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Electricity puzzles

April 20, 2012

BAB has a plethora of old & odd electrical devices and panels. Unfortunately not too many of them function very well, which has also been the woes of previous owners, evidenced by the vintage “layering” of makeshift repairs and replacements. The oldest and one of the more interesting panels greets us at the front door – originally intended to be “on display” as its glass door would allow everyone to see the pretty copper bars and turned-wood switch handles.

But now it’s crapped up, messy, and someone painted over the glass…

Our oldest electrical panel – circa 1913

This was the starting point, or more accurately, the first thread to unravel, of one of two electricity puzzles that have been nagging at me – one six months old, the other six days old. It was time to solve those puzzles.

Puzzle 1: Six days ago, we suddenly lost power to half of the second floor – we don’t do much up there except regular emptying of our tarp-and-bucket rain collecting system, but we also have a refrigerator/freezer full of Sue’s home-made jams, (now without power) and the rain removal routine (a submersible pump attached to a long garden hose) relies on electricity as well.

Puzzle 2: Over six months ago, I wanted to simplify our dehumidification of two of storage rooms. (Cardboard boxes start to sag and break down in high humidity.) I’d setup a dehumidifier in each, but the reservoirs needed daily emptying (moisture is our main enemy at BAB!). Each reservoir had the capability to connect a drainage hose, which means the reservoir would forever drain and never fill up. One storage room is the “Ladies Toilet Room” built in 1928, so I didn’t have any trouble connecting a drain line to the old plumbing. But the other room, which we call the Kodak Room, was no where near plumbing. Thinking that “real plumbing” wasn’t necessary, I thought that since the Kodak Room is directly over the “pit” in the basement, if I could just find a hole through the floor I could just drain into the huge pit in the basement – I mean, it can easily hold 500 more gallons of water before it filled up.

Long story short (and it’s not even the real story of this post), I tried cutting out an abandoned radiator pipe that went through the floor, but halfway through the second cut, the sawzall bound up, and in half a second, all power in the room went out. Crap – dehumidifiers need power! I spent the next hour searching for panels and looking for blown screw-type fuses. (Look again at the picture at the beginning of this post – you’ll see that any “labels”, whether written on old masking tape or chalk on the panel, mean nothing now, as we had no idea where the “Enlarging Table” or “Glass Racks” used to be. So it’s a lot of hunting and pecking.)

Back to the present: It was now time to resolve these electrical problems.

I took a couple of “Electronics” electives back in high school, but that was more about ohms, resistors and relays; the kind of geeky projects where you run to Radio Shack for your supplies. That knowledge helped me built stupid stuff like a gadget that made a squeaky “beeeep” when you cast a shadow over a photocell. (Hey! That was COOL in 1977!)  But I’ve never taken the time to FULLY understand the Home Depot kind of electricity: Neutral, Hot, Ground (okay, “Ground” is pretty easy…). I’ve replaced electrical fixtures, even added whole new circuits to a breaker panel at our old house, but that’s on “modern” electrical systems; what BAB has is a confusing array of main panels, distribution panels, sub-panels and of course a hundred or so of those dreaded glass screw type fuses.

So I asked our friend Eric, an engineer by profession, if he could come over and help me troubleshoot and figure out our electrical mystery. Plus it helped that he passed the electrical exam at the building department, allowing him to legally run his own electrical circuits at his home.

Before Eric arrived, inside one upstairs panel I found a note written in chalk pointing to a screw-in fuse that read “Elevator”, so this panel was at least PART of the upstairs problem. I used a little tool nicknamed “wiggy” that lights up and beeps when you point it at a wire or terminal that is hot with electricity connected to it. I moved it around to different fuses and wires and it seemed pretty random when it beeped and didn’t beep. Curious.

There was a main throw-type mechanical switch positioned centrally on the face of the panel so it at least LOOKED like it could kill the whole panel, and the handle was loose and appeared to not work. A smaller panel on the front of this cover allowed me to see inside, and using mirrors and flashlights I could see that the switch contacts were open, and the handle hit a stopping point and could not close the switch. The handle was starting to bend slightly and if I forced it further it would likely break. The switch components inside looked rusty.

So when Eric got there, we started with the second floor problem – and figured the first thing should do is remove the front cover.

