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by Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin

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Remodeling. More Surprises!

Click on any picture to see a larger version.

Just when I thought the nastiest of the remodeling work, the demolition, was done, my plumber came by and told me to rip out three large sections of the sub-flooring so he could do the plumbing "correctly." Surprises are the order of the day when remodeling an older home, and this project has had its share. As I ripped out the subfloor in the second floor bathroom, I found yet another surprise… the cavity between the floor joists (or ceiling joists if you were looking up from below) was absolutely filled with what I can only refer to as "construction debris." Wood chips, sawdust, bent nails, snack food wrappers, etc. I'm not sure if the builder and/or former owner thought that putting all that detritus between the floor joists would serve as insulation, if it was just a convenient place to get rid of it, or if whoever did it was just plain crazy. What a mess!

Figure 10 - No wire nuts... just a wiring "nut."
Lamp cord taped to cable and stuffed in the wall
… wow!

Many of you scoff and even accuse me of exaggeration when I have talked previously about the "unhandiest handy man" previous owner of this house. Lest you doubt me, check out the picture below. When your Romex cable is short some 12 to 16 inches, just splice in some old lamp cord, right? Believe me now?

Curiosity motivated me to check the big-box store web site, and I found that a powered gable vent fan is currently $63. Oh so many years ago, a gable vent fan was likely priced much lower. But the price apparently didn't matter. I'm growing ever more convinced that my unhandy handy man was either crazy or intent on burning down his own home.

When tearing out the ceiling I found that the previous homeowner had fashioned a type of shelf from scrap plywood just below the gable vent, set a tabletop fan atop the plywood, cut the plug off the end of the cord, and spliced the cord into a section of 12-2 cable routed back to a switch in the wall. Of course the lamp cord insulation had long ago rotted away, the exposed wires inside had shorted against one another and fused, and the whole contraption did not work. Fortunately it never started a fire, though I really don't know how it didn't. Lucky or blessed, I guess.

The water lines from the basement, defying all logic, not to mention building codes, were routed through the outside wall, of course, with no insulation. How those pipes never froze and burst must also fall into the lucky or blessed category.

The shower mixing valve was plumbed backwards, hot water to the cold input, cold water to the hot input. As long as you knew to turn the valve the opposite direction from what the handle said, you were okay. Certainly it was not intuitive, but something you could get used to. But a guest could easily get burned or severely chilled. "Backwards plumbing" was apparently something my unhandy handyman liked to do, since the downstairs bath is the same… backwards.

The electrical circuit that serviced the bathroom also carried the adjacent bedroom, the stairway lights, several lights in the basement, the porch lights, and six outlets in the living room. Pretty fair load for a 15 amp circuit. It is a wonder the breaker wasn't tripping daily. Lucky or blessed, I suppose.

Nothing was grounded, even though the Romex-style cable had a ground wire… it just wasn't hooked up. My unhandy handyman predecessor had simply cut the ground wires off or wrapped them back along the cable, unconnected. In order to obtain a permit and pass inspection when I purchased the house, the former owner hired an electrician to install a GFCI outlet in the bathroom. I'm still not sure how it passed inspection unless the inspector just looked and said "Yep, that's a GFCI outlet." It wasn't hooked up correctly, and popped every time something was plugged in.

After stripping all the wires out of the bathroom and adjacent bedroom, I was left with a bird's nest of cables feeding into a metal junction box in the ceiling (not code, by the way). The junction box had no cover on it, probably because all the wires would not fit inside the box (also not code-compliant). There were some nine pieces of cable connected in a bewildering way. After everything was finally stripped away and tossed, I was left with two cables feeding up from somewhere mysterious below… maybe the basement, maybe the living room. One cable tested hot on the positive wire, dead on the other. The other indicated power on the neutral side, dead on the other. At that point, I was perplexed, bewildered, and frustrated. I called my electrician.

After pondering the situation for a while, he decided the best course was to install two new breakers, run two new circuits upstairs (one for the GFCI in the bathroom and the other for the bedroom) and just kill off those weird two cable runs. I feel better now having a professional involved. There is also less chance of overloading a circuit that still includes, in my opinion, too much.

Figure 11 - Any idea why someone would remove
and hide the counterweights from a window?

There are two windows in the bedroom. One would never stay open. After removing the paneling, I found the counterweights stuffed inside a wall cavity. My unhandy handyman either decided he didn't need them or didn't know what they were. He simply cut the cords and hid the weights. Now I know why the window wouldn't stay open!

There was much, much more hidden inside wall cavities… a broom stick, some old newspapers, an instruction sheet for building a model airplane, an empty perfume bottle, a comb, and a broken yardstick. I guess each of those things had some insulation properties. Perhaps the "R" in R-value was mistaken by the former owner to mean "refuse."

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