From the Ground Up: Electrical Wiring
Setting up an electrical system for maximum safety and convenience
Whenever we flip a switch, plug in an appliance, or adjust a reading light, we interact with the electrical system in a house. A good electrician can make those interactions easier in a hundred little ways, so it's best to communicate your needs early—ideally after the house is framed and before the drywall or insulation goes up.
That's when master electrician Allen Gallant, who has wired many This Old House TV projects, takes his customers on a job-site walk-through, showing where he plans to put switches, lights, and receptacles. "I'll even ask them if they're left-handed or right-handed," he says. "It makes a big difference when you're looking for the light switch." It's easy to make changes at this point in the process, but once the walls are closed in, any second thoughts become far more difficult and expensive to implement.
Once Gallant starts wiring a house, virtually every aspect of his work is controlled by codes, both local and national. These codes are the final word on safe installation practices. Gallant is meticulous in adhering to them, yet he often goes a step further to make his electrical systems even safer and easier to use. On the following pages, you'll see the basics of wiring a house to meet code, along with a look at Gallant's extras.
Allen Gallant's Choices
Outlet Boxes: Plastic or Metal?
When given a choice between installing outlet boxes made of blue PVC or those made of steel, Allen Gallant chooses plastic. "People say metal is so durable. But so is plastic—it'll be around forever—and it's about 70 percent cheaper." Plastic boxes also save installation time because there's no need to ground each one, as must be done with metal. (Local code has the last word, however; in some communities, plastic boxes are forbidden.) Gallant does use metal boxes for one application: light fixtures. He learned that rule the hard way, when a heavy alabaster fixture broke loose from a plastic box and smashed to pieces on the floor. "Never again," he says.
Going Beyond Code
Allen Gallant's extras
- Receptacles: Massachusetts requires electrical outlets every 12 feet; Gallant puts one every 8 feet. "Not a big deal on the budget, but it's a lot more convenient."
- Security lights: For added safety, Gallant mounts exterior floodlights controlled by a switch in the master bedroom.
- Light fixtures: Gallant always hard-wires at least one light fixture to a switch. If the switch just controls the receptacle that a lamp is plugged into, "sooner or later someone turns off the lamp, and then the switch won't work," he says. "It's a pain.
- Outdoor receptacles: The code mandates two (with GFCI); Gallant installs at least three, in front and in back.
As Seen on TV
Arc-Fault Circuit Interrupters
A conventional circuit breaker can't detect the low-level arcing (a spark-generating short circuit) that can occur on frayed or cut wires. Arc-fault circuit interrupters (AFCIs), installed at the service panel, protect against such dangerous shorts and are now required in new bedroom circuits. Gallant first used them at the TV project in Billerica, Mass.
What a difference a transformer makes. By taking 110-volt household power and stepping it down to 12 volts, it allows most any homeowner to safely install low-voltage lighting fixtures under cabinets, on ceilings, or around gardens and outdoor walkways. Low voltage doesn't mean dim. The tiny xenon bulbs in the accent lights in the kitchen of the Charlestown, Mass., TV project produce an incredibly bright light, and they boast a 10,000-hour life span.
Airtight Recessed Lights
Standard recessed lights are stylish space savers, but they leave a hole in your ceiling where air (and heat) can escape. That's why manufacturers have perfected so-called airtight recessed lights, which block air leaks and even allow insulation to be placed on top of the fixture—a big no-no with old-style can lights. Used throughout the Milton TV project, they're now required by code in many applications.
On the Horizon
High-tech Electric Meters
In the future, your electric meter may be able to sense power outages, detect wiring problems, monitor appliance efficiency, and send reports instantly to the power company. The company can then save you money by notifying you of problems or by remotely shutting down noncritical appliances during peak-rate hours. These are already in use with big industrial and commercial power users.
Light-emitting diodes (LEDs)—now seen primarily in flashlights, traffic signals, and auto taillights—are already saving billions of kilowatt hours of electricity. They use just 10 percent of the power needed for incandescent bulbs of the same brightness and should last for at least 10,000 hours. These wonder bulbs promise to be the next big thing in residential lighting. Gallant can"t wait. "They'd be great for a cathedral ceiling because you almost never have to change the bulbs."
Where to Find It
Worth a Look —
Ambience, Sea Gull Lighting
Airtight recessed light:
For further information —
Edison Electric Institute
National Electric Code:
National Fire Protection Assocation (NFPA)
Copper Development Association Inc.
New York, NY