She stopped me. Not a single cable
was over four years old, she explained.
The house had been stripped to the studs
and joists and rewired.
I told her everyone makes mistakes.
However, if I found that the lights had
died because the rewiring had blatantly
ignored safety, it would be a different
story. I would perform the necessary
corrections and charge her for them.
On my own dime, though, I would try to
nail the electrician who pulled the permit and then put her at risk, secure in the
knowledge that inspectors tend to have
very little time to look over any job.
Every trade has installers who are not
trained or licensed as well as installers
who are licensed but exclusively dollar-driven. Some don’t concern themselves
with codes and safety; they just work by
the seat of their pants. Contractors who
are trained masters get caught in the
cycle of bidding low to win jobs and not
being able to afford skilled or conscientious employees. If an inspector rejects
their jobs, they change whatever the
inspector caught and get their green tag.
This case was simpler: “Oh, I doubt
a permit was ever pulled. I bought this
house from flippers.” More often than I’d
like, the search for reasonable housing
costs causes problems like what I’d found
here: my caller had bought into something
dodgy. In 2016, Hart Research Associates
interviewed 1,800 U.S. adults and found
the vast majority of them thought housing
affordability was a problem.
It’s useful to know this. On my web-
site, I list an extra charge for when I have
to correct illegal wiring. For my own
safety, ignorant wiring makes me extra-
cautious. Also, it means I won’t start out
with any basic time-saving assumptions
as I troubleshoot. I try to emphasize to
customers how serious it is. Perhaps I
spooked this one, because she never set
up the appointment.
When customers have trouble with
affordability, I have choices. If I simply ignore National Electrical Code
requirements, I’m acting like a “can-do”
handyman. If they’ve had that sort of
work done previously, I may be taking
on certain liability and responsibility by
tying into it.
Recently, a reader told me about a
job he was invited to bid on and found
those “handymen” had left their mark.
First off, he said that many electricians
had worked on this customer’s building and not very scrupulously. There
were various problems: a full distribution panel downstream of the service,
with its own main bonding jumper, in
violation of the prohibitions against
downstream bonding of equipment to
grounded conductors; an inadequate
grounding electrode system; circuits
sharing a neutral fed by breakers connected to the same leg; poor-enough
labeling that he figured it would take a
day to straighten out.
The reader said previous workers took
shortcuts and did not provide enough circuits. I’d say that’s a generous description.
The budget-conscious customer
wanted him to hardwire a new micro-
wave rangehood and prevent the tripping
of a circuit that served a microwave and
a toaster. Could he free up a breaker to
serve the hardwired hood he was asked
to install? He asked me about putting two
pieces of energy-efficient refrigeration
equipment on a single circuit.
What could I say? Many appliance
manufacturers specify that their products are to be installed on dedicated
circuits. Also, at some point, you have
to ask yourself (or the authority having jurisdiction) whether you are being
asked to create or even remodel a kitchen,
which rolls in all sorts of requirements.
Would sharing the circuit trip the
breaker? That’s iffy even if each load
amounted to less than 50 percent of the
circuit’s rating. Could it cause a fire? I’d
want to ensure outlets used for appliances had good wiring, devices and
connections. I might check for voltage
drop, indicating upstream impedance.
I told him, whatever he would quote
on a job like this, he should prepare
the customer for the possibility of discovering new horrors that go beyond
what he is contracted to fix. Also, he
couldn’t guarantee pre-existing wiring. I told him to do his best to make it
as safe as its basics allow in reasonably
Our colleague put together a careful
estimate, and the customer hired someone else who was willing to just wire in
his new hood. He simply said good luck
to him and his building. There are other
customers, after all.
You Get What You Pay For
When affordability affects safety
A HOMEOWNER, referred through her neighborhood listserv, liked what she read
on my website and called. She said that lights in two areas of her house weren’t
working and asked what the repair might involve. She lives in a neighborhood that
has many old buildings, so I talked briefly about the best- and worst-case scenarios
when lights fed by old wiring stop working.
SHAP IRO is the author of “Old Electrical Wiring,” “Your Old Wiring,” and co-author, with
W. Creighton Schwan, of “Behind the Code.” He is a contractor, consultant, writer and local
IAEI officer in Greenbelt, Md. He can be reached at