Grounding an ungrounded outlet, and other electrical wiring adventures

There are many electrical shortcomings in my duplex. Lucky for me, I have a friend who is an electrical engineer, and likes to work on houses. Of course, I don’t want to wear out my favors with him, but he’s started helping me with a few wiring projects here and there. I’m a bit sheepish when it comes to electricity (beyond installing new light fixtures, etc.), so it works out well for me.

Today he came over and fixed an ungrounded outlet in my office. It was an old, unpolarized two-pronged outlet, the last one in the house. I assumed that grounding it would involve running new wires up from the basement, and I needed some help. It turns out, though, that since the wiring was housed in flexible conduit – metal conduit popular in the 50s, the metal conduit could act as the ground. Therefore, all we had to do was hook the hot and neutral wires up to a modern, three-pronged outlet. Sure enough, when we tried the outlet tester, the outlet was grounded. I felt foolish, because I could have done this myself, but I certainly learned something new.

We also installed a brand new outlet in my back porch, coming off some existing conduit. I thought that we could just run wires down from an existing light switch, but since that switch was actually one of two three-way switches, we had to run new wires through the existing conduit, including a hot and neutral for the outlet. I’d never seen how this was done before — there is actually a type of wire snake (called a “fish tape”) that you feed through the empty conduit, to the end of the run. Then, you tape the wiring onto the end of the wire snake, and pull the whole works back through. This worked best when I was standing at one end, feeding the wire through, while he was at the other end pulling.

Next, we’ll be installing a couple of outlets on the front porch, and a light on the outside of the house, by the front door. For this project, we’ll be coming off of an existing outlet in my living room (this wall faces the front porch), and then going around the perimeter of the porch with wiremold metal conduit. This style of conduit accomplishes the same thing as traditional round metal conduit, it’s just white and shaped into a square form, which makes it look a little better. Unlike traditional metal conduit, which can be bent, we’ll be using special elbow pieces to make the corners around the porch. You can purchase inside elbows, outside elbows, and flat elbows (for making a perpendicular turn on one wall). Then we’ll go through the front wall of the porch out to the front of the house for the light. One thing that will be a bit tricky about this project — the power to my living room light is actually on my tenants’ electricity bill. It was like that when I bought the house, and it doesn’t seem to make much sense to change it – there are likely some outlets upstairs that I pay for too. However, I’d rather that my tenants not know that they’re paying for some of my electricity — it seems like bad PR. I think I’ll just tell them that we’re turning the power to the whole house off, “just to be safe.” Hopefully they won’t think too hard about the reasons that that doesn’t make any sense, when there are two separate breaker boxes…

Total supplies for these electrical projects came to roughly $110. The light itself only cost $3.69, so most of the cost is in conduit, fittings, etc. I had the front porch / exterior light project bid by a contractor once, he quoted me around $625. We spent about three hours today doing the new outlet on the back porch, and grounding the outlet in my office. I estimate that the front porch / exterior light project can be done in another day, probably taking 5-6 hours total. I’m certain that all of this would have taken less time for the electrician to do. However, I’ll probably save about $800 (minus the pizza and beer for my friend).

I have two bedrooms in my house that don’t have overhead lights yet… I’m going to have to figure out to win some more wiring favors, because getting that done won’t be easy or cheap…

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