electrical horror show

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RustyShackleford

Minister of Fire
Hearth Supporter
Jan 6, 2009
1,352
NC
A friend recently bought a nearby house, and I am helping them with some electrical work. The place is a mess. So far, here's what I've found:

1. The panel is one of the questionable Federal Pacific ones - my understanding is that the breakers don't reliably trip when they should.

2. It looks like the whole thing is wired with multi-wire branch circuits (MWBC), since the single-pole breakers alternate between red and black wires. The breakers are all distinct - no handle ties.

3. I can't tell for sure how they wired it though, because the sheaths are removed before they enter the load center cabinet. All the conductors come in from the crawlspace through a 2" L-shaped PVC nipple, so I guess they removed the sheath so it would all fit.

4. Trying to replace a ceiling luminaire, I found that I had to turn off two breakers to de-energize it. In other words, two circuits enter the luminaire and are tied together there; so the two circuits form a "ring". It's not clear if this luminaire is the place where the circuits were inappropriately joined, maybe there's another place where there are meant to be two circuits (perhaps a multi-gang switch box) and it's actually there that the mistake was made. However, I can find literally no other fixture of any kind that is driven by these circuits. It's like they brought two home-runs into this luminaire, tied 'em together and to the fixture, and that's it.

5. They tapped off a 3-way switch circuit to add an outlet - so the outlet is driven by a traveler and neutral. So if the switch in the other room is in the wrong position, then the outlet is dead. And ... wait for it ... the outlet is for the propane tankless water heater.

6. There is a luminaire controlled by two 3-way switches, which doesn't work right - BOTH switches must be in the correct position to turn it on. Diving into it. it appears they were trying to switch neutral with one of the switches; the other switch connects hot to one of two wires, which is perfectly normal, except it's not a 3-wire cable, so there is no neutral.

7. Looking into another switch box, one of the cables has the neutral clipped off right at the sheath.

8. An attic luminaire is controlled by a switch in a downstairs hallway; the attic in entered through a loft (so you have to go down a ladder to turn the light on and off).

9. A ceiling fan was hung from a non-fan rated box.

10. A luminaire was connected by simply poking the wires into the attic and tying them to romex - not in a box, not using wire nuts, not using electrical tape - using masking tape.

11. An extension cord was repaired, and the three conductors were scrambled. Not just hot and neutral swapped either ...

I imagine #10 and #11 were done by the previous owner (who, FWIW, was a Command Sergeant Major of the Green Berets), but the other things seem like they were probably done by the OG (or original electrician).

Anyhow, I just wanted to memorialize my experience, and to vent and perhaps gain a little sympathy :)

Or advice. I think saying "you need to have the house re-wired" is a non-starter. I've fixed #9, #10, and #11, I will fix #4, #5, and #8 as best I can, and try to forget the rest.
 
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I think the Federal Pacific where the house burners. But was the a version, I don't know. Maybe you can research it. But nice to get the panel replaced. If he can afford it.
 
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I think the Federal Pacific where the house burners. But was the a version, I don't know. Maybe you can research it. But nice to get the panel replaced. If he can afford it.
I offered to do it (he buys the materials and re-pays my time cutting firewood). More ambitious than any electrical project I've done - except maybe the 4kW grid-tied solar array I just built - but I think I can handle it.

But then seeing all those MWBCs - and the sheaths not extending into the cabinet so don't know which conductors belong together - gave me pause.
 
The fedral boxes that were troublesome were more the industrial versions.. I had experience with those and god a pretty good belt because of it... I had a electrician come in and test and was surprised on how long it took for them to trip if they even did... We were in a battle with the mall owners to change it out
 
Not surprised being a contractor. I'm surprised more houses don't burn down from electrical issues. I once unscrewed a kitchen cabinet screw and all the lights in the kitchen shut off.
 
Here's how you can identify the neutrals if they all come through a single conduit. First turn on everything in the house. Shut all the breakers off except one. Use your clamp on meter to find the corresponding neutral that has current on it and label the wire with tape (1N or something), Label the hot leg as 1A.

Keep going down the row, flipping off that breaker and the next one on. Keep labeling. When you come across a matching neutral that's already been labeled, then you've found the other leg of the MWBC. Label it as 1B.

Finally you should end up with sets of A,B and N which you can then tie into the new (handle-tied) MWBC breakers and label them according to what they go to. If you don't find a second hot leg for a particular neutral wire, then it's not a MWBC.
 
I work for a solar installation company and when I do my site evaluations, I'm always on the lookout for one of those Federal Pacifics. That usually means a service upgrade as part of the solar project. Thankfully, I don't come across them often.
 
Here's how you can identify the neutrals if they all come through a single conduit ....
Good stuff, thanks.

Another clever idea I heard, if things are as screwy as this house and you want to make sure neutrals aren't mixed up: attach a GFCI outlet between a breaker and the branch-circuit conductors (tie the hots together if it's an MWBC). Then apply a load. If the GFCI trips, then something is wrong.
 
