Lucky The Blog is Still Running

Bitter and I have been noticing an odd odor in the house every time we run the dish washer. It was kind of a putrid, cat urine kind of smell. I had figured maybe a mouse had decided to make a home in the insulation and had died. I intended to yank the thing at some point. Wednesday night that odor was considerably stronger, enough for me to identify it as an electrical smell. Checked around the house and couldn’t find anything that was the culprit. I figured the dishwasher might be on its last leg, so told Bitter to stop using it. Came home last night and she said some lights weren’t working. Crap. Go check the breakers and they are all in the on position. So I start tripping them, until I hit one that just rocks back and fourth like there’s nothing in there:

Two, completely dead. Judging from how discolored and soft the blade on the bus bar is, my guess is that over the years, it’s become something less than pure aluminum, causing it to heat excessively. Some of the plastic cladding holding the bus bar in place melted down. The two breakers below it function, but their cases took some damage too. The whole panel needs replacement. That normally would be no problem, except when the doofuses who owned the house previously replaced the boiler, they completely blocked access. I can reach it enough to work on it, but it’ll be difficult and tiring. Bitter can’t reach the thing to even trip breakers back.

The other problem is PECO won’t pull the meter and reconnect without confirmation that I’ve met code, which means permits. This probably means a licensed electrician. Because of the boiler, one with exceptionally long arms. Or I have to pull the boiler out and reconfigure it so there’s room to work. I accept permitting for major work or renovation, but by this standard I’d need a permit to swap out a faulty main breaker. That’s not safety, that’s extortion. And how am I supposed to function while I wait, without any power, for the township’s code enforcement to show up to inspect the work?

36 Responses to “Lucky The Blog is Still Running”

  1. Boiler? What is a boiler? Would it be about the same money to have someone relocate whatever this boiler is (I’m picturing something from the lower realms of the Titanic) so that you could do the bulk of the work on the breakers yourself?

  2. aeronathan says:

    “how am I supposed to function while I wait, without any power, for the township’s code enforcement to show up to inspect the work”

    Comrade, no one cares about your ability to function, only your ability to follow the rules :p

  3. Tam says:

    Be careful working in the really really tight space behind the boiler, okay? Make sure you do it when Bitter’s home, dude.

  4. aeronathan says:

    Seriously, living down south in the land of heat pumps my whole life, I don’t think I would know a boiler if I saw one….

  5. Sebastian says:

    It’s a furnace, technically. Boiler is an antiquated term, but people still use it. But basically there’s a reservoir of water that’s heated by a gas burner and circulated through the house.

  6. Garrett Lee says:

    Considering what code requires, you are in for a serious financial expense. By code, here’s what you are setting yourself up for:

    1) Every breaker that connects to “habitable space” has to be a new AFCI (arc-fault circuit interrupt) breaker, which costs about $40 per, as opposed to the standard $5 breaker. The only exceptions are anything protected by a GFCI system (such as bathrooms, kitchen, washer, etc.) and your refrigerator. So each bedroom, your living room, dining room, et cetera, needs a $40 breaker.

    2) The inspector is probably going to throw a hissy fit if you have any older wiring (aka knob & tube) going into a new box. Not sure how old your house is – this may not be an issue. Hopefully you’ve got someone with some intelligence.

    3) The real problem: Code requires 36 inches of clearance in front of an electrical panel. From the sound of things, that isn’t the case. So your options in this regard are: a) move the boiler, b) move the box, c) do without electricity.

    Note: I am not an electrician, nor am I qualified on the subject by any professional organization, but I am currently restoring my own house, including the electrical system. This is what I am learning from the process as I go along.

  7. Garrett Lee says:

    As for the boiler vs furnace, the distinction is as follows:

    Boiler: Burns fuel (coal, oil, wood, natural gas, peat, dead bodies, etc) to boil water, which is then piped around the house to radiators, where the steam recondenses to water, and heats the space.

    Furnace: Burns fuel (see above) to either a) heat water, which is then piped though the house in a manner similar to steam, or b) heat air, which is then blown through the house using a forced-air system (or, in really old systems, by natural convection – think the furnace in Home Alone).

    Furnaces are more efficient creatures than boilers, but furnaces cannot heat large (on the scale of a school or office building) effectively.

    Hopefully that sums it up.

    (And yes, furnaces, especially water-heating types, are often called boilers – the lingo just sticks around.)

  8. Bitter says:

    Tam, no worries, I’ll be home. My car is stuck in the driveway with the back consisting of little more than duct tape & a garbage bag. And his car is a stick, which I don’t know how to drive. So, alas, I will be home.

