the contractors leave, take wide-angle and zoomed-in photos of every wall. Take some before they start, too.
posted by wenestvedt at 1:24 PM on April 8, 2021 [11 favorites]

We have a house not quite as old, but old enough to have been built with lath and plaster walls. In your shoes, I think I would do things in this order of priority, as applicable:
  1. Replace any remaining original (or significantly old) plumbing.
  2. Add or improve insulation.
  3. If not already present, run duct work for forced air HVAC.
  4. Add wiring for lighting or ceiling fans where you want it.
  5. Run new electrical to locations it doesn't already exist (I view this as distinct from just modernizing existing runs)
  6. Replace any cables that have been run along the outside of the house with wires inside (assuming you still need them). Telephone and cable companies are notorious for exterior runs.
  7. Run network cabling at least to the places where you might want to have computers, routers, or TVs, but ideally at least one per major room ("major" meaning omit bathrooms and closets, but do just about everything else).
  8. Run thermostat wire to the ideal location for thermostat(s) (these can be wireless, but wired is better)
  9. Run cables for wired security cameras if you ever want them.
  10. Pull out any old coax, telephone wire, or other stuff that no longer used and clutters the interior of the walls.
This is a mix of things prior owners have done to our house, and things I wish we could do but I don't want to tear up the walls... I know very little about solar so I can't give great advice there, but I thought that would mostly just be a run from the panels to your electric panel/meter, so it may not require anything inside the walls beyond normal electrical wiring which you're already doing.
posted by primethyme at 1:25 PM on April 8, 2021 [4 favorites]

Having a 220 outlet in your kitchen and/or garage can allow you to run awesome professional kitchen/shop gear if you’re inclined to taking such activities to their extremes. Our 220 line in the garage has run extra ovens, espresso machines, weird power saws and some machining equipment at various points.

Do you have any outbuildings? Wire them up at the same time.

I would very much at least consider your modifications in regard to things like HVAC and power generation (solar). Like, if your heating is oil or gas, you’re likely going to see electric heat pumps be cheaper sometime in the next decade or so if they aren’t already. I would probably just do that at the same time. Solar is going to be more valuable in the coming years. Even if you don’t do these things right now, designing your electrical system with these things in mind and the electrical capacity/hard points to add them, will save you a bunch of money if/when you decide to do this. Outlets everywhere, spare, empty conduit everywhere, the biggest panel you can manage.

When we replumbed half our house (the other half was done for some reason) we added stubs for a sink and drain where we knew we wanted one but didn’t want to actually install it at that time for reasons. That planning ahead saved us like at least $1000 in plumbing charges and installing the sink only took an afternoon.
posted by furnace.heart at 1:26 PM on April 8, 2021 [2 favorites]

I would definitely have them run Cat 6 between my home office, my TV area(s), and the place(s) where I might want to have a wifi access point or wireless router.
posted by Aizkolari at 1:26 PM on April 8, 2021

Oh, also, outlets in closets are actually pretty dope. I added one when we were redoing a wall and now an unused weird linen closet is our little IT closer where our server lives, along with a filing cabinet and our printer. It’s surprisingly nice to keep all of that stuff in a literal closet.
posted by furnace.heart at 1:28 PM on April 8, 2021 [5 favorites]

Electric vehicle charger, or at least the ability to add one easily in the future without any further wiring updates.
posted by ShooBoo at 1:42 PM on April 8, 2021 [7 favorites]

I am in a 115 year old house that has been partially re-wired and am considering upgrading the whole thing soon. You know what I want? An outlet on my front porch, so I can sit on the porch and work from home and also plug in lights in the winter. So, don't forget outside outlets.
posted by bluedaisy at 1:46 PM on April 8, 2021 [14 favorites]

If you can avoid it, do not run network cable right next to electrical cable, as running the two cables in parallel for any distance can result in induced currents and/or interference in your network. Of course, that means a whole second set of holes in your walls and might mean not running network cable at all. The rule of thumb I live by is to separate parallel cables by a foot, but I don't know if there's an industry best practice. But yes, if you run network cable at all, you should run at least one drop to every room.
posted by fedward at 2:30 PM on April 8, 2021 [2 favorites]

