As one of the oldest forms of electrical systems, knob and tube wiring is something that might puzzle electricians in the 21st century. Also known as K&T wiring, it is especially common in houses built in the 19th century, through to the 1930s.
When you come across one of these antiques, what’s the best course of action? In this article, we’ll introduce you to what knob and tube wiring are, then we’ll outline some of the most common pitfalls you may come across with this system!
Let’s get started.
What Is Knob and Tube Wiring?
Knob and tube wiring is one of the oldest standardized forms of electrical installation in the United States and Canada. The name derives from the different components used to arrange the rig.
The knobs and tubes (along with cleats and bushings) were typically made of ceramics or rubber and would be affixed to different points along the desired route for the electrical wire, which then would be fed through them and pulled relatively taut.
The reason for this would be to separate the wire from contact with surfaces that could be combustible – for example, wood or plastic. The wire is suspended in the air meant that it would radiate excess heat better and reduce the incidence of fires.
Additionally, this system allowed for more efficient use of wire, in that the cabling could take the most direct route through a system of knobs and tubes with very little slack. Eventually, knob and tube systems were phased out of use, as safer and more recognizably modern options came onto the market.
What Can Go Wrong With Knob and Tube Wiring?
As these systems generally pre-date much of modern building codes, it’s important to know a few key risks when dealing with K and T wiring. Since these systems are generally quite old, they might be vulnerable to excessive use and lack of maintenance can lead to degradation of the materials.
In extreme cases, sparking is a possibility and an obvious fire hazard for systems that are left untouched for decades without attention. Additionally, the insulation material (known as loom) can erode, become brittle and decay, making it difficult to work with and increasing risks of incidents when working with the wiring.
A common question is how to insulate around Knob and Tube, and the answer is very carefully or not at all. Insulation can trap heat around wires that were designed for the open air. Some states require that any insulation around one of these rigs requires a safety inspection and report to be carried out. With the other risks above in mind, it’s always a good idea to have one carried out regardless.
Dangers of Knob and Tube Wiring for Homeowners
Firstly, a homeowner should be aware that these systems are not grounded, and therefore the risk of shock or fire is considerably higher than your average home’s electrical cabling. The question is: can you ground knob and tube wiring?
The simple answer is no—any attempt to add grounded outlets would be dangerous. Additionally, as these wires are generally only very thinly insulated, they are extremely vulnerable to moisture. Moisture and electricity equal increased voltage, and if it gets past the capacity for your system, dangerous shorts become more common.
Ensure the Safety of Your Property
Because Knob and Tube systems will always be hidden from sight behind your drywall or in your attic, you may not even realize you have a problem with it. Worse, even if you do know it’s there, you may not be able to identify any improper DIY that could have been carried out over the preceding 100 years.
This is where Canadian Wire Wizards can come in to help. Operating in the Greater Toronto area, we offer a host of wiring and rewiring services, including K&T upgrades or maintenance. If you want to have peace of mind over the safety of your property, reach out to us at (416) 755-2700 or through the contact form on our website.
We’re also happy to field any questions and even offer free quotes regarding any electrical work you might need us to address.