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Author Topic: What's the worst thing that can happen?  (Read 7303 times)

John Roberts {JR}

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What's the worst thing that can happen?
« on: May 13, 2016, 04:07:51 pm »

I have been enlisted by my (86YO) neighbor to take a look at his house wiring. Last winter he had a minor fire (smoke?) incident, and I don't know all the details, but some wire(s) supposedly over heated because they had too much garbage stacked up on top of them??  I do not know that I buy the explanation, but their short term remedy was to cut the wires... ::) Probably stopped using the central heat, and reverted to the old in wall room heaters.

Now that warm weather is arrived, the wiring needs to be restored for the central air conditioning to work... So I promised to go over tomorrow and take a look. I'll know more tomorrow after I get some eyeballs on it. I'll beg off if it looks too dicey, but i'd like to save my neighbor a few bux if i can.

Anything obvious to look for? I think they said it was Romex, so not original (very old) house wiring, but could be a few decades old. There's a sub panel (or two) for the central air maybe 100 feet from the power meter and main panel.

The house was expanded upon, once or twice, which is probably why there are multiple electrical panels.

I ASSume romex is still legal for house wiring?

What could possibly go wrong, burn down a friends house?

JR

PS: BTW his house is better wired than mine with actual grounded outlets in the kitchen.   8)
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Sean Schult

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Re: What's the worst thing that can happen?
« Reply #1 on: May 13, 2016, 06:43:01 pm »

I ASSume romex is still legal for house wiring?

No offense intended, but, if you have to ask a question like that -- what exactly are you going to offer your neighbor by looking at his wiring? Even if you gave him some good tips regarding safe use of extension cords, he'll be knocking the next time his house starts on fire, saying "John told me this is how it was done!"... I'd tell him to get an electrician and stay far away from offering anything that could be construed as electrical advice. Just my humble opinion.
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John Roberts {JR}

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Re: What's the worst thing that can happen?
« Reply #2 on: May 13, 2016, 07:16:51 pm »

No offense intended, but, if you have to ask a question like that -- what exactly are you going to offer your neighbor by looking at his wiring? Even if you gave him some good tips regarding safe use of extension cords, he'll be knocking the next time his house starts on fire, saying "John told me this is how it was done!"... I'd tell him to get an electrician and stay far away from offering anything that could be construed as electrical advice. Just my humble opinion.
Yes that is the correct advice... and like I said I may beg off if it looks dicey, but my neighbor is not exactly flush with excess cash. I will help him if I can.

The last time I did any DIY house wiring we were using BX, a real PIA compared to the (then) new fangled romex with plastic sheath. We had to cut BX with a hack saw, while being careful not to nick the wires. Even the BX outlets I wired up back in the 60's were grounded, better than my house is now.

Yes, I am ignorant of current NEC minutiae, but i am not stupid (well not extremely stupid, maybe just a little stupid for exposing myself to legal liability just to help a neighbor).

=======

I am still unconvinced by their explanation of how the original fire/smoke incident occurred... perhaps it was one of those arc-fault events, i have read so much about but never seen.  ;D

I should know more tomorrow, or maybe not..

JR

PS: I do ASSume romex is still legal, but the branch may need AFCI or some new technology added (air conditioner compressor, fan blower motor, etc. .
« Last Edit: May 13, 2016, 07:20:59 pm by John Roberts {JR} »
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Jay Barracato

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Re: What's the worst thing that can happen?
« Reply #3 on: May 13, 2016, 07:34:39 pm »

When I was doing renovations in the 80's of 40's-60's homes we could usually tell what was new construction and what was previous renovation by the amount and type of garbage between the walls.

Sent from my XT1254 using Tapatalk

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Stephen Swaffer

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Re: What's the worst thing that can happen?
« Reply #4 on: May 13, 2016, 08:31:47 pm »

My guess is that the root cause of the smoke was trying to save a few bucks.  So many people "know better" and get it to work so much cheaper than a real electrician.  And everything is just cheeky-until it isn't.  It is far easier to get something to work when everything is working correctly than to get it to fail safely and gracefully when something goes wrong.  That is where a LOT of my time and cost comes from.

That said, AFCIs are not required or used on AC units in normal circumstances.  If wire has "too much garbage" stacked on top of it, it was not installed correctly in the first place.  Probably damaged or weakened essentially making it a smaller wire in the hot spot-assuming it was the correct size to begin with.