  9. Man that sucks, but at least you will be up to code when you are finished. The people who owned my house before me were idiots. Some of the outlets are grounded, some are not. There are light switches that control nothing and a light fixture in the garage that has no switch and had been disconnected, but not removed. I won’t even go into the horrible job they did at cabinetry and flooring in parts of the house.

    Though, I also understand the horror at hiring a professional for doing something you could do yourself. I want to replace my water heater with a tankless setup. It is a simple plumbing job. However, I am required to hire a plumber to do it.

  10. Ian Argent says:

    One of these days we’re going to need to get more than a 100-amp service, and when we do, I think I had better hire it out. There have been at least 3 renovation waves, with sorted electrical work appropriate to period…

  11. Pat says:

    Find an electrician who works “on the side” and take care of your problem.

    The issue with the municipal codes regarding work permitting and housing is that they can’t be applied to every circumstance.

    My town, for example, required that I replace my driveway when I wanted to patch my concrete garage apron. 50ft of blacktop w/regrading to the tune of $4500, all for $75 worth of concrete patching? Ridiculous.

    Driveway apron is better now — I have no idea how that happened…must be the concrete fairy or something.

  12. Molon Labe says:

    SILENCE CITIZEN! ALL OF THESE REGULATIONS AND LAWS GIVE YOU FREEDOM! is what I would say if I were a mindless bureaucratic drone hellbent on separating you from your money in order to keep you “safe”.

  13. Kcoz says:

    Sebastian, I’ve worked for eight years as an electrician and I’ve rarely called the power company just to yank a meter. Turn the main breaker off and verify there is no load on it. Don’t try to pull it straight out. Stand to the side of the meter can and grasp the glass portion of the meter. Pull down to disconnect the top two prongs from the socket (A meter is basically a big four prong plug with two on top and two on the bottom). The top side of the meter socket is the line side(the side the power company connects their feeder line to). Once the top prongs are clear the power to your panel is disconnected. Pull straight back to remove the lower two prongs and your done. When the you put it back follow the same procedure in reverse ,making sure all breakers are off while you do it. If this sounds like something your not comfortable doing I would recommend finding an electrician that does side work.

  14. DirtCrashr says:

    We swapped out our whole panel when we did the kitchen. While they always had worked, the old Zinnsco breakers were know to fail spectacularly. They wouldn’t trip when they were supposed-to, and heat-up and start a fire. Something like 40,000 house fires in CA resulted (every building contractor used ’em because they cost a buck less than other breakers), and they lost their UL rating… Some rating.
    The permit was just an appointment (free) to do a look-see.

  15. Sebastian says:

    I’m comfortable doing it. There’s a blue tag on the meter ring I’d have to cut off. My fear is PECO coming back to me and accusing me of monkeying with their cash box to steal their juice.

  16. Kcoz says:

    I’ve never had the power company make an issue of that. Not to say that yours won’t but as long as your electric bill doesn’t magically drop to nothing I can’t see them accusing you of bypassing the meter. Besides, they own the meter but the meter can (meter box) is yours and your responsibility to maintain. So you really don’t need their permission to open it.

  17. Jake says:

    Besides, they own the meter but the meter can (meter box) is yours and your responsibility to maintain. So you really don’t need their permission to open it.

    Check your state and local laws, first! Where you are, it may or may not be a crime simply to break the seal.

  18. Garrett Lee says:

    Yeah – I asked Allegheny Power about that (need to replace the service line), and they said that if they found it broken, they’d charge the maximum amount of power that could have been drawn between meter checks – so, for a 100A service and 2 months between readings, it comes to (100A x 240V x 24 hrs/day x 61 days x ~$.07 per kWh / 1000 W/kW) = $2,459.62. Ouch.

  19. flighterdoc says:

    Funny how those seals break off in the winter time. The snow snakes, or something…..

    It’d be prudent to call the power company and report you noticed it missing…..

  20. Sebastian says:

    So how crazy would I be to snag a pair of lineman’s gloves and leather protector, remove the main, cap and tape, with a live main? Completely nuts? Or doable if I’m careful?

  21. Sebastian says:

    I should note I may have done live work before with considerably less precaution when I was younger and stupider.

  22. Garrett Lee says:

    Doable if you’re careful? Technically yes, but insanely dangerous. As in penalty for doing it wrong is:

    a) impressive display of aluminum welding
    b) powerful class C fire (soon to be followed by class A)
    c) death
    d) all of the above

    Don’t tape the main, really. All you need is to miss a 1mm^2 spot and it will weld itself to the frame of the box. And there’s no upstream breaker to protect you. (Especially b/c it’s 240V, not 120V. 240’s a lot meaner.)

