Wiring Woes: Older Homes not wired for today’s technology!
Volume 1, Issue 1 – Summer 2009
I recently was working with a well-known Residential Audio Manufacturer to test a new product that they are developing. This product test brought up some interesting problems with the wiring in our 125 year old farmhouse. As with most contractors, we have yet to do a major upgrade of our electrical system, preferring to test new electronic devices and products in what we believe is a real world, that is, what we will find in our marketplace.
Here in the Midwest, we have many older homes, both in the city as well as in rural communities that are not wired to work with today’s sophisticated electronic do-dads. Sure, we do have many newer homes and to some extent, have found some of the same problems with them as we do with the older homes. In fact, on the new homes that we have work with from the ground (i.e. footers) up, we have found problems as we continually add additional electronic components to the grid. In working with our manufacturer above, we have older cloth and paper two (2) conductor wiring that is open spliced in the crawl space under the main section of the home. We also have new, grounded three (3) conductor Romex® wiring in the kitchen, bath and basement areas of the home. The electrical service is in three (3) load centers with one (1) main breaker protecting all the down stream circuits, feeding the other two (2) sub-panels with two pole breakers and single pole breakers protecting each individual feeder circuit. However, the product was unable to communicate through our power grid. We had low signal, no signal and ground loop issues as we were setting up the system. Only after we installed dedicated circuits to two of the locations did the communication problems end.
We have found that the issues listed above are present in many of the homes we work in through out the Midwest. As we, as consumers, keep bringing more and more electronic devices into our homes, many of our older homes do not have adequate power systems to handle the loads or to fully protect the equipment or the user. Take the following scenario for an example:
The Smiths purchase a new home theater system from the local big box store.
They are eager to unload, unwrap and relax in the living room with the latest Blu-ray version of their favorite movie. Their home, built in 1968 is wired with 1968 National Electric Code (NEC®) standards and while the previous owner did install some three-prong grounded (?) outlets, the electrical system has not been upgraded or checked. After opening the boxes and running the speaker wire around the baseboard to the speaker locations, attaching the Blu-ray player, the 60” Flat screen and audio receiver into the surge protector power strip the salesmen at the big box store assured them that they must have for an older home, they find a problem. After they plug the surge protector strip into the three-prong outlet on the wall, they notice that instead of the green all is well LED shinning brightly, they have a flashing red LED and the surge protector is completely locked up. This device that is suppose to protect their new home theater from power spikes, electrical surges, and lightning is instead protecting the equipment from the homes miss wired, non grounded electrical system. So instead of spending the next two hours enjoying the movie, the Smith’s have to look at their antiquated wiring and possibly call in an electrician. This situation could have been worse if they had not purchased the surge protector, thus powering up the equipment with the power on the neutral side of the receptacle straight into the grounded side of the equipment, which is not covered under the warranty.
The point here is that the average American household purchases more than $2,000 of electronic items and services each year according to the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA). This includes computers, printers, scanners, flat screen TV’s, monitors, DVD and Blu-Ray players, iPods, routers, and just about every other appliance for the home. Today even our gas ranges have digital clocks, timers, and controls; our refrigerators have electronic message boards and controls. This trend in not going to stop, even as we begin to look at energy saving devices.
The average residence is using more and more electrical power each year. Even as we move from incandescent lighting to Compact Fluorescent (CFL’s) or LED lighting, our electrical dependency is growing. While our appliances have become more efficient and our use of insulation and energy conservation methods are lowering our individual use, we have become dependant on our air-conditioned homes where we can work and play with the amenities of the theater and the office.
Many older homes have undergone some type of electrical system upgrade. This may be a service upgrade from 60 AMP fuses to 100 AMP circuit breakers. Some may have had a 200 AMP panel installed with a main earth ground run to a ground rod and bonded to the metal water lines in the home. Some, but not nearly all have had that ground extended to the individual electrical outlets in each room. However, most home inspectors and electrical contactors will tell you that they find older two-prong outlets (which are still made and available) replaced with a three-prong outlet, but no earth or equipment ground has been run. They should have replaced the broken or damaged two-prong outlet with another two-prong outlet. This type of change is dangerous for both the electronic equipment and the home’s occupants. As many of the electrical appliances now come with a three-prong plug, any miss wiring or electrical component failure could put line voltage on the metal case, the cord, cover plate and even down stream to another outlet. Additionally, older wiring, this is two-wire, non–grounded circuits can cause interference, static, ground looping and other problems even when used correctly. That third wire, the equipment or earth ground allows for excess electrical amperage to be bled off, thus eliminating many of the common noise issues that can be found in older homes.
Yes, rewiring an entire house can be costly and time consuming. If the home has wood or metal lath, the cost can easily climb above $2,500.00. However, the whole house doesn’t necessarily need to be rewired. Having a licensed electrician review you electrical system and make a recommendation to protect both your equipment and family is a wise choice. Upgrading or running a dedicated grounded circuit for your equipment may be just the answer that you need. Remember, just adding the three-prong outlet to a non-grounded circuit will not protect your equipment or you from electrical hazard.
Here are some easy steps to take to protect your family and your sensitive electronic equipment.
- Always use a quality surge protection power strip with a fuse for your electronic equipment installations. Never overload a duplex receptacle by adding multipliers, i.e. multi-plugs directly to the outlet!
- When in doubt, call a qualified, licensed electrician to evaluate the location of the equipment and the load required to power it. This is cheap insurance against failure or injury.
- If you find static, intermittent skips or jumps, review your installation, the wiring to see if you have speaker wires overlapping power cords. In all cases, turn off the equipment; unplug the power strip from the wall and then look at the wiring. If the power cords are very warm, i.e. hot, do not plug them back in, call an electrician.
- Always, always follow the instructions found in the equipment packing boxes. Never rely on a salesman to give you installation facts!
Your homes electrical system was designed for the equipment available at the time it was built. If your home is older than twenty years, that is, built before 1980, you should have the electrical system reviewed and inspected before you make any major electronic additions. If you are planning to add a home theater, multi-room audio-video system or any energy management devices, having an electrical check-up will save you time, frustration and money in the long run. Protect you investment; always review the power requirements before you plug in!