My policy has been to be hands off unless the resources are there to do the job right-(in this case it sounds like properly installing a new wire from the AC to the panel then thoroughly testing the AC unit before returning it to service).  Usually that means the customers ponies up the money-or gets the bank too.  I have "contributed" to the resources at times when a truly needy person was in serious danger-perhaps you can find a good qualified electrician that needs to do something nice this week?

Burning the house down might not be so bad-sending your neighbor to an earlier than necessary grave is a very real possibility.  I suspect he would not be very agile in case of a fire.
« Last Edit: May 13, 2016, 08:34:11 pm by Stephen Swaffer »
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Steve Swaffer

John Roberts {JR}

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Re: What's the worst thing that can happen?
« Reply #5 on: May 13, 2016, 10:13:11 pm »

My guess is that the root cause of the smoke was trying to save a few bucks.  So many people "know better" and get it to work so much cheaper than a real electrician.  And everything is just cheeky-until it isn't.  It is far easier to get something to work when everything is working correctly than to get it to fail safely and gracefully when something goes wrong.  That is where a LOT of my time and cost comes from.
I don't get the feeling he did the wiring himself or he would know more about it. I suspect real electricians did the original work, while perhaps not white glove guys.
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That said, AFCIs are not required or used on AC units in normal circumstances.
Thanks, I'm still trying to figure out where to use them (in my world).
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If wire has "too much garbage" stacked on top of it, it was not installed correctly in the first place.  Probably damaged or weakened essentially making it a smaller wire in the hot spot-assuming it was the correct size to begin with.
Yes, I literally have not been inside the room yet to inspect the evidence. I do not buy the simple explanation,,, active wiring should not be out in the open where stuff could be stacked up on top of it...I will know more tomorrow.
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My policy has been to be hands off unless the resources are there to do the job right-(in this case it sounds like properly installing a new wire from the AC to the panel then thoroughly testing the AC unit before returning it to service).  Usually that means the customers ponies up the money-or gets the bank too.  I have "contributed" to the resources at times when a truly needy person was in serious danger-perhaps you can find a good qualified electrician that needs to do something nice this week?
I have been warning them since I agreed to look at this, that I'll bail in a minute if I do not feel confident. I declined several times already before agreeing to "look at it". I understand electricity better than most, but have limited experience with house wiring.
======
I've found things in my house wiring that scared me a little... about 10-15 years ago, i noticed that my electric stove burners were not making full heat. Poking around in the cupboard under the stove top i found some wires hanging down that were just loosely twisted together and taped (shiny modern electrical tape, not the old school sticky friction electrical tape)... but no wire nut, and clearly not twisted tight enough. Loose connections like that could easily start a fire. I was lucky I guess (I put a wire nut on it and no problems since).
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Burning the house down might not be so bad-sending your neighbor to an earlier than necessary grave is a very real possibility.  I suspect he would not be very agile in case of a fire.
I am not sure he has much longer to go with or without my help, but i would like to help him get his air conditioning working again. It's already hot and humid here in MS. I want him to be comfortable in his twilight years.

My hit list is to first get a good understanding of what caused the fire/smoke event. I don't think the air compressor was even running (winter) so obvious suspects are blower motor, and heating element inside the air duct drawing current, in combination with faulty wiring. 

If I find evidence where the wires were obviously compromised, I feel confident I can repair that. If i don't feel confident, I'm not going to gamble with their house or lives.

JR 
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Stephen Swaffer

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Re: What's the worst thing that can happen?
« Reply #6 on: May 13, 2016, 11:10:32 pm »

AFCIs are required in virtually all circuits in a new home by the 2014 code.  The only exceptions are bathrooms (??), garages, outside and appliance circuits (including microwaves, etc).  The are much better than when first introduced a decade or so ago. 

Most near misses that I have seen would have been stopped much quicker with an "arc fault" circuit interrupter.  Things like loose wire nuts and even arcing worn out receptacles should be caught.  While not required in older homes, imo, they are a reasonable way to protect wiring that may not quite be up to snuff.
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Steve Swaffer

John Roberts {JR}

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Re: What's the worst thing that can happen?
« Reply #7 on: May 14, 2016, 01:04:20 pm »

OK, I'm not burning his house down yet...