Add way more outlets in rooms where you have computers and other electronics. I had my electrician double the number of outlets and wish I had even more in electronic intensive rooms. And get several in the bathroom is you have electric toothbrushes, water pics, hair dryers etc. and Get one next to the toilet in case you get a bidet seat.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 2:31 PM on April 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

Most devices these days don't even have an ethernet jack so a cat6 cable to every room is overkill. Maybe run one to your "office" and wherever any video game consoles you have are going to go. For everything else you'll likely be using wifi anyway.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 2:48 PM on April 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

Yeah, but how does your wifi get its network? Ethernet backhaul is much better than having a mesh network, and having ethernet everywhere means you can put a wireless access point wherever you need it.

Which reminds me, I ran cables to the ceilings of three floors in our house so I could install WAPs that way, and my wifi is excellent.
posted by fedward at 2:53 PM on April 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

Conduit. Conduit everywhere, running back to some centralized location. With pull-strings already in it so you can easily pull whatever you need.

Strong agree with fedward -- especially in a 100-year-old house, walls eat wifi. You will want the ability to easily add more APs, as well as ability to run cat6 to anything where you care about speed/latency. Anecdotally: A few years ago I worked for a small business that had converted a ~150 year-old rowhouse into an office. They had started with wifi, and ditched it almost immediately to install hard-wired cat5 to each workstation, plus multiple access points, because wifi reception from a single centrally-located access point sucked that much.
posted by Alterscape at 2:57 PM on April 8, 2021 [3 favorites]

Yeah, but how does your wifi get its network? Ethernet backhaul is much better than having a mesh network, and having ethernet everywhere means you can put a wireless access point wherever you need it.

This. Also, anywhere someone might set up a desk or a tv, you are almost surely going to get better experience from a wired network. But really the bottom line is that the cost of having an ethernet port where you never end up needing one is close to negligible if you do it as part of another wiring project (I have done this, so I am speaking from experience). But the cost or pain of wishing you had one when you don't, after the walls are closed up, is very significant. YMMV but for me "everything uses wifi so don't bother" isn't very convincing, especially if you're already tearing things apart anyway.

Unrelated, one other thing I forgot that can be nice to have is built-in speakers in living areas and porches. Similar to wifi, yes, you can drop an Echo or Sonos speaker or something in these rooms, but the experience of having it built-in is much nicer, and it doesn't cost much to add while the walls are open.
posted by primethyme at 2:59 PM on April 8, 2021 [2 favorites]

If you do only one thing, make it plumbing. Everything else is secondary IMHO.

...now, if your plumbing is pristine and competent then don't rip it out willy-nilly, but odds are something is wrong somewhere, and fixing it now will save so so much hassle later. Maybe even upgrade to PEX (lets you do a "distribution manifold" in the system, so that each individual fixture line can be shut off remotely).
posted by aramaic at 3:04 PM on April 8, 2021 [3 favorites]

Relocate the thermostat to the place you actually want to regulate.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 3:16 PM on April 8, 2021 [2 favorites]

Surprisingly, this is a very easy and minimally invasive job within the city of Chicago. Assuming nobody did any shady unpermitted work in the past, the electrical code already required the old wiring to be in conduit. We did our entire 1923 bungalow and not a lick of plaster came out. They just fish the new wires through. If you have any temporary metal whips, though, those get replaced.
posted by hwyengr at 3:48 PM on April 8, 2021 [2 favorites]

Will rewiring the house require opening up all the walls? I had my 70-year old house rewired before I moved in, and they cut round holes, a few inches in diameter, in many of the walls, but they didn’t open up the walls. I went ahead and had them replace all the light fixtures to ones that were more my taste than the previous owners’, but one thing I almost forgot was to buy a new bathroom fan. The required a last minute trip to a store so they wouldn’t reinstall the old, dusty one.