The fecal material is going to hit the ventilation appliance (if you know what I mean), when they go to buy their all-electric range. The existing circuit is 40amps and has no neutral. Best case we'll just need a new cable (unless we want to do the questionable practice of using the ground for neutral). Worst-case, try to find a 50amp breaker for that FP panel ...
 
1: get rid of the fed pac panel. they all are no good. i pulled apart one that had a baseball size burn mark behind the buss bar.
2: for the family that is living there ( and i don't mean any disrespect to you ) get a electrician involved. if that house does burn regardless of the cause the wires are going to be blamed. that means you. way to many problems in there. i don't know about you but i could not live if anything i did cost a life.
 
1: get rid of the fed pac panel. they all are no good. i pulled apart one that had a baseball size burn mark behind the buss bar.
I just don't think they're ready to bear the expense yet, even if the labor is free from me. I guess their attitude is that the house has stood for over 30 years without burning; which is silly - I've worn seatbelts for longer than that, and never would've been hurt if I had never worn them, so maybe I should stop now. There's also the issue of AFCI breakers: do they put those in ?

2: for the family that is living there ( and i don't mean any disrespect to you ) get a electrician involved. if that house does burn regardless of the cause the wires are going to be blamed. that means you. way to many problems in there. i don't know about you but i could not live if anything i did cost a life.
Well, I'm unimpressed with some of the professional electricians. It appears that the majority of the screw-ups in my OP were done by the original electrician.
 
Sounds like my house in Utah. I'de never seen so many different ways to wire outlets wrong. And throw in water dripping on a hot loose wire under the kitchen sink.

And they cut all the wires in the boxes so short they were extremely difficult to tie into even with jumpers. Replaced and rewired, every single outlet and switch in the house.
 
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The electrician is for liability. If they screw up, you can go in after them and fix it.
It is my stepson. If he sues me, it will come out of his inheritance probably :)

But yes, as @fbelec says, my main concern is their safety.
 
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It is my stepson. If he sues me, it will come out of his inheritance probably :)

But yes, as @fbelec says, my main concern is their safety.
It's not just about lawsuits, insurance will not pay out a claim if they find unlicensed work was done. Even if the claim had nothing to do with the electric.
 
It's not just about lawsuits, insurance will not pay out a claim if they find unlicensed work was done. Even if the claim had nothing to do with the electric.
Yeah, I see your point. Well, if I brought in a licensed electrician, should I admit I did the work that I did - basically remedying numbers 4, 5, 8, 9, 10, and 11 (in my OP), or just stay mum ? And bring to others to his attention ?
 
I just don't think they're ready to bear the expense yet, even if the labor is free from me. I guess their attitude is that the house has stood for over 30 years without burning; which is silly - I've worn seatbelts for longer than that, and never would've been hurt if I had never worn them, so maybe I should stop now. There's also the issue of AFCI breakers: do they put those in ?


Well, I'm unimpressed with some of the professional electricians. It appears that the majority of the screw-ups in my OP were done by the original electrician.
if you put in arc fault breakers on old circuits you'll get tripping for no reason, and you'll wind up pulling them out for regular breakers. at over 50 a piece that is a big waste.

as far as the panel if they are using that excuse not to do it then it will never get done. if the panel starts something when they are sleeping then tell him it was nice knowing him. i read what those panels were doing and they had so many house fires to pay for they went out of business. then pulling out one of my customers panels and seen that baseball size burn in back of the buss bars that are about 1/4 inch off the back i tell people to get rid of them as fast as you can. they are not predictable.
 
Yeah, I see your point. Well, if I brought in a licensed electrician, should I admit I did the work that I did - basically remedying numbers 4, 5, 8, 9, 10, and 11 (in my OP), or just stay mum ? And bring to others to his attention ?
just say mum. have the electrician do the work but have him pull a permit for it so that someone has to check his work. but do remember that only what is written on the permit will be inspected. been there done that.
 
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just say mum. have the electrician do the work but have him pull a permit for it so that someone has to check his work. but do remember that only what is written on the permit will be inspected. been there done that.
Our jurisdictions allows homeowners to pull a permit and do their own work (on their own house). So stepson could so that, and I'm "helping" him, and it gets inspected. That may suffice for insurance issues.
 
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A friend recently bought a nearby house, and I am helping them with some electrical work. The place is a mess. So far, here's what I've found:

1. The panel is one of the questionable Federal Pacific ones - my understanding is that the breakers don't reliably trip when they should.

2. It looks like the whole thing is wired with multi-wire branch circuits (MWBC), since the single-pole breakers alternate between red and black wires. The breakers are all distinct - no handle ties.

3. I can't tell for sure how they wired it though, because the sheaths are removed before they enter the load center cabinet. All the conductors come in from the crawlspace through a 2" L-shaped PVC nipple, so I guess they removed the sheath so it would all fit.