It's interesting how I get three different stories from talking with the husband and wife both in their '80s and their grown son 50's separately.

It looks like from an abundance of caution, they cut two power feeds going into the blower/heat unit. Even though there is a sub panel right there with all four breakers turned off. They also cut the thermostat wires and anything that looked electrical.

My NCVT (I found it) detects voltage on two of the three cables coming into the top of the sub panel, nothing on the cut wires leaving the panel.

I found the smoking gun (wire)... A length of rather modest gauge romex was literally melted around the copper wire conductors inside.

The wire that melted is supposed to feed the outdoor compressor for the central air conditioning. I checked between the two melted conductors for a short and measured a few hundred K ohm, so no dead short that would explain the melt down... 

When I went out to the cut off switch by the compressor. i measured completely open circuit both across the compressor, and the wire leading back into the house (with cut off switch turned off).

So I see several discrepancies,,, the gauge of the wire coming from the compressor cut off switch back into the house is much heavier gauge, than the puny wire in the closet supposedly connected to that. I read a complete open circuit, not a few hundred K but maybe my fingers touched the bare wire in the closet inadvertently.

Now here's where the multiple different versions of what happened comes in. The wife tells me the air conditioning wasn't on when the wire burned up, but the son tells me it happened the first time she turned on the air... That sounds logical, so I believe the son.

They told me nobody messed with the wiring but.... my neighbor used to have an outdoor wood burning heater that he sold off last year. The guy who bought the heater had to get down in the crawl space under the house to disconnect the power to the outdoor wood burning furnace blower.

So funny (wrong gauge) wiring under the house, with a splice down there between the good gauge wire coming from the compressor and the puny wire going up into the closet.

I can see what wire burned, but it is still unclear why exactly... A bad compressor might draw excessive current and over-heat the undersized wire, but that compressor is not that old....

I was told after joking about lightning, that the original compressor was hit by lightning several years back.  :o

So now I have several suspects.

Scenario #1: Compressor went bad while sitting over the winter, and melted the undersized wire when first turned on.

Scenario #1A: Compressor hit by lightning again (yes, lightning can hit the same place more than once).

Scenario #2: Good old boy who disconnected wood furnace blower power feed, screwed up the compressor wiring under the house.

My conclusion so far...

A) Original wiring was substandard, the wire run between the closet and under-house splice on the way to the compressor is too small gauge.

B) Compressor may or may not be bad... I do not know easy way to test for that short of applying power.

C) Probably some funny business in the wiring under the house, and this was just the one wire that caught fire.

--------

Since I don't go down into my own crawl space I'm not going down into his. I advised them to first get an air conditioning service man to test the status of the compressor... Then find a somebody to trace out the wiring under the house and upgrade that. So regrettably I haven't saved him a penny.

They have lived in this town all their lives so surely know people who will do electrician work for pay. They already played their one free card and that didn't work out.   8)

JR
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Stephen Swaffer

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Re: What's the worst thing that can happen?
« Reply #8 on: May 14, 2016, 01:20:53 pm »

If the compressor is bad, undersize wiring or poor connections could have contributed to its demise. Motors start hard and don't like undervoltage-undersize wire increases voltage drop and a bad scenario snowballs.
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Steve Swaffer

John Roberts {JR}

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Re: What's the worst thing that can happen?
« Reply #9 on: May 14, 2016, 01:38:56 pm »

If the compressor is bad, undersize wiring or poor connections could have contributed to its demise. Motors start hard and don't like undervoltage-undersize wire increases voltage drop and a bad scenario snowballs.
In my judgement, the wire feeding it was definitely undersized, but it apparently worked that way for several years. I don't know how long the undersized section of romex is, a few feet inside the closet alone. 

I guess the first compressor start after sitting for the winter may have been even higher current draw than usual.

I need to tag in an air conditioning guy, and a crawl space friendly guy... my work here is pretty much done. It looks like they made the repair more expensive that it would have been if they didn't cut every wire in the closet (including thermostat).

I will try to stay involved enough that they don't repeat any bad practices, like wrong wire gauge. I feel bad because the guy just got out of the hospital, and they do not have spare cash around for such things.

If faulty, they need to replace the compressor with a heat pump so they can heat and cool the house more cheaply, but i don't see any budget for that.

JR 
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Re: What's the worst thing that can happen?
« Reply #9 on: May 14, 2016, 01:38:56 pm »


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