9

We're renovating a hundred-year-old house that's been through several owners and has hodge-podge wiring. I've redone all the wiring from scratch in the rooms we've re-walled. Everything has gone well until I messed with some old wiring in the kitchen..

Quick version: I replaced an outlet on the outside of the house that was part of the kitchen circuit because it killed part of the circuit and I have no idea why. Now I've killed the whole circuit by pressing reset on one of the GFCI's and now I'm really lost.

Long version: I have already replaced all the counter outlets with GFCI, and everything's been working fine for months (plug-in tester lit up correctly on all of them), so I know they're wired correctly. Yesterday I went to replace an exterior outlet (outside the kitchen wall) with a GFCI, but when I turned the circuit back on, half of it didn't work. It's an old house so each circuit has A LOT on it. This one has 13 outlets and 4 ceiling lights. From what I've been able to work out from looking under the house is that the circuit appears to start in the middle of the kitchen, go along one wall then up to the ceiling for the lights, then (I believe) it comes back down into the wall on the other side, splits in two somewhere, forms two legs, and dead-ends in two places. What's strange is that the outlets I killed are all upstream of the one I was working on, or they're on the other "leg" of the circuit. I worked my way backwards to the first outlet that was working, replacing all with brand new outlets, wiring exactly as I found them. No change. Tonight, trying to think of everything I could have possibly not tried yet, I pressed the reset button of one of the dead kitchen GCFI outlets and the rest of the circuit blew. Tried to reset the breaker and it made a sparking sound and stayed off. Now the whole kitchen circuit is dead, and I don't know where the problem is.

What is happening?? I was meticulous with matching the old wiring once things went awry but I was on autopilot replacing the first exterior outlet. It's possible that I didn't notice some funky wiring and messed it up by installing it "correctly." I have come across some non-switched wires that had the white and black reversed in other parts of the house. Could a hot and neutral be reversed here, would that cause this kind of problem?

I'm pretty sure I need to replace the breaker now, but if I don't fix what's wrong I'll just blow the new one too..

  • 7
    "I've killed the whole circuit by pressing reset on one of the GFCI's" -- Is it possible there's another GFCI in the circuit? – Peter Duniho Oct 24 '19 at 5:56
  • 4
    My suggestion is to get rid of all outlet-placed RCDs and install a single device at the panel. So you don't have to deal with "borrowed neutrals" or "borrowed phases" at the end of circuits. Another option is to install an RCD outlet at each place instead of a 'head' unit with daisy-chained regoular outlets, doing so, if shared neutrals or shared phases are present, will be 'ignored' by RCDs – DDS Oct 24 '19 at 14:19
  • 3
    Draw a complete diagram of the circuits. – Hot Licks Oct 24 '19 at 22:27
  • 2
    "Yesterday I went to replace an exterior outlet with a GFCI, but when I turned the circuit back on, half of it didn't work." - Put all that back the way it was, w/o a GFCI. (You took a picture, right?). Now start over. Which may include (or easier to) running a new circuit if the ext. outlet is a must-have. – Mazura Oct 25 '19 at 1:33
  • 1
    "I was meticulous with matching the old wiring" -- that's likely a big part of the problem you're seeing. The old wiring makes old assumptions that match old code. You need to design the new circuits/wiring from scratch based on current standards, without reference to the old. – Roy Tinker Oct 25 '19 at 17:31
43

Yeah, the problem is your work methods. When you hit a problem, you're not stopping to iterate on the problem until it's fixed, as you should. You are ignoring it and dashing off to do yet other work. So now you have a set of compound problems that are all interacting with each other.

You seem to think that one thing breaking breaks another thing, for instance you are now keen to replace the breaker. The breaker is just doing its job, you have a short in the wiring. If you don't know what to do, don't do random other things; focus on learning what you need.

Given the depths of this mess, it may be beyond our help.

Fortunately, it doesn't matter: it's all coming out.

When you have the walls exposed, you must modernize to Code

It's not enough to swap the old wires for new wires. You need to rearrange circuits and outlets to conform to modern Code.