4. Trying to replace a ceiling luminaire, I found that I had to turn off two breakers to de-energize it. In other words, two circuits enter the luminaire and are tied together there; so the two circuits form a "ring". It's not clear if this luminaire is the place where the circuits were inappropriately joined, maybe there's another place where there are meant to be two circuits (perhaps a multi-gang switch box) and it's actually there that the mistake was made. However, I can find literally no other fixture of any kind that is driven by these circuits. It's like they brought two home-runs into this luminaire, tied 'em together and to the fixture, and that's it.

5. They tapped off a 3-way switch circuit to add an outlet - so the outlet is driven by a traveler and neutral. So if the switch in the other room is in the wrong position, then the outlet is dead. And ... wait for it ... the outlet is for the propane tankless water heater.

6. There is a luminaire controlled by two 3-way switches, which doesn't work right - BOTH switches must be in the correct position to turn it on. Diving into it. it appears they were trying to switch neutral with one of the switches; the other switch connects hot to one of two wires, which is perfectly normal, except it's not a 3-wire cable, so there is no neutral.

7. Looking into another switch box, one of the cables has the neutral clipped off right at the sheath.

8. An attic luminaire is controlled by a switch in a downstairs hallway; the attic in entered through a loft (so you have to go down a ladder to turn the light on and off).

9. A ceiling fan was hung from a non-fan rated box.

10. A luminaire was connected by simply poking the wires into the attic and tying them to romex - not in a box, not using wire nuts, not using electrical tape - using masking tape.

11. An extension cord was repaired, and the three conductors were scrambled. Not just hot and neutral swapped either ...

I imagine #10 and #11 were done by the previous owner (who, FWIW, was a Command Sergeant Major of the Green Berets), but the other things seem like they were probably done by the OG (or original electrician).

Anyhow, I just wanted to memorialize my experience, and to vent and perhaps gain a little sympathy :)

Or advice. I think saying "you need to have the house re-wired" is a non-starter. I've fixed #9, #10, and #11, I will fix #4, #5, and #8 as best I can, and try to forget the rest.
Wow... I have walked out of jobs like that when looking at them. Owners were not stripping the walls down to the studs. I would assume buried junction boxes are there. Forget about trying to put in AFCI and GFCI breakers. I would be shocked (no pun intended) if you got them to work. The only thing you are missing is a small fusebox with a penny jammed in there! Good luck. #4 and 8 made me cringe the most, then the FP panel.
 
I feel your pain.....I understand why some comments say to hire a professional electrician, however, if your area is anything like mine, it would be cheaper to buy a new house!
Personally, I would (and did on my house) have the homeowner pull a permit for a new load center. Identify and label circuits and replace the panel. Any circuits that are looped, crossed, or bonded outside the load center, separate and cap in the junction or switch box.
Have the load center inspection done and close the permit.
The house will now at least be safe.
Then you can go in with less urgency and repair the problem circuits.
As mentioned, forget the Arc fault breakers.
 
#4 and 8 made me cringe the most ...
I think #6:

"There is a luminaire controlled by two 3-way switches, which doesn't work right - BOTH switches must be in the correct position to turn it on. Diving into it. it appears they were trying to switch neutral with one of the switches; the other switch connects hot to one of two wires, which is perfectly normal, except it's not a 3-wire cable, so there is no neutral."

... might do worse if I add this: There is a black-sheathed cable in the box where the switch connects hot to one of two wires (it appears to be fat like a 3-wire cable, but there is no neutral). But here's the kicker. I don't know where that black-sheathed cable goes. None of the cables that come into the box with the other 3-way switch (the one that appears to switch neutral) is black. Buried j-box ?
 
Identify and label circuits and replace the panel. Any circuits that are looped, crossed, or bonded outside the load center, separate and cap in the junction or switch box
I think I might want to add a huge j-box in the crawlspace, and bring all the branch-circuit romex into there. Then run THHN/THWN from there into the panel. Two reasons. Recall the branch circuit conductors come into the panel cabinet via a L-shaped 2" PVC nipple from the crawlspace. But they aren't secured in any way; they may be stapled in the crawlspace before they enter the nipple, but that doesn't cut it. Second (as I said before), the romex sheaths do not extend into the cabinet, just individual conductors.
 
I think #6:

"There is a luminaire controlled by two 3-way switches, which doesn't work right - BOTH switches must be in the correct position to turn it on. Diving into it. it appears they were trying to switch neutral with one of the switches; the other switch connects hot to one of two wires, which is perfectly normal, except it's not a 3-wire cable, so there is no neutral."

... might do worse if I add this: There is a black-sheathed cable in the box where the switch connects hot to one of two wires (it appears to be fat like a 3-wire cable, but there is no neutral). But here's the kicker. I don't know where that black-sheathed cable goes. None of the cables that come into the box with the other 3-way switch (the one that appears to switch neutral) is black. Buried j-box ?
Buried junction box...