I didn’t—and still don’t—have a plug-in car, yet, but I expect to while living in this house, so while i didn’t want to install a charging station, I went ahead and asked that they install any wiring in the house that would make it easier to install a charging station in the future. When I actually buy a plug-in car, I imagine I’ll find out if they actually did.
posted by capsizing at 4:17 PM on April 8, 2021

If wiring for Cat5, consider getting colored jacks and using a different color for each pair of linked jacks. This makes custom-wiring and troubleshooting much easier.

As one example Monoprice has a wide variety of colors available.

If you're wiring a 500-node office network, it's impractical, but your home network probably won't have more than 5-10 pairs.
posted by Hatashran at 4:23 PM on April 8, 2021

Nthing Cat6 / Ethernet. When they built my house in 2002, the builder was nice enough to coordinate with me a time where I could come in and run Cat6 (which was brand new at the time) as well as coax in the whole house in between when the framing was complete and the insultation was installed.

I haven't even put the ends on the wires in maybe half of the boxes I ran them to, yet I haven't regretted for one second running that cable. Make sure you get plenum-grade cabling, which is designed to be safer for in-wall installations (and depending on your locality may actually be code - in my municipality they didn't care about low-voltage cabling like Cat6, didn't even need an inspection, but check with your building inspector to be sure).

Also Nthing extra electrical to your home office or anywhere you might need it. I have 3 separate 20-amp circuits running to my office and am glad I did, especially now that I've been working from home for a year and all the tech that I need can be nicely balanced and not overload anything.

Conduit is a nice to have but adds effort (and expense) to such a project. I considered doing the same but in 20 years have never come across a situation where it would have come in handy.
posted by SquidLips at 4:31 PM on April 8, 2021

In to also suggest plumbing, *especially* if it's still galvanized steel. We did ours separately from our electric, and there wasn't that much overlap with where we needed to open things up, but plumbing definitely has a lifespan.
posted by straw at 4:36 PM on April 8, 2021

I would consider wired network wise the layout of the house. It might be much easier to say put a network outlet anywhere if you instead think about pulling the cables up from the basement to the first floor and down from the attic to the second floor vs putting conduit through the walls. It sorta depends on what your electrical work is going to do.

I'm ex university Information Infrastructure Core and have worked on the ethernet wiring of everything from guard huts, alumni houses, dorms, blah. Unless you want to pick one place per room for some network ports, or put one at every outlet location. Do you want every outlet to have a network port next to it?

It all depends on the house. I would sorta lol and say "don't forget the phone jack" because we would put in multiple 4 or 6 port outlets in that could mix-match phone or network (or in the past omg serial).

If you have decent top/bottom access, the network is easy. It's all low voltage and the only real codes were that you had to use plenum rated cable in those sorts of spaces.
posted by zengargoyle at 4:36 PM on April 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

Outlets in the hallway for vacuuming, especially if stairs have carpeting. Run a line in a porch ceiling for a ceiling fan, makes sitting outside much more tolerable in summer.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 4:42 PM on April 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

MOAR LIGHTS Your future self's eyes will thank you!

And if you have the kitchen walls open, put in a real duct to vent the stove outdoors. It controls smells but also humidity.
posted by wenestvedt at 5:05 PM on April 8, 2021 [3 favorites]

Electrical car charger because even if you don't use it, your next homeowner WILL, and it should be a huge upselling point.
posted by lalochezia at 5:11 PM on April 8, 2021 [2 favorites]

I recommend that you take a deep breath.

There is a delicate balance between the cost of Electricians starting to cut holes in vintage plaster with later smooth plaster repairs, as opposed to the process of Gutting entire rooms (and entire homes) & re-drywalling everything. And it's really hard to determine the future cost equation for this sort of project. It very quickly gets more complex than you might expect if you haven't done it before.

I would recommend hiring a decent General Contractor with recommendations to coordinate this sort of project. Good GCs are expensive and busy, of course.

If you're thinking of living in home at the same time, it might get somewhat unliveable.

