Bad Wiring In The Walls (Issue 1016)

In which we are reminded to look “behind the walls” in our clients’ operations lest we miss something that will become a problem.

I live on the first floor of a brick Italianate house built in 1873 as a modest (relative to the expansive neighboring houses at the time) single family home, upgraded and remodeled in the 1920s, then added-on to in the 1940s, then broken into condos and upgraded again in the 1970s, with various alterations in more recent years.

One Sunday morning, I was sitting in our dining room on the first floor, working. I heard a loud pop from the basement and the lights went out. Everything stopped.

“Now what???”, I wondered, heading into the basement. I reset all of the breaker switches in the circuit breaker box that serves our unit. No power. Tried again, thinking I’d missed something. No power.

So, what else to do? I called our electrician. After a few minutes conversation and some diagnostic work, he said, “I’ll be there in two hours.”

Once on site, and about an hour later, he hollered up from the basement words that have become very familiar to us, as we’ve worked on our old house, and that prompt immediate jolts of adrenaline: ‘Hey, look at this!!!!”

We clunp-clump-clumped down the stairs to the basement to find John, the electrician, holding up our distribution box, now disconnected from the wall.

“What do you see?”, he asked. I could see a dime-sized area of scorched paint and a hole the circumference of a standard drinking straw in the back of the box. Not normal.

“Right!”, John responded. “Whoever wired this box last put in a single wire carrying power from the main incoming line to the circuit breakers in the box. The single wire should have been split into two wires. Over a period of time, as you drew power (and as previous residents and you added appliances upstairs), the end of the overloaded single wire would overheat and melt, a tiny bit at a time. This morning, it melted through the insulation at the connector and shorted through the back of the box.

Thus, the scorched paint and the hole. We were v e r y lucky that hadn’t started a fire.

John went to work, replacing and rewiring the box. About an hour later, we heard again… “Hey, look at this!!!!” [Sigh. Back to the basement.]

John yanked a short section of conduit out of the wall. It looked like an oversized, hairy, corroded caterpillar.

“This wiring…”, John said, “…carries power from here, through your walls, to the distribution box upstairs.” He gave it a good yank. “This is from the 1920s… it’s a two wire system rather than a three wire system, so you have a similar issue going up through the walls. Would you like me to replace this?”

Who knew?

Sometimes, when houses (or clients) grow and evolve, they outgrow the infrastructure that once supported them well, leading to failures they don’t anticipate. It’s our job to spot these old, hairy, hidden issues before they become potentially fatal hazards.

Nick Miller and Clarity train banks and bankers to attract and develop deeper relationships with small businesses. Many more Sales Thoughts like this and a host of other articles and resources at .

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