Now, more than ever, "comfort" and "convenience" are buzz words when speaking of the home. They can be experienced in many ways. Ample space, abundant natural light and more than one bathroom are examples. Clothes washers and dryers, central-heating and air-conditioning systems and automatic dishwashers are large appliances that add comfort and convenience to any home. Moreover, small appliances such as mixers, automatic can openers and food processors are commonly found in the home. Each requires electricity. That sometimes poses a problem, especially in older homes, where there aren't enough outlets, or the electrical system simply won't safely handle the additional load.
In our work as residential remodeling contractors, we have learned a few of the features that consumers want when remodeling their homes. More and larger closets, lots of windows, spacious rooms and more electrical outlets always seem to top the list. While we believe that all of these are reasonable requests, it is our opinion that electrical should be the number one consideration. Aside from the convenience that a few extra lights, switches or outlets offer, the electrical system greatly affects the safety of the home.
There are two primary elements of a home's electrical system that relate to safety: the size of the electrical service and the condition of the system (wiring, breakers, fuses, outlets, etc.) Most modern homes have an electrical main service which is rated for 100 amps, while many older homes are rated for just 60 amps. The smaller service simply is not large enough to handle the electrical demand of the modern home. Additionally, many of these older systems consist of knob and tube wiring, fuses and ungrounded wiring which, by today's standards, cannot be considered safe.
We believe that upgrading an electrical main service and rewiring a substandard electrical system is one of the best and smartest investments that a homeowner can make. No amount of money can compensate for the loss of life or irreplaceable personal property that can result from a house fire caused by a faulty electrical system. We don't consider upgrading a main service or rewiring a house an average do-it-yourself project. We recommend that a professional electrician be consulted.
Your main service and wiring might be in good shape, and all you want to do is add an outlet or two or a switch and fixture box for a light or ceiling fan. The good news is that this is a project that can be tackled by a do-it-yourselfer. The bad news is that the task can be a major undertaking, especially when the home is built on a concrete slab or has no attic. The addition of just one plug can mean cutting out wallboard, drilling holes in framing and "fishing" wires to new locations. If this isn't your idea of fun on a Saturday afternoon, you might consider the alternative - surface wiring.
Surface wiring is a system in which the wires are simply run across the surface of a wall or ceiling but are concealed and protected by a decorative cover or channel. The advantage of this alternative is that it can be done with little or no disruption to existing finishes. This can be a plus especially when wallpaper or paneling is involved. The disadvantage (and the objection that most folks have to this procedure) is that it can be difficult to conceal. However, where walls are made of block, concrete or other material that make wire-fishing impossible, surface wiring might be the only practical choice. Note: This type of surface-wiring system is not designed for exterior use. There are other surface-wiring systems that are approved for exterior use.
Before surface wiring is attempted, the electrical system should be in good shape, as discussed earlier. Care should be taken not to overload an existing circuit by using too many appliances or devices simultaneously. However, adding a few new outlets to a circuit is seldom a problem. When in doubt, consult a professional electrician.
Surface-wiring systems consist of metal or heavy plastic components and can be purchased at most home centers. They come with an assortment of fittings to make installation as simple as possible. The material can be cut with a hacksaw, therefore eliminating the need for power tools. However, a cordless driver/drill can make the job easier. The only other tool required is a combination wire cutter/stripper.
The installation is simple. Begin by creating a diagram which outlines where the new outlet, switch or fixture is to be located in relation to existing electrical. Choose an existing outlet which will serve as the power source for the addition. Turn off the power to the outlet and remove the cover plate and the outlet to expose the wiring. Attach a starter box to the existing outlet box and run the surface-wiring system to the desired location. The new starter box has a dual purpose. It serves as both a junction box for the wire connections and as an outlet. Turn the electrical back on after all connections have been made.
Remember to consult with local building officials to determine if a permit will be required and to ensure that the work complies with local codes.