(If you decide to go with cutting electric holes in vintage plaster, then add those little top holes with small blown insulation.)
posted by ovvl at 6:41 PM on April 8, 2021

(To fedward’s point about not running network cable right next to electrical cable, this is actually not an issue for OP. In the Chicago area, all electrical wiring has to be inside EMT steel conduit, so the electrical is very well shielded.)
posted by stopgap at 6:49 PM on April 8, 2021

Running network cable next to mains power is not an issue. Ethernet is digitally modulated with differential signalling over twisted-pair cables, making it immensely insensitive to induced noise. It's designed to work perfectly over 300ft cable runs in spectacularly electrically noisy factory environments. It will be absolutely fine next to your domestic mains wiring.

Things to keep away from mains cable are: audio cables for AV gear and speakers, old school landline phone wiring, coax cables for TV & radio antennas, etc. All that old school analog stuff that's increasingly being replaced with networked gear anyway.
posted by automatronic at 7:34 PM on April 8, 2021

electrical plugs in closets and IN bathroom or kitchen cabinetry so you can charge things in drawers. Heck, I have a load of book cases so you may want an outlet or two nestled in easily for things you want to plug in. Also, outlets in stair wells so you can have night lights or whatever plugged in.

My husband is such a believer in wifi that he REFUSES to install cat6. Don't be him.

Oh yeah, outlets in the upper cabinetry in such a way so you can get cheap upper cabiet lighting.
posted by jadepearl at 8:09 PM on April 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

We did this. Good experience, details here.

The electricians recommended we get a separate actual-plaster guy after, to patch all the holes. We got the one they recommended and were happy with him. Ask him how long the plaster needs to cure before repainting, or about the special primer you need to get if you have to paint it quickly before it has time to cure.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:11 PM on April 8, 2021 [2 favorites]

Running network cable next to mains power is not an issue.

QFT this really is not a thing.

"such a believer in wifi that he REFUSES to install cat6"

Wifi is fine if you have good coverage and undemanding requirements. That doesn't make it a good choice for everything.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 8:50 PM on April 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

So... we started at the furnace and solar, had to do the plumbing completely when the upstairs bathroom burst into the downstairs (please note: they were cosmetically renovated but - the splices - PVC-> Copper-> Cast Iron -> Copper-> Cast Iron -> PVC out with no venting... So... we rennoed the upstairs which meant rebuilding all the joists because that much splicing means someone was also eager with cutting joists in bad ways... Then the subfloor upstairs got done... ripped out the tub and put in something better... redid all the lighting and installed fans because... hey - its a thing... ran conduit from the basement up to the 3rd floor crawlspace, which will simplify the knob and tube replacement in a year or so, installed firebreaks between the floors and spray foam insulated the west face of the house. But yeah... 130-150 year old house with bad plumbing and bad electrical after you leave the first floor... Now the plumbing is brand spanking new, vented properly and with PEX everywhere. I can't begin to tell you how nice it is to finally have working plumbing...

But, when the summer rolls around, when we fire up 5 AC units, I expect our electrical to remind us that we also want to redo the electrical...
posted by Nanukthedog at 9:22 PM on April 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

Anytime you open a wall, be prepared for a trip into the unknown. I had a 108 year old apartment in Chicago. We discovered that it was piped for gaslight. The pipes were capped but the gas was still routed to each point where the light fixture would have been. Not the worst, not the best.

Old drain pipes. had a small leak. Plumber said "when they are this old, they can shatter". It was made of iron...I was incredulous...he tapped it lightly with his wrench. He was right.

Adding to the plaster and lathe comments. A whole different repair job that requires someone with the skill to do the work.

Insulate like crazy. A good R value will ultimately save you money (and drafts that you may have been accustomed to).

Outside outlets. Yup. My current house has 0 anywhere on the property. Makes Christmas lights or running any electric yard tools entertaining.

Interior/Exterior lighting capacity. Well positioned LED lights can do wonders and will sip energy.

Depending on where your washer/drier are located...a laundry shoot. At least you wont have to walk down the laundry basket.

Any forced-air HVAC duct/tubing work is much faster when the walls are open.

Good luck!
posted by zerobyproxy at 9:41 AM on April 9, 2021 [1 favorite]

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