Stage Two: The Hole
Come on in. It's warm and cozy.
What you are looking at is a hole that was poorly cut in the original roof boards between two joists to get to the rear gable. The front half of the attic has windows on three sides, which is great for having to do wiring work up there (though not really useful for heating/cooling efficiency). Well, The Hole is the entrance to the back half, which has exactly as much natural light as will reflect through said hole, which is not a heck of a lot. Thankfully, I have a propensity to put high-efficiency LEDs in everything, so we had plenty of light available. That being said, still not fun.
At least there were only two fans/light fixtures, plus a couple switches to wire back there. Just for the record, this picture was taken with a flash, which is why it looks bright and inviting. That is incorrect. There's also an old chimney back there that is capped and doesn't appear to have any purpose whatsoever. Also also, we found the smokestack from an old wood stove in another portion above the kitchen.
For each fan that was not properly mounted (6 of the 7) we had to cut a hole for a new junction box. In drywall, this is super easy. In plaster, this is an adventure. Plaster walls and ceilings are essentially thin wooden strips with tons of caked on brittle plaster which falls apart like cheap concrete. You can crack a hole in the plaster layer, but then you get to the lathing strips (as seen in the picture to the left), which are nailed to the joists. The big problem is if you have any type of vibrating or reciprocating saw to cut it, it bends the strips of wood back and forth at high speed, which ends up rattling the plaster until it falls off in major chunks. Once you get through one side it's just easier to grab the strip, push it up and snap it, rather than try to cut it. You end up with holes like this one that require a serious amount of joint compound, among other things.
Each fan has a switch in a wall in their respective rooms, so we have to run one wire to the fan (hot), one wire from the fan to the switch (traveler) and one wire to the next fan in the sequence. Now, pulling cable through uninsulated drywall-clad walls is fairly easy because everything is empty and smooth inside the walls. Not so with plaster, all the walls have the ridges of smooshed plaster pushing through the lathing strips for the wire to get caught on as it's being pushed through. Next we have the knob-and-tube wire that has knobs every two feet down each stud. There are literally hundreds of nooks and obstacles for the wire to get caught on. As if this wasn't fun enough.
Sometimes, wires are run in really stupid ways, like, out through a floor joist, up through a floor, and out through another wall, all of which are concealed. Cue the crazy tricks and trade secrets. In comes some dish soap that may have actually been a prop in a TMNT movie to make the wire a little slicker and easier to pull through. We knew that some of these outlets were on the old knob-and-tube because they were the original 2-prong, ungrounded outlets. Even better, they were literally disintegrating. Take a look at the picture on the right and see if you can tell me which one doesn't belong. Of course, several of these outlets were just screwed into the wood molding with no wall box, so we had to break out the sawzall and open up the holes to fit in new plastic wall boxes to properly mount them.
Then some circuits were obviously routed through walls that were not original (so, before the wiring was run through studs prior to covering it with drywall, or plaster...or beadboard), so tracing wires became a matter of guess-and-check by flipping breakers and disconnecting outlets. Then there are some even more exciting developments, like ants.
I'll explain: most kitchens that have been updated in older houses are wired into a specific GFCI-protected circuit with 12-gauge Romex equivalent for safety and to give enough current capacity to power modern appliances like 1,100-watt microwaves. Well, our kitchen was updated, so it was all run on 12-gauge from one main outlet. Problem is, that outlet was not a GFCI, so nothing was protected anywhere down the line. Even bigger problem is, they ran 12-gauge wire to all other outlets from the main one, but the power feed coming from the breaker box was 14-gauge (for those unfamiliar, larger gauge wire = smaller diameter = higher resistance = lower power handling capacity). This comparable supercharging your car, installing a race-tuned suspension, and then putting bike tires on it. It's dumb, it's not safe, we re-did it.
Oh right, the ants. So about 5 minutes after we energized the circuit, we noticed this constant stream of ants coming out of the back of the molding, going directly into the outlet. Apparently, ants are attracted to the electromagnetic fields created by current flowing through wall circuits. That was a nice little surprise. Speaking of which, there are a few more of those coming in the next installment. Happy 4th of July everybody.
Currently listening to "3's and 7's" by Queens of the Stone Age