Monday House, part iii – surprises abound

Old houses are full of surprises. Some are good, some are bad. Some are strange, even bizarre. This picture shows some knob and tube wiring in a ceiling, but also something more serious, and bad:


The wall on the centre left in the picture is load bearing, ie it helps hold up the whole house. It runs along the hallway. The builder needed the wall to hold up the joists that support the floor above. The joists run from the hallway wall to the exterior wall to the left, and a separate joist runs the other way to right exterior wall. The centre of the house has settled. So much so that the joists no longer lie flush with each other, but you can see they look more like the two legs of a pair of scissors in the wide open position, which is the preferred position of children running with scissors.

The ceiling board that was nailed to the bottom of the joists is being forced out of place, which caused the plaster to crack and sag.

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This old west side house had reasonably modern wiring (good). The knob and tube wiring that was (probably) retrofitted several years after the house was built was no longer in use. Here is a picture of porcelain knobs:


The knobs came in two sections that pulled apart. The wire was fed through the hole between the parts, and the whole thing was screwed to the joist. The knob held the wire out from the wall, so it wouldn’t catch fire. Knobs were also necessary where the wiring turned a corner.

Tubes were like large straws. A hole was drilled through the joist or board, and a tube was hammered in. The wire was then fed through, so it couldn’t touch the stud and cause a fire.


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The electrical panel in the basement was elderly but safe. It was a 100 amp service. Notice the electrical meter was in the basement. Meter readers — men — used to go door to door getting housewives to let them into the basements to read the meters bimonthly. Can you imagine selling that scheme today? Our (grand) parents endured strange customs. Mind, my grandmother, living on Bronson near the main rail line tracks (where the Qway is now) used to offer free baths to hobos who hopped off the trains in the dirty 30’s. Any takers for that today?



The generous supply of spare fuses on top of the cabinet suggests blown fuses and replacement was frequent.

A new panel will be installed, with circuit breakers. The house will survive just fine on a 100 amp panel, but if a 200 amp panel isn’t much more expensive the owner will possibly install that, giving him room to grow. After all, who expected toaster ovens, microwaves, electric heaters, air conditioners, home freezers, multiple home PCs and TVs and Tivo’s and things when the current panel was installed?

The new meter will go on the outside wall. And that is another problem. The panel is on the side of the house facing the neighbours driveway. Can a new service be brought in from the overhead wiring along the street? Can it run down a wall facing the neighbour’s driveway? Can a meter be put on that side? Will it need protection so someone cannot drive their car into it? Or will Hydro insist the mast and meter be put on the front wall of the house (boo, ugly).  It’s been a week, and no word yet from the folks at Hydro. No new wiring can be done until the panel location is approved.

A single piece of thick copper wire has to run from the street line to the house, through the meter, to the panel in the basement.

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Here’s a joist on the second floor ceiling, holding up the attic. It has a huge split in it. Bad.  It wasn’t carrying any special load. It will be sistered, ie another joist cut to the same size will be inserted beside it and two nailed together. The white smear on the left shows where there were leaks from spills in attic apartment:IMG_7495

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More pleasantly, an exploration of the 1960’s addition on the back of the house reveals it is better built than expected. And wow! a boarded up window, and located in a desirable spot. A new window will be ordered for here, but it will be a cheap one, since the renovation / expansion of the addition is a future project. For now it is being prodded, explored, and re-drywalled to give a few years life. Maybe this addition can be salvaged and form the nucleus of the new room.


The “boarding up” process was curious. The aluminum siding on the outside wall just goes right over the opening, no plywood backing or anything to support it. And the inside was just covered with a bit of v-groove panelling. No insulation, no attempt to stop drafts. Why did anyone even take out the old window frame and glass? Is it any wonder the back porch was so cold in winter and hot in summer.

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Another bit of good news. It appears the floors on the bedroom level may be pine, which can possibly be refinished. Notice the red painted perimeter boards; the original sheets of linoleum were purchased in set sizes like we buy an area rug. Only the last few generations of lino were installed “wall to wall”. For now, the lino is of great value as a floor protector, so its removal is pushed off to after major construction is done.


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Between the living room and dining room was a double thick wall with sliding pocket doors. These doors could be rolled out to meet and thus separate the space into two rooms. When the covering plaster was removed, we were surprised to find some diagonal bracing, which is a more modern  concept to prevent twisting and earthquake damage:


The doors were suspended on two wheels each, that rolled on a metal track. They rumble like a tank going through the house. The owner is considering reinstalling these in a surface mount “barn door style” that is now popular. They would become closet doors in a bedroom.


The existing side walls and wall arching above the pocket doors on the main floor will be reduced or eliminated to let more light flow and to combat the cut up boxy feel of the old house. (Yes, an engineer is advising. More on this anon…)


More good news. Some of the old ductwork appears to be worth saving and correctly located:


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After seven full days of filthy, dusty work, the old plaster and lath and wiring and plumbing has all been stripped out, the floors swept, and the area (second floor shown here) is ready for new wiring and plumbing and duct work.


Now that the interior has been opened up, floor plans, new walls, new plumbing and other utility runs can be finalized.


3 thoughts on “Monday House, part iii – surprises abound

  1. Why would Hydro need to put a new meter outside the house? The meter in the photo is one of the new ones that sends the readings to Hydro automatically. My house in the Glebe has the 2 meters in the basement. (It’s a duplex.) I agree, meters outside the house are really ugly, especially if there is more than one meter.

    1. Likely due to the gauge of the cable coming into the house. Since the panel is sized for 100 amps, the “service” (cable coming in) is likely sized to match. So to install 200 amp panel, a larger cable is needed. While the meter probably didn’t necessarily need to be changed, the new service will likely need to be in a different location than the current service, as quite often these old designs are grandfathered and do not meet current code requirements.

  2. Once completely gutted, the owner and friends can begin the fun part. That of redesigning the interior, for example opening to the back yard, eliminating non-bearing walls or installing a steel beam to carry what might have rested on the wall. And the decision to use copper rather than pcb tubing for the water pipes for longer life, if that is of interest. Plumbing can be planned for good venting and access for cleaning and the like. I did a couple of renos and always spent a fair amount of time at this stage dreaming about the possibilities, until budget limitations set in.

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