    If you want to replace it on the sly, my suggestion would be to arrange a tree limb to fall onto the line coming into the house. Chop it off, have it hit the line, have the branch gone before they get there so they don’t notice the axe cuts…

    The good thing is, if you are going to wire up a new breaker box, you can design it from scratch to include generator backup for the whole house if you want to.

  23. Sebastian says:

    Isn’t it only 240 if you go from hot to hot? And 120 hot to ground?

  24. Kelly says:

    To add insult to injury the new NEC Code book is out.

  25. mobo says:

    I’m an electrician for over fifteen years now. It’s been a long time since I’ve done any residential work, but I used to do lots of services on the side. I never once got a permit and it’s never been an issue. I was stopped once by a guy in Chester, who claimed to be an L&I employee and gave me a number to call for permits. I simply waited for him to drive off and then finished the job and nothing more became of it.

    I’ve even taken a grinder to those hardened barrel locks and have cut many of those plastic tags. If questioned, you can just say that you had to tighten your main lugs in an emergency or something like that.

    And I wouldn’t worry too much about the new AFCI requirement. I personally think they’re a good idea, but as long as the “authorities” don’t know anything, what’s the difference?

    You should definitely consider relocating your panel, though. That might cause you trouble when you go to sell the house.

  26. mobo says:

    BTW, the latest NEC does not automatically become “law” in every corner of the universe the moment it is released. It’s entirely possible that some townships are still using the 2002, 2005, or 2008 edition for code enforcement.

  27. Garrett Lee says:

    Yeah, welding to the frame would be 120. I was thinking 240 ’cause I always try to plan for the worst that can happen, which would be the two hot lines connecting. One possible scenario: You’ve put the new box in and are wiring the main cables in. You get one put in, take the tape off the other and it slips out of your hand – and comes into contact with the screw-down for the other line. 240V with effectively no resistance = bad things.

  28. Granny says:

    You be careful if you try to fix this yourself.

  29. Sebastian says:

    I think I’ve been warned off doing this with a live main. If it comes down to it, I’ll just pull the meter.


    If I relocate the panel, I’d need to extend some of the circuits. Do you know if there’s any kind of terminal block or something similar for residential electrical? Something I could just punch all the circuits into and then run extenuation line out of. Also, is an outdoor box an option for residential setups?

  30. Charlie Foxtrot says:

    I put myself through college as an industrial electrician. I’m going to strongly encourage you to use a professional.

    There are panels that can be hung on the exterior. The problem becomes getting the wiring to the box.

    Relocating the boiler might be the cheaper alternative – you will need about 36 inches in front and 12 or 18 inches to each side (it’s been a long time.) Even though your panel is ancient, you might be able to get replacement hardware. Your electrician will probably know of a local shop specializing in used electrical equip. Saved my customer’s wallets more than once. Or try the intrawebs – you’ve heard of it?

    Be safe – electricity can be sneaky. And 120v can- and does – kill damn quick.

  31. Mobo says:

    I’m busy on night shift, but if you shoot me an email with pictures I can probably walk you through the options, as long as you are good with your hands.

  32. Patriot Henry says:

    “I accept permitting for major work or renovation,”

    Did you get a permit for this post? If not there will be some penalties and fees and fines.

    Make sure you get your opinions up to code too – otherwise we’ll have to snitch you out.

  33. Sebastian says:

    Building codes are a means to prevent fraud. When someone goes to buy a house, you can’t rip apart walls to make sure everything is done correctly. I’m accepting of permits for work done that gets covered. Something open like an electrical panel is more obnoxious when it’s a replacement of what’s there and is easily inspected for correctness by a potential buyer.

  34. Sebastian says:

    Today I mapped out all the circuits in the house, which the builder back in the 80s never did. A few hard hardly anything on them, so I double tapped one breaker. I moved the heavy load circuit that initiated the failure to the top and replaced that breaker. I had a free slot on the bottom, so added a breaker there too to make up for the other loss. I left the damaged part of the bus empty. My infrared thermometer doesn’t show the busbar getting hot. I think this will tide me over until I can afford to redo everything.

  35. Ian Argent says:

    Incidentally, per the definition above, I actually do have a boiler, not a furnace. 1920 era, and the heating source was likely coal, them converted to oil, and finally to gas.

    I love the feel of steam radiator heat, incidentally.

  36. flighterdoc says:

    Yet building codes and inspections (and inspectors) rarely prevent fraud or shoddy work. They’re not responsible for incompetence (re your no doubt permitted boiler in front of the electrical panel), not responsible when the house falls down, and aren’t liable when you want to be made whole