Major Electrical Problems

Well, I suppose we knew this was coming. Our lovely little Chicago bungalow was built in the 1920’s, and we knew before we bought it that lots of its innards were old. There’d been some deferred maintenance, no question about that — the tuckpointing was overdue, and the plumbing and wiring were probably about as old as the house.

But none of those things seemed particularly urgent, you know? Based on the home inspection, and living here since last summer. All systems were functional, and since there was nothing caving in or leaking out or burning down, we figured we could take it slow, save up money, and tackle one Big Thing at a time over the next few years.

Or at least that seemed to be the case until this past Thursday, when we woke up to find that the power had gone off in part of the house — mainly the bedrooms and bathroom, though some of the kitchen and basement lights also appeared to be affected. These all turned out to be on the same circuit, which had been tripped at some point during the night.

A circuit breaker box illuminated by a flashlight.

Resetting the circuit breaker by flashlight. (Dramatization.)

We reset it, the power came back on, and we went about our morning routine as usual, ready to write it off as just some kind of fluke.

But then Joe noticed a faint, erratic buzzing that seemed to be coming from the light fixture on the bathroom ceiling. By that evening, it seemed to have gotten louder, and while I was in there right before bed, it started making sounds so loud and alarming that I almost feared it would start shooting sparks at me. It was as though someone had installed a bug zapper in there.

The next morning, we found that the circuit breaker had gotten tripped again, and this time instead of resetting it, we called an electrician.

The verdict wasn’t that unpredictable: the insulation on our 1920’s wiring was brittle and disintegrating, causing the exposed wires to short out. The electrician was able to take apart the fixture and patch it up somewhat, leaving an ugly temporary fixture in the bathroom:

A single light bulb dangling from some wires above a shower curtain.

Temporary light fixture dangling from the bathroom ceiling.

However, the worst of the buzzing seems to be coming from up in the ceiling somewhere, and fixing it will require some rewiring. And apparently grafting new wiring onto brittle 1920’s wiring is neither easy nor a very good idea.

So the logical thing seems to be to upgrade the house to all modern, up-to-code wiring. Even if it’s only the one section in the bathroom that’s noticably shorting out right now, we know that the rest of the wiring is just as ancient, and it’d be nice to not have to worry about these kind of electrical problems in the future.

The only downside is that rewiring an entire house is kind of expensive. (And by “kind of,” I mean the quotes we’ve gotten have ranged as high as $10,000, though we’re doing some intensive comparison shopping to find the best price.) With any luck, we’ll be able to pick a well-recommended, reasonably-priced electrician and get started on the rewiring project within the next few weeks.

A light fixture with visible scorch marks from short-circuiting wires.

The underside of the former bathroom light fixture. It was actually charred black in places.

In the meantime, since we’ve been informed in no uncertain terms that this is a safety hazard, we’re just keeping the circuit breaker turned off in that part of the house. That means no light at all in our bedroom or the bathroom, and no overhead light in the kitchen, although we still have the ones over the sink and stove. There’s also one outlet in Lily’s nursery, so we can still have her lamp and soothing sound machine turned on during the night.

Anyway, that’s the story of why we’ll have camping lanterns scattered around our house for a little while. What about you guys? Have you ever had major electrical work done on short notice, or experience with electrical problems in general? Feel free to share your thoughts, stories, or links in the comments.


  1. You’ll feel (and BE) much safer with new wiring! In the meantime, do you have smoke alarms? Whatever problem exists with the bathroom circuit is probably everywhere, so take no chances. Get the wiring replaced ASAP. Just consider it’s value added!

    • Yes, double-checking the smoke alarm batteries was one of the first things we did after this little episode. Everything will probably be fine, especially with the failing section turned off as a precaution, but it’ll be a huge relief when the wiring is completely taken care of. :)

  2. As I told Joe on the phone, contact your homeowner’s insurance company, some of this might be covered. At least you have breakers – the work we had to do recently was replacing an interior box still using glass fuses! And the house is not as old as yours, so the fact you have breakers may mean the expense will be less (fingers crossed). The original part, built in 1949, also still has 2 prong outlets, except for the few I rewired for computers. A friend recommended replacing ALL the house wiring and those outlets, but the one the insurance company went with only replaced the outside and inside boxes (both damaged, though outside was breakers) and the wires in between them. So code evidently did not require rewiring.

  3. Thanks for that tip, we’re planning on calling to ask the insurance company during business hours on Monday. I have a sinking feeling they’ll just say “maintenance is the homeowner’s responsibility” or something along those lines, but it’s definitely worth a shot. :)

  4. Wow…well if you guys wanted to take an extended vacation while the wiring is being replaced, you know we are always happy to have you. :-) Seriously though…I am glad you guys noticed this early…this could have had a much uglier ending.

  5. Very true, it is lucky that the circuit started failing in an obnoxious and obvious way rather than just quietly catching on fire some night. And an extended vacation does sound pretty tempting right about now, though not very practical with everything that’s been going on, haha…

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