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So, let me preface this by saying I live in a 100 year old apartment building, and I can't tear out all the wiring and start over again. (As much as I'd like to.)

In my living room, there existed a ceiling fan with a light. The fan had become noisy and eventually just stopped working. I removed the fan blades a while ago, and it's been basically just a ceiling light for a long while now. I decided to replace the fan with a new, quiet model. I'm a fairly handy guy and I'd already done the kitchen ceiling light quite easily, so I figured, no big deal. Then I took the old fan off...

There are 8 or 10 wires up there, all twisted together in 2 bundles. I figure one bundle is hot, the other is neutral. But the wiring is the old-style cloth-covered kind, and at this point, it all looks black. It's old.

At this point, I've got all the fuses to my apartment shut off, so there shouldn't be any power flowing through any of them. Just to be sure, I test the bundles with my voltage meter.

And I find that there's still 120V running through the wires...

I can assure you that all of the breakers were flipped off for my apartment. So I went back to the basement and flipped off all the breakers for the common areas, too. Tested again, and there's still 120V.

This is troubling, to say the least...

I recognize this as a fire hazard. Serious, full stop, bad mojo.

I carefully go through the painstaking process of separating the different wires and capping them individually. All circuits are broken, and it should be safe to keep them that way while I figure out what's going on.

Except, when I turn the power back on to test the wires, I find that 3 out of the 4 rooms of my apartment no longer have power. It appears that all of the wiring for each room of my apartment (except the kitchen) went through this ceiling pancake.

I waited a few days while my landlord and I went back and forth via text, basically with no power in most of my unit. I happened to run into my neighbor in the hallway and he mentioned that he was having electrical problems in his bedroom (which shares a wall with my bedroom). His power had been out for a few days.

So, this clues me into the fact that the live wire is probably a circuit on his fuse box. This weekend, we plan to test his breakers as well to see if we can isolate the live wire and get it turned off.

My electrical knowledge doesn't stretch so far as to where to go from there. What I'd like to know is, once I identify the correct pairings of HOT to NEUTRAL wires for each breaker, can I safely twist them together and allow power to flow to the other rooms, independent of each other, and on their own circuits?

Rather than have 4 rooms (and 2 apartments!) worth of electrical wiring twisted into 2 bundles in my ceiling creating one big ol' circuit, can I safely twist together the HOT and NEUTRAL wires in their appropriate pairs and allow the power to flow?

Thanks in advance for your help.

P.S. You may ask why I don't just call an electrician to do it. Well, the landlord refuses to authorize the expenditure. I can live without power for a few days. But I don't want to be on the hook for unauthorized electrical repair work.

  • I beg your landlord to consider at least the expense of an electrical fire (to say nothing of the human cost) vs the expense of hiring a proper electrician. In many locales what you are attempting would be illegal. – AllInOne Aug 29 '18 at 15:35
  • @AllInOne can you point me to some legal ordinance as an example that I can then search for locally? – JeBuS Aug 29 '18 at 15:40
  • diy.stackexchange.com/questions/1592/… I believe you would need to contact your local building dept. I'm in NYC and all electrical work must be done by licensed electrician. – AllInOne Aug 29 '18 at 16:02
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    The proper text to refer to depends on your jurisdiction, plugging landlord electrical obligation + the area the apartment is located at into a search engine will point you towards the right texts. – ratchet freak Aug 29 '18 at 16:06
  • Generally, law everywhere is that in rental units, only licensed professional tradesmen can perform work. To be sure in your jurisdiction, just ask the person at city hall who issues permits. You surely remember him from when you pulled a permit for the work you have done so far... you did pull a permit, right? – Harper Aug 29 '18 at 19:31
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I decided to replace the fan with a new, quiet model. I'm a fairly handy guy and I'd already done the kitchen ceiling light quite easily, so I figured, no big deal.

It is no big deal. There are 2-3 wires coming down that actually go to the fan/light. Those are the only ones you touch. Easy peasy, and it's done.

These kinds of job are so simple they don't require a permit to be pulled.

There are 8 or 10 wires up there, all twisted together in 2 bundles. I figure one bundle is hot, the other is neutral. But the wiring is the old-style cloth-covered kind, and at this point, it all looks black. It's old.

It's a fair assumption that when you have two clumps of multiple wires, you're probably dealing with a hot clump and a neutral clump. Seems like a sensible guess; of course it's not conclusive.

Here's the important thing. When you see that presumably-hot clump and presumably-neutral clump, that circuit is carrying current onward to some other point-of-use. "It's not yours to disassemble" is probably the best way of thinking about it. Taking it apart won't help your project goal.

