KNOB-AND-TUBE WIRING: REPUTATION RESTORED!

Electron eater. — wikimedia pd

Knob-and-tube wiring, the antique technology that strikes terror in the hearts of home buyers, is not a fire hazard! In theory. Technically. Much.

So says this report, which examined the rate at which the early 1900s wiring starts house fires. After studying a bunch of fires and fire-trap houses, these investigators concluded:

“Properly installed and unaltered K&T wiring is not an inherent fire hazard.”

Ta-Daaaaa!

But what the heck is knob and tube wiring, you ask?

It’s the aboriginal electrical wire, standard equipment from the 1880s to the 1940s. It carried electricity into your house in copper wire wrapped in cloth insulation. As they snaked through the walls, the hot wires were kept clear of the flammable wood with ceramic insulators, some shaped like knobs, some shaped like tubes.

Knob and Tube wiring. — Wikimedia pd

Although K&T has been rendered obsolete by wire that’s wrapped in a metal or plastic jacket, remnants of the “legacy wiring” remain alive and well in many older houses. And contrary popular perception, it’s not particularly hazardous! I’m pleased to have found this study, in part because my Dad always contended that K&T was actually safer than the new stuff. But because he was prone to skepticism in the face of most technological “advances,” including computers, vacuum cleaners, and the clothes iron, I wasn’t entirely sure I should trust him on this point. Apparently, I can.

So, yay! K&T is a much maligned and innocent technology!

Now, there are just a few minor GIANT caveats:

1: In an overhead light fixture, the heat of the bulb can slowly cook the cotton insulation off the copper wires. I stumbled upon this situation in my 1918 bungalow, and the black char marks on the ceiling plaster were legit scary.

2: Adding insulation over K&T can allow the warm wires to heat up and set things on fire. An awful lot of old houses have had insulation blown blindly into their walls and attics over the years.

3: Those pure and original K&T circuits have been tampered with over the years, pushing them WELL past their design specifications.

Now, how do you know if someone has twiddled around with your original K&T?

Oh, we just know they have: When these houses were built, electrical fixtures were limited to an overhead light in each room, and a couple of outlets for the Victrola and one of those crazy new toasters.

But since then, a tidal wave of electrical inventions has washed through the marketplace, and into the house. When the electric razor appeared in the 1930s, your Grandpa had to have one. He spliced a new wire into the old K&T circuit in the basement, and poked it up into the bathroom wall to power a new outlet. Electric refrigerator? Splice in another branch! Vacuum cleaner? New outlet! Washing machine? Electric iron, fan, coffee percolator, radio, television, microwave, clothes dryer, cook-stove?

So many splices!

Each with the risk of untwisting, or touching something flammable, or lacking sufficient insulating tape!

Each brighter light bulb and bigger fridge pulling more hot current through the humble wire wrapped in cotton!

So it’s mixed news, really: K&T is not inherently a fire hazard. But exherently, it really might be. It probably is. I’m glad mine is all gone. Sorry, Dad.

wikimedia pd

Oops! I forgot to replace all my old windows before winter!

unnamedThis picture is worth a thousand words. Just do this, and you won’t have to read the rest of the post. But by all means if you prefer reading about stuff you should do, rather than actually doing it, read on. We’ve all been there.

I, for example, read up on replacement windows every November-December when the first blast of Arctic air barrels into my 1918 bungalow. “Next summer,” I vow.

Then, each “next summer” I do not replace my windows, for a number of reasons. Not least, the  bungalow is a tropical vernacular, and tends toward enormous windows on the first floor. Your average vinyl replacement unit would soon warp under the weight of all that glass.

But another reason is that replacing windows just doesn’t save much energy. Even brand-new, double-glazed windows are relatively worthless when viewed as insulation. Two layers of window dressing (roller shade + curtain; Venetian blind + Roman shade) give you the same insulation value as a double glazed window. But only

ONLY

only if air is not leaking around the edges of the old window unit.

Aaaaaand even if air is leaking around the shrunken frames, rattling them like frosty bones and causing your candle flames to dance merrily, you still don’t have to replace them. Just do this:

1: Tear off strips of cling-wrap.

2: With a fillet knife, putty knife, whatever, work that cling wrap into the crack between the window sash and the window frame.

3: You’re done. Go read something enjoyable.*

No hair dryer. No gray, gummy ropes of… gummystuff. The cling wrap disappears into the chasm, not to be seen again until spring.

*Extra credit for stuffing cling wrap into the pully mechanism at the top of the window.

unnamed

 

 

THE FINAL WORD ON EFFICIENT HOT WATER! MAYBE.

Hot water, olde school. Wikimedia pd

Hot water, olde school. (Bad dog, timeless) Wikimedia pd

The inherent waste in household water heating (and, yes, the carbon footprint of flushing an upstairs toilet) are the kind of things that cause me grave concern on a daily basis. Going to the Building Energy conference in Boston helped. Kinda.