Outlet Box No. 9 – Cover removed

With the cover off, we could see how the switch was supposed to work. It had springs, levers and bars, with four contact pads that connect the circuits. Not just a simple throw switch.  There was still power to the feed side of this panel – we confirmed that with our voltage meters. We headed to the basement to find a way to turn off the juice so we could work on the switch safely.

The walls of the basement have all kinds of conduits and boxes on them. The next picture shows one wall with a huge panel identified as “No. 3”; adjacent to this is a another grid of equipment, with “No. 2” on a panel door. We opened No. 2 door – and it looked like it was abandoned – two feed wires coming in at the top were cut and there were many fuses and copper bars removed or missing.

“Distribution Panel No. 3” and friends.

Like I said earlier, labels were not much help, and there were fewer down here. Opening the door on panel No. 3, everything looked quite primitive.

Inside Distribution Panel No. 3

Still not finding anything, our backup plan was that we could kill all power to the building while leaving the apartment live, but then, we found a tiny original list of circuit identification on the inside of the door. Hand-written in pen-and-ink.

Original circuit list from 1920’s

The picture is a bit out of focus, but one line item read “No. 6 Outlet Box #9 East Wall Oper Rm”. Hmmm… that’s slightly obvious: if the upstairs panel (or maybe they’re called “Outlet Boxes”) has some way of being identified as #9, then we are in luck! And of course it was on an east exterior wall, and we know that the “Operators Room” was the whole second floor (when BAB was a switching station for Southwestern Bell.) We went back upstairs, and hooray – there was a small stenciled “#9” on that panel! Just to double-check, Eric stayed up there with a volt meter, I went to the basement, and called his phone when I killed circuit No. 6; he confirmed the feed was dead. One small step towards solving the puzzle.

Back at the “Outlet Box #9 East Wall Oper Rm” on the second floor, we disassembled that main switch as much as we could – it didn’t come all the way apart, but we were able to clean most of the rust off with a non-conducting solvent, and we got the stuck parts moving again. But we still couldn’t get the handle to operate the switch properly. We threw around some ideas of just by-passing the switch and connecting heavy gauge wires around it. But then Eric suggested that perhaps we could manually press the contact pads down, perhaps that might lead to a solution. If we both pressed in on the springs at the same time with screwdrivers, we could carefully place the handle in the closed position, and it would stay there. But the slightest touch on the handle would throw the switch open. Knowing there was no way I could find replacement parts for the switch – this was a pretty good solution for now.

Switch now cleaned and in closed position.

After flipping the power back on in the basement, we verified the panel was hot – and then checked the outlet for the refrigerator: Power on!

Eric only had another half hour to stay, so we jumped over to the second puzzle: power lost to the Kodak Room.

I had an idea that I wanted to run past Eric – instead of trying to troubleshoot the old lights in the Kodak room (which were a hodgepodge of bare bulbs, fluorescent tubes with plugs stuck into light sockets, and various pull ropes to operate them), I wondered if we could re-use (re-wire) a fairly new looking electric subpanel on the wall.

(Relatively) new sub-panel in Kodak Room

There was one large flex conduit coming out of it but it ran to a strange array of relays, foot switches and darkroom timers. (We call this room the “Kodak Room” because it had been used as a darkroom by the printing company, and we found lots of photography chemicals and papers inside.) There were so many flex conduits that it looked like an octopus.

So Eric tested the octopus parts with his voltmeter and found that some circuits were live. That’s good news. It would be even better if we found a way to switch off that subpanel somewhere in the basement so that I could disconnect the tentacled mess and re-wire it for new lights and receptacles.

Fortunately the conduit actually WAS new enough compared to the vintage circuits that it was easy to find where the conduit poked through the floor, and then we walked along the basement following the (relatively shiny) conduit back to the main panels. It went straight to a small switch box outside of Distribution No. 3; if you look back at the previous picture of No. 3, it’s the gray subpanel at the center near the bottom, it has a sticker with a “D” on it. And you can see that its conduit is pretty new looking.

We tested the circuits with power on & off just to confirm we understood what went where – and then determined that yes, the cephalopod of circuits could be easily removed and then new circuits for lighting added to replace it. There were two 30-amp breakers (modern style!) in the subpanel so that would be PLENTY for the lights and dehumidifiers of our future super storage room.

