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It’s Electric!

Our Victorian had been converted to multiple apartments decades ago (during the Depression, I believe), and was only converted back to a single-family home shortly before we bought it. There have been some quirks associated with that, one of which being that the house still had four electric meters.

Then something really fun happened one day, several months ago, which is that we lost power in half of the second floor. This was independent of having any work done in the house — one day the lights worked, and then they didn’t, and we hadn’t changed anything at that point. The electric company came out and tagged one of our meters with this delightful sign.

Abnormal Condition Exists

Abnormal Condition Exists. Nobody wants to touch that, by the way, because of the liability involved if something happens. The electric company doesn’t want that on their hands, and neither do electricians. See? Fun stuff!

We had a backfeed issue. I could have my numbers wrong, so forgive me if that’s the case (I’m going off of memory from what ComEd told me and I’m not an electrical expert by any means), but essentially there should have been two prongs in the meter reading at 120 volts for a combination of 240. We were reading at over 400 volts combined when touching the meter to the top right and bottom left prongs because the bottom left prong was live when it should have been completely dead. There was a jumper placed from the top right to the bottom right prongs to power the house until the problem could be identified and remedied, and that’s when we got our lovely tag.

Multiple Electric Meters

The live feed meant that somewhere in the house, power was spliced from one meter system into another. We don’t know why it suddenly decided to go on the fritz one day after seemingly working without problem, but the upside is that it pushed along the process of moving from four meters to one. Thankfully, it was much smoother than when we did the same for our commercial and residential natural gas accounts. The village issued a permit immediately (there had been a couple of bad electrical fires in town recently, so they look at these situations with a sense of urgency), and the electricians were able start on the work quickly.

So we went from this:

Old Electrical Panels

To this:

New Electrical Panel

Isn’t that just the most thrilling way to spend a few thousand dollars? This is much nicer though:

Single Electric Meter

We’ll have to paint the patched siding, but no more Abnormal Condition. Hooray!

Ah, but then we discovered some knob and tube wiring still in use, so we’re not exactly celebrating over here. In fact, we’ve been having the house rewired over the last couple of weeks. The third floor is nearly done, and then we’ll be taking a break from home renovation work to enjoy our soon-to-arrive baby before moving on to the second and first floors, and the basement too. Our home inspection revealed old, inactive knob and tube, so it was a bit of a surprise to find more that was still in use, but sometimes that just the way things go with these old houses. Until you open up a few walls or run into unexpected problems, you don’t know what hidden issues may need to be addressed.

Heating Upgrades for the Victorian

We bought our Victorian just in time to experience the coldest winter here on record in Chicago. A pipe even burst in the basement! (Although to be fair, that happened to a lot of homes in the area. A pipe burst in our old house too, with which we had never experienced any heating problems.) After sealing our drafty windows with plastic sheeting the house stayed dramatically warmer, and we also had our old boiler serviced and bled the radiators. The house still struggled to stay in the mid to high 60s on the first floor though, while it was comfortably warm upstairs and hot all the way up on the third floor. So before another winter comes, we had some work done to the house’s heating system.

Old Boiler
Old Water Heater

The boiler still has some life left in it, but its chimney is in need of big repairs. We could have added a liner to prevent further corrosion, but the age and condition of the brick would have made it an expensive and difficult job. Another option for roughly the same cost was to replace the old boiler with a new model that was more energy-efficient and that could be vented out the side of the house, so that’s what we chose to do. We also replaced the water heater at the same time. There was a backdrafting issue identified during our house inspection, there wasn’t enough capacity for a house of this size, and the thing also had to be fixed twice in the last two months. Those three factors swayed us toward replacement. The water heater is now tied into our new boiler, so it’s piggybacking off of the radiator system for faster heating and more efficiency.

Ooh, get ready for some more Pinterest-worthy pictures!

New Boiler and Water Heater

So pretty, right? Our basement’s a gem.

And we’re down to a single gas meter! The Victorian was split into apartments in the 1930s (common in the depression era), and it was still a multi-family house until just before being sold. There remained both a residential and commercial account for gas, and getting them combined into one residential account (which has significantly lower rates) was a long process. Lots of red tape and hoops to jump through, and the expense of rerouting the pipes is the responsibility of the home owner. We started the process right away when we moved in a year ago, and it took a good ten months.

Then there’s the last of our heating system upgrades. We were cautioned against using the valves on our radiators because when they’re as old as ours, mineral build-up and corrosion can cause them to break with use. Hot water radiators are either on or off — there’s no middle adjustment — so ours were all on, all winter. That third floor was toasty. Now we’ve added thermostatic radiator valves to each of the six radiators on the third floor, and to two of them on the second floor (in rooms that were consistently warmer than the rest). They aren’t pretty, but they’ll automatically turn the radiators off when the room temperature is warm enough, so that the heat can be directed to where it’s needed instead. The valves are currently set at 68, but we’ll experiment to see what’s best when winter comes — they can all be individually adjusted.

Thermostatic Radiator Valves

Brandon and I can take consecutive showers now without running out of hot water, and between the new valves and the boiler, we should see more even and efficient heating this winter. That, and the elimination of the commercial account, will also bring lower heating bills. Working on the guts of the house doesn’t bring the prettiest pictures, but we’re glad to have had the work done.

Our Pipes Burst

The good news is that the pipe in the ceiling of the laundry room burst while we were awake and right above it in the kitchen. If we had been asleep, or even just upstairs, it would have been much worse.

We woke up on Monday to a cold house with the pipes frozen from the laundry room, up through the kitchen and on to the second floor. The bathrooms all had running water though, so we consulted with a plumber, made do, and hoped for the best. We also located the main shut-off valve for the whole house. Just in case. The previous owners said that the pipes had frozen once before, years ago, but that they thawed without incident. It had never been so cold before though, they added!

We had left the faucets on so that we could tell when water started to flow again, so when Brandon heard the water running last night, he assumed it was from the utility sink. I went down to check on it, and water was pouring out of the ceiling. I swore loudly, Brandon ran downstairs, and we sprinted over to shut off the water to the house completely.

We’re working with the plumber that the previous owners had used for the house, which we’re grateful for because as they put it “he knows this house.” He’s downstairs right now and has been for a few hours, working to cut out the damaged copper pipes and replace them with new. Because it turns out that not only did one pipe burst, a second one did too, right above it. Fun!

Burst Copper Pipes in the Ceiling

Burst Copper Pipes

He said that there isn’t really anything we could have done to prevent this from happening. It was just too cold, and copper doesn’t hold up to being frozen for a few days like the old cast iron pipes do. (Thankfully those are fine.) We are wrapping the pipes in insulation, and we have some people coming out tomorrow to look at the heating system. It’s a balmy 60° downstairs right now, but that’s in the dining room where the thermostat is located. On the other side of the house, you know, where the pipes burst? There’s a tomato on the counter that has frozen solid, and the 12-pack of pop on the floor froze and burst open too. Eh, we’ll get it sorted.

This is really only tangentially related, but I couldn’t resist.

*Update* In case this information is helpful to anyone, it took three hours and cost $250 to have the two pipes replaced and wrapped with insulation. Also, the house is up to 65° and rising! It’s 10° out now, so the heat can finally catch up.

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