In the kitchen, that is a big job. It involves quite a number of new circuits. Some of them must be dedicated to the kitchen, so for instance it will no longer be possible to have a circuit that serves kitchen receptacles and also other locations.

How that's done is beyond the scope of this question, but you have a lot to do. It will entirely moot the problems you're having now. The upside is you get to do it all as new work, so you can start from scratch. This also means you'll only need at most one GFCI per circuit, so that'll save you some money.

Oh, but I can only do half the job

Then you have to do the half that you can do; that is to say, use the access you have today to prepare for when you are able to do the rest of the work.

What you cannot do is use the excuse "well, we don't have ALL the access we need" to simply do nothing at all, and leave the old work wholly non-compliant.

Also, the claim that "we can't get wires through that other part we're not remodeling" isn't really true at all. A competent old-work experienced electrician can get wires through all sorts of places you might not think. Or you could simply expand the scope of the drywall work you'll be having done anyway, to gain a few key access points.

  • 1
    From my reading of the question, OP opened walls to replace wiring in other parts of the house but not the kitchen, and was hoping to use the old wiring there in order to avoid opening the walls. Though I agree with you that it sounds like such a mess that that may be the best option. – Nate S. Oct 24 '19 at 21:55
  • 9
    I dont' think you can modernize to code unless you have all the walls exposed. You can't expose half the walls and modernize to code, while parts of those circuits are running mysteriously behind the remaining walls. – Kaz Oct 25 '19 at 0:05
27

Stop what you're doing. Hire a licensed electrician.

I may well be downvoted for this, but I think it needs to be said. You're messing around with wiring that's a hundred years old and not up to modern codes without proper training, and you're liable to burn your house down. Electricity is dangerous, and you've already managed to create at least one ground fault that would be liable to start a fire if it's not corrected.

Furthermore, depending on location, what you're doing may well be flat-out illegal; I know for a fact that it's illegal in Australia, for instance - Australia bans amateur electrical work so hard, they accidentally made it illegal to change light bulbs without an electrician's license for a few weeks once.

Just bite the bullet and stump up the money to hire a professional to do it for you. It'll cost you a lot less in the long run than your house burning down would, especially if you wind up having to pay medical costs from injuries caused by the fire on top of the costs to rebuild your house.

  • 5
    Not to mention the fact that doing your own wiring (if you're not qualified) may invalidate your house insurance. – Dawood says reinstate Monica Oct 25 '19 at 4:23
  • 4
    @DawoodibnKareem and the kicker is you find out when your house burns down and they do an investigation. At that point your insurance will give you exactly $0, you will still still have the mortgage, and now you have to deal with a gigantic debt with no house. The likelihood of something going bad is very high, because it is shorting out right now. If you do something dumb and accidentally bypass the breaker, "fixing" your electrical outlet, then you just burned down the house. – Nelson Oct 25 '19 at 8:54
  • @DawoodibnKareem Wouldn't having your solution proved by licensed electrician making the insureance valid again? – Crowley Oct 25 '19 at 9:36
  • 3
    @Crowley if you find someone stupid enough to sign off on it. – Christian Oct 25 '19 at 11:17
  • 5
    @Crowley My comment was refererring to the special, not the general case. If GFCI blow for no reason i doubt that everything is wired correclty and up to code. – Christian Oct 25 '19 at 11:33
6

Even over the last 20 years the Code changed significantly. The change over 100 years is huge. Reasons are:

  • Better understanding of the phenomena involved. (And it will continue)
  • Different material availability.
  • Significantly higher power loads.
  • Higher safety requirements.
  • New technologies

One of the recent additions to the safety is addition of the GFCI. Before that the circuit was shut down only when the power drawn exceeded a safety margin. GFCI protect you when the circuit fails and you touch the hot wire becoming an electric heater. Old codes protects your house from burning, the new code protects you from electrocution.

In the old code it was usual to connect neutral and ground. Some old devices are built that way. In our lab we have one power source that was wired that way, luckily we were able to adjust the circuitry inside. Do not do that unless you are bloody sure you know what you are doing.