The hot water thing: We tend to heat a tank full of it, then spend more carbon-based energy keeping it hot even when nobody needs it. Each time we open a hot water faucet somewhere in the house, we draw that hot water from the tank and into cold pipes. Heat is lost. The farther the water travels through the pipes, the more heat it loses. And after you’ve received your hot water and you shut off the faucet, then all the hot water still in the pipeline slowly sheds its carbon-costly heat and returns to room temperature. *

(You rightly imagine that the hot water pipes in my basement are insulated with foam tubes. I got the tubes at Home Depot on clearance for 1 cent apiece, which spared me a ton of math on the financial arm of the equation.)

The old solution to this soul-killing waste was the “on demand water heater.” Fired by gas or electricity, it replaced the big tank in the basement, and heated water instantly** when you opened the faucet. But the heated water still had to navigate the same old heat-shedding pipes.

So at the trade show I was intrigued by a display of POUETs: Point Of Use Electric Tankless. point-of-use-water-heater

Stiebel POUET

Stiebel POUET images

These are sized for each faucet, or “point of use.” There’s a tiny one for the powder room sink; a medium one for the kitchen; and a big one for the shower. The size is driven by physics–the faster you ask for water, the faster the element inside the box has to warm it.***

 

I love this, particularly for remodels or additions on a house. Yes, you’re using electricity to heat water, but you’re wasting approximately none of that energy. For a deeper analysis of the carbonaceous tangents, read this geek’s story of converting his household (and his grumpy family) to POUETs.

My quick recon finds no plug-in versions of POUETs, probably due to the meddling of “life and safety” regulators who will go to any lengths to prevent water and electricity from hanging out together.

Got any experience with these? Is my enthusiasm warranted? Can I stop worrying about this?

 

*If you recapture that heat to keep your house warm, good on you. But even in the winter, space-heating via pipes buried in walls and basements is a pretty weak method.

**”Instant” is a relative term, according to anyone who ever lived with an on-demand water heater. So is “on demand.”

***Yes, the carbon footprint of these many boxes of electric heating elements is starting to spread a little. It bothers me, too. I suspect “clustered plumbing” is the answer: designing homes where the bathroom backs up to the kitchen backs up to the laundry machine.

MAINE REAL ESTATE QUARTERLY STATISTICS

Maine real estate monthly report.

LookinMaine real estate monthly report.

Lookin’ alive, Maine! The past quarter has seen a perkier market in all but one county. (‘Sup, Sagadahoc? I thought Bath Iron Works was on a hiring binge.)

The first three columns of that table address the number of houses sold this quarter versus the same quarter a year ago–it’s a measure of how easy (or hard) it is to get out from under a house you don’t want.

But the second three columns remind you that opportunity is not equal. These columns address any change in the average sale price, this quarter over the same quarter a year back. A big change in that average price can mean a couple things:

1: A big, expensive house sold, and its price is pushing the average around. Check the “volume” columns — a small volume of sales leaves the average price vulnerable to weirdo sales.

2: Sellers are SICK OF THIS AND GETTING OUT OF HERE EVEN IF WE TAKE A BATH ON THE PRICE! This  might explain Lincoln County, where the number of sales is up, but the price is way down.

When you look at the populous counties (York, Cumberland, Kennebec) you find smaller swings from quarter to quarter: A high “n” (number of data points) produces a more reliable signal of where people are going.

 

WHO OWNS THAT? REALTY SUPERPOWERS REVEALED!

When tax money flows between people and government, it often leaves a “public record,” a trail. You can use this public record to discover who owns a building. Realtors follow these trails for every house we handle, looking for back taxes, foreclosure motions, sibling squabbles, snarly divorces, and other afflictions.

To find your own trail, start at the Assessor’s Office in your town. Here’s Portland’s.

Input the street and/or street number you’re curious about. Screenshot (61) You’ll get a list of properties and tax accounts on that street; if you have the street number you’ll get just that property.Screenshot (62)

Click the account number at the left of the property you’re interested in, which will take you to that property’s “assessor’s card.” Cumby’s card, for instance, looks like this, and will contain allllll manner of info, including when it last changed hands, and for how much money. And a pretty picture, so you can be sure you’re looking at the right thing.

Screenshot (63)

Now write down the “Book and Page” Screenshot (64)numbers from the card. We’re going to find the deed for this property at the Registry of Deeds. Here’s Cumberland County’s.

Search settings:

Office: Recorded Land

Search Type: Volume

Volume (Book): 7282

Page Number: 348Screenshot (65)

GO! Up comes the result list, from which you select that tiny magnifying glass image labeled, “View img.”

And voila. There’s the deed, the public record of the last time that property changed hands.

Screenshot (66)

It gets a lot funner than that, but also a lot more wordy. But just for fun, click one of those names that appears to the right of the deed…