Finally, the lights come on!

Tue, 30 Mar 2010

Been a while since I had time to post, and I have several updates, but the first one is: we have lights again!

OK, you have no idea what I'm talking about. On Jan 2, while writing something for this blog in fact, my wife yelled from the other room that sparks were coming out of the electrical sockets -- the one the TV was connected to. I quickly went out and started throwing circuit breakers, since nothing was marked and I had no idea what controlled what.

As I cautiously turned breakers back on, checking to see what electrical appliances came on and which didn't, I noted that several other outlets exhibited a kind of eerie, orange glow (the house now being mostly dark).

The house we've been living in is over 50 years old. Most of the outlets were still the two plug variety, and few enough of them. The breakers were almost all 40 amps, the wiring a dismally small 14 guage, and all run through 1/2 in. metal tubes buried in the cement floor. I was to learn that all that tubing was now hopelessly corroded.

I decided on one circuit that provided us mostly ceiling lights and little else (although half the original electrical outlets were connected to that one circuit as well).

I called an electrician I know in whom I have some confidence (having fired no small number of "electricians", "plumbers", "masons", and other self-proclaimed construction workers -- all but the masons claiming to be "certified"). In fact, I think I've hired and subsequently fired a fair percentage of the above for shoddy, substandard, and usually non-code work. After seeing some of these folks in action, it's amazing to me buildings remain standing as long as they do.

Anyway, the electrician, having worked for me before, gave me the options: fix the circuits so they work (problem: the panel is so old, no new breakers are available, the equipment is obsolete), or just rewire new circuits around the old ones that still work.

I told him no, let's redesign the entire house as it should have been and bring it up to date with GFI (ground-fault interrupt) outlets and circuits where they should be.

I got a momentary "this gringo's loco" look (but only momentary -- he'd done some work for me before), and told me, OK, but I need to start with a new service entrance and come in from the street. I told him to draw me up a list of materials and give me a quote. I walked him through the house giving him my design idea, and we got started (after I made copious quantities of changes to his list of materials, like 3/4 in. vice 1/2 in. tubing, heavier guage wire from the service entrance to the panel, etc.

Well, it only took about 45 days from start to finish. Why so long? Well, to start with, after drawing the design for the new service entrance, the Fire Department had to come out and inspect. Once approved, the service entrance was built and the Fire Department again had to come out and inspect. (I hope the folks from "Total Reconstruction" never try to come to Panama -- a one week reconstruction will take 3 months!).

Now that the Fire Department was happy, we had to request that the electrical company move the meter to it's new home (from wrapped on a telephone pole with baling wire to a properly built service entrance complete with 100 amp breakers). But first, we had to chip concrete block walls, put in all new electical boxes and tubing throughout the house, cement everything back up, and pull all new cable to a new distribution box (I'm still painting the inside of the house).

Once all the work was completed, the electrical company came out and promptly refused to make the move:

  1. your entrance tube is too high, lower it
  2. this house only had 60 amp service, we won't reconnect to 100 amp service

Ok, so lowering the entrance tube was no big deal, just cut the tube. As for the other "minor" problem, I told them, no, the house has had 100 amp service for over 20 years. They were not convinced.

Camera time. Since we were still using the old distribution box with the big old fuses (not breakers), I just pulled out my camera and started taking high quality pictures of the current working setup complete with the amperage numbers (100 amps on the input from the street) clearly readable in the pictures. I also managed to include the wires that had clearly printed "14 guage" connected to the 40 amp breakers (if the house had been constructed of wood, it would have been a smoking rubble pile years ago).

My beautiful wife, always the tactful one (I was for just sending the lawyers to beat on them) took the pictures down and went through show and tell with them and they finally said "oh, our database must not have been updated" (duh). Two days later they returned and made the change.

We now have all new electrical circuits, sufficient 3 plug outlets, more light fixtures, and everything working. In fact, the showerhead heaters provide hotter water, the lights are brighter, the appliances all take less time to make hotter food, the refrigerator doesn't complain like it used to, and everything just works. This is what happens when wires aren't overheated until they glow red and you actually get 110 volts out of the sockets (vice the 60 or so volts the electrician found was the norm in the old wiring). We also have a good ground (yeah, that minor detail was overlooked when the house was built).

Nearly seven weeks. My inbox had thousands of mails. Took me another month just to get caught up, not to mention all the projects I was very much behind on. I told my wife that now that the electrical was fixed, as soon as I finished painting the house, I'd need to start on the plumbing. After she calmed down (as I told her the plumbing would take at least 3 times as much time and money to fix, and the roof was needing work as well), she called an architect/engineer we know and has quotes on a new construction on our farm.

We are both hopeful that by Christmas we can be in a new house. That's assuming all goes according to plan. But, as should be obvious from the above ordeal, it is likely to take a bit longer than we'd like. Will post as things progress.


Finally, the lights come on!

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