The GFCI is designed not to tolerate such wiring and such devices. Whenever a teeny-weeny current leaks to the ground wire, the GFCI shuts down immediately.

What you have done is right this: You have mixed the codes. There are options for you:

  • Finish what you have started. Assure all the wires and all connections in your house are compliant with the actual Code. No exceptions. If you want to leave wires in the walls, assure they are either properly used or properly sealed on all terminals.
  • Undo the upgrade you've done. Assure all the wires and connections are compliant with the old Code.
  • Call the licensed electrician to clean the mess. They will do the first option, but from scratch.

There are more things you should do: Have your circuits officially proved by licensed electrician. Make yourself a drawings of your circuitry like a pro. Document yourself the ratings, dimensions and positions. You will need it some time in the future.

  • 2
    I'm intrigued that you don't include AFCI breakers, which are a more recent innovation than GFCI. There may be even newer additions to code since then (actually, I know for a fact there are...the code is under near-constant revision, and at least some of those revisions are for safety reasons). I'm curious whether you left AFCI out of your post because you weren't aware of them, or because you don't view them as a legitimate safety improvement. – Peter Duniho Oct 25 '19 at 20:28
  • Two reasons, I'm not familiar with them and since I'm not native english speaker I'm not familiar with english abbreviations. Always glad to elarn something new! – Crowley Oct 30 '19 at 19:36
  • 1
    @PeterDuniho Given Crowley is not a native English speaker he's probably not from North America, and hence is probably used to 230V mains. Wikipedia suggests that AFCI is much less common in countries using 230V (because the lower higher voltage means currents are lower). – Martin Bonner supports Monica Oct 31 '19 at 10:37
3

Congrats for taking on this project!

  1. Go get a permit. As the homeowner, you should be able pull one for your property. Call the board of inspections for your city/county. I know it sounds scary, however I have found inspectors to be very helpful to home owners. They are tough, but if you treat them with respect and a source of knowledge, they will help you a lot. This also will appease the insurance company. Code is code, and your work passes the same inspection as a professional. Per the other comment, if you already put drywall over old wiring, you are in trouble.
  2. Get a good book. I like this one called Wiring a House
  3. Get a good set of electrical tools. This set from Commercial Electric is affordable and high quality, and really helps. Also get a Voltage Detector.
  4. Be prepared to rewire almost everything.

Back at first principles, the thing you changed is highly likely the cause of your trouble. Double check your wiring of the GFCI. If there are wire nuts in there, you might have knocked them loose. The root cause is overloaded and overly complex circuits. Once you untangle all the spaghetti (e.g. make a dedicated run from the panel to the receptacles in question). You can use the voltage detector mentioned above to trace behind walls if need be.

I have owned a 1932 bungalow and a 1920 bungalow, and rewired the majority of both (knob and tube + armored cable), and had both inspected. When complete, the wiring was safer and neater than the work done by previous licensed electricians. One thing I will say about licensed professionals, the good ones are on the good jobs. The ones available for ad-hoc remodel are either inexperienced or not good enough for the aforementioned good gigs. So you are going to wait a long time to get the queue for a good one, or have a mess made that will "get 'er done" but not really fix the problem.

Keep going and don't be discouraged. Early on, I spent 3 days looking at a three way switch with unmarked wires, and had to finally call an electrician. Recently I had the same problem, and knocked it out in 15 minutes.

Some safety concerns, especially for old houses!

  1. I think of electrical wires as if I am handling live poisonous snakes. And when I open the panel, there is a den of them. There is death in there. Always turn off power to the entire panel before opening (master cut-off at top of panel, or separate outside)
  2. Always assume everything is live. I wear a set of high quality, fitted gloves from Carhartt.
  3. Have a fire extinguisher handy. Old attics can be tinder boxes of dried out joists and paper lined insulation, and the spark from a short can light things up in a hurry.
  • Thanks for the answer; keep 'em coming. And, you should probably take our tour so you'll know how best to contribute here. – Daniel Griscom Oct 28 '19 at 23:19

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.