Eric had to leave so I thanked him for his help. I could have quit there, but with the new understanding of how our main panels and subpanels all work together, I REALLY wanted to go around and get ALL of our electrical problems solved. Armed with my wiggy, I could probably get a lot of fixtures working that hadn’t seen light in years.

Looking back at the chalked notes in the first panel (er, “Outlet Box”), this panel contained circuits for the basement lights. One annoying thing about going to the basement has been that we always need to bring flashlights with us. (Though that certainly contributes to the creepiness factor when giving tours!) I knew there were plenty of lamp sockets down there so it would be pretty cool to get them all working.

So I pointed my wiggy at the parts noted as being basement circuits – and strangely it seemed like every other one was hot – meaning every other one was dead for some reason. I tracked the non-working circuits to all being connected to one wire – so if I could find the source of that wire, I might be able to get the basement lit.

Repeating the process from a couple hours ago – I went back into the basement looking for labels or something that might indicate a connection to that oldest panel. I read all of the hand-written notes on that list I mentioned early in this post – but it only listed “Outlet Boxes” 5 through 9. Well, thinking that “No. 3” was added after “No. 2” – maybe I should check the older stuff.

Distribution No. 2 – thought it was dead…

I poked my wiggy around inside Distribution No. 2 – and lo and behold – there were some hot circuits in there! Damn! We thought it was abandoned – good thing we didn’t randomly touch parts in there.

Close-up of Distribution No. 2 – lots of open circuits

Wiggy lighting up in Distribution No. 2 – NOT abandoned!

So then I read the little hand-written list on the door – sure enough, it listed “Outlet Box No. 4” as being connected from here. (I found “#4” stenciled on the Outlet Box at the entrance.)

But the lines that ran to Outlet #4 were not “hot” – not sure why. Then I saw why – there was another buss fuse in-line before the power ran up to the Kodak Room. (The wiggy told me it was dead.) I happened to have a spare fuse (bought a handful six months ago when this first started) and I replaced it, and when I went back to the entrance and checked the circuits in the oldest panel – they were now hot!

And it was right at this point that I had an “Ah-ha!” moment… EVERY circuit had a separate fuse at multiple locations along its path – so EVERY visible fuse needed to be checked. So a light could have a screw-in fuse at the Outlet Box, then a buss fuse at the switch within the Outlet Box, then ANOTHER fuse down in the basement in the Distribution Panel. That’s THREE possible points of failure!

Dang! I would need a LOT more fuses if I was going to light up the basement!

So I ran to Lowe’s and bought several dozen fuses – at least 6 of each amperage.  I didn’t want to come back.

I waved the wiggy around inside the Outlet Box. Anytime I found that it didn’t light up – just replaced the fuse. Then I went down into the basement and started searching for light sockets. I could stick the wiggy into an open socket and it would light up. Screwed in a bulb – and suddenly there was light!

I made my way along the length of the basement and I now able to get around without a flashlight!

In the past, when working in the basement, we had to use flashlights and find shop lights plugged into extension cords to be able to do anything down there.

Basement BEFORE lights were working…

Once I got all of the circuits repaired, I added at least a dozen light bulbs. What was cool is that now we could make our way down into the basement without using a flashlight!

Basement – now with Luminosity!

Crap. Now that it’s all lit up, we can see how messy it is!

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Cathy permalink
    July 28, 2012 10:29 am

    Loved the adventure and the bright finish .

  2. DBY permalink
    May 20, 2012 3:36 pm

    Yay! I can see my pile of stored junk now!

    • Tom permalink*
      May 22, 2012 12:19 am

      DBY, you officially have the largest pile of stored junk over everyone else! Patrick will be glad to now be in second place…

  3. rick peterson permalink
    May 20, 2012 2:03 pm

    WOW Tom, I haven’t seend those distribution panels in years !!! With all that copper in them you could tear them out and be able to buy new ones with modern breakers in them. While reading the story, I reminised about electrical jobs from years past. Awesome that you have lights in the basement now, and it really isn’t that messy.

    • Tom permalink*
      May 22, 2012 12:23 am

      Well, we’ll have to put in replacement breakers or new circuits – so it will be whatever is cheapest at the time. But if the copper pays for it, so be it! Auctions on eBay!!!


  1. The New Kodak Room – Chapter 1 « B. A. B.

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