Serious, full stop, bad mojo.

Yes. Full stop. This where you exceeded your "personal minimums" and you should've buttoned it up and called for help. But you didn't because curiosity or "get-there-itis" got the best of you.

I carefully go through the painstaking process of separating the different wires and capping them individually. All circuits are broken, and it should be safe to keep them that way while I figure out what's going on.

Except, when I turn the power back on to test the wires, I find that 3 out of the 4 rooms of my apartment no longer have power. ... my neighbor was having electrical problems in his bedroom (which shares a wall with my bedroom).

That's no surprise to anyone with experience. This stuff wasn't broken, and fussing with it didn't advance your goal. You have to admit curiosity was your motive.

So, this clues me into the fact that the live wire is probably a circuit on his fuse box. This weekend, we plan to test his breakers as well to see if we can isolate the live wire and get it turned off.

My electrical knowledge doesn't stretch so far as to where to go from there.

No. Sit down. You are done.

I'm about to say something I don't often say. There are reasons.

I. You are doing unauthorized electrical work in a rental unit. Even if the landlord authorized the fan swap, you could have simply cut the modern-ish wires from the old fan (it's scrap) and spliced those to your new fan with orange wirenuts. You went way past the landlord's possible permission or intent.

II. The extra work crossed the threshold between "trivial work" and "actual electrical work that requires a permit". So you are doing unpermitted work, with consequences all their own, and those consequences fall on the landlord.

III. Most everywhere, only licensed contractors can work on rental units. The landlord can't fix the electrical. The landlord's handy cousin can't fix the the electrical. The tenant sure can't! When unlicensed contractors do work on rental units, the consequences fall on the landlord.

IV. As you readily admit, you're well beyond your depth. You should not have done this. The cure is not "do more". You may think "if I can only try every combination, I'll get it" - no, you'll get an apartment fire. Where did the rule When you are in a hole, STOP DIGGING come from? Don't people realize they are messing up? Well... no. People get tunnel vision, puzzle-solving mode, or get-there-itis. If it can happen to the chief KLM pilot at Tenerife, it can happen to any of us.

Now you call in the professional

Life as a consumer is funny. I can walk into Home Depot and they will take back something I bought at Lowes, even though I damaged the packaging so it's no longer saleable. You get really used to that and it can be a total shock when others don't eat your losses for you. This is one of those. Simply put: This is on you. All the way. Soup to nuts. Simply put, you poked it, and now the consequences of poking it are yours.

You call the landlord and you ask which electricians he prefers. You call up those guys and say you "messed up" and need one to come out PDQ. S/he comes out. They bother your neighbor a couple times, drape wires around your apartment for testing.

Expect this to take a couple hours, if everything goes well. The bill will be Very Ouchy if you're not in the habit of paying electricians. You pay it on the spot. The landlord never knows the bill. One time I had to do this with a very boutique porch light globe I accidentally smashed. The phone call went like "You (landlord is architect) specced the porch light, right? It's an Adams J101, do you know who supplies those?" "Anderson Distributors in the city." "Thanks." That was the last he heard of it.

Now it's possible it won't go well. Your poking may have brought it below condemning limits. It may have been "grandfathered" in Code and now it's not. Or it may have been improperly wired in the first place (not least, the other tenant's power in your box? WTH? Scary!) and that must be fixed because it can't be returned to service that way. Any of these could make this bill a fair bit bigger. Unfortunately, that's just tough. If it was defective before you came along and the electrican can tell your landlord that, you might get him to share costs. That's the most you can expect.

By the way, the thing I almost never say is "hire a professional". In this case it's right for reasons I-IV above.

One last thing: Find out what the bedroom neighbor likes (cakes, tequila, Cold Stone) and get her something really nice.

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    I agree with most of this but it's long-winded, condescending, and attacks a stereotype. All that stuff makes the answer harder to see. – Shimon Rura Aug 29 '18 at 20:45
  • @ShimonRura Alright... but that has limits... OP did mess up, and still holds a mindframe of wanting to continue messing up. There's only so much you can sugar-coat. – Harper Aug 30 '18 at 1:35
  • The bottom line is: We all mess up sometimes because we are only human and dealing with the problem can be a challenge but also a true sign of strength. Short anecdote: I fix and program computers for a living (I only fix my own appliances, electrical and plumbing). A few months ago I broke a laptop hard drive cable when doing what should have been a routine upgrade. I couldn't find the part locally, bought a loaner computer for the customer to use & paid to express in the part. I lost money + 2 days of time, but my customer is satisfied - and still my customer. – manassehkatz Aug 30 '18 at 2:10

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