Old House Electrical Quirks: When "character" crosses the line

By: Conrad Neuf , Contributing Writer
In: Old House Inspection, Old House Construction

It seems as though the "character" my old house possesses increases with each passing month. In fact, if the home gains much more, it could soon surpass what I can stand - or afford. (Not really - I love old houses and couldn't imagine ever living in anything else.) I conveyed the trials and tribulations of trying to figure out my home's unique drainage system several months ago in a series of posts. Believe it or not, I'm still having problems with the toilets flushing properly. Of course, a plumbing contractor could always be summoned to take care of the problem once and for all, but that would be taking the easy, and probably very expensive, way out.

And then there is the little issue of it not having a central air-conditioning system. At this point, if temperature records continue to be broken every summer, I may have to think about installing some ductwork or putting in a split-system cooling unit.

However, before that step is even considered, I have to contend with another "character" issue: the old house's antiquated electrical system.

When electrical quirks can become safety hazards

Growing up in a very old home, I became accustomed to the electrical quirks they could possess. The early 19th century house had an old fuse type panel box in a dark remote corner of the basement. It seemed sometimes like I was making my way through the cobwebs to replace a blown fuse on a daily basis. We kept boxes of spares in the various amperages on shelves right next to the panel box. Unfortunately, black snakes seeking warmth during the winter liked the shelves as well. It only took a few close encounters to learn that the dark recesses should be examined very closely before reaching for a new fuse.

As a result, it didn't bother me that the old house I purchased as an adult had a few electrical issues - at least it had a somewhat modern panel box with actual breakers instead of fuses. However, even though it appeared as if the wiring had been updated, I still gave the house an inspection just to make sure none of its electrical quirks had the potential to become safety hazards.

Many older homes were built when electrical codes were loosely interpreted if even enforced at all. During my previous life as a remodeling contractor, here are a few of the more common electrical issues often found in older structures:

  • Uncovered junction boxes
  • Overloaded circuits
  • Loose receptacles
  • Panel boxes missing covers
  • Old wiring with frayed insulation

The "character" left over from electrical systems from days gone by can cross the line into safety hazard territory. If your home has any of these issues, they should be corrected immediately by a qualified electrical contractor

Fortunately, my biggest electrical problem is a 100 amp service that has become inadequate for my power needs. While I've gotten used to having to unplug the Christmas tree lights before using the microwave, having enough juice for central air-conditioning would be another matter. And of course there's still that little problem with the toilets.