Knobs & Tubes & Angst. Oh My.

As mentioned in the post about our house inspection, our lovely new home has a minor infestation of knob and tube wiring. Very minor. Hardly noticeable. Negligible, in fact.

Sadly, however, the words ‘knob and tube’ strike fear into an insurer’s heart faster than almost any other words on the planet, save, perhaps “bayou”, “levee”, “Brownie” and “it’s a little breezy today, don’t you think?”

To put what we are dealing with in context. As we’ve already established, we are buying a very old house. Old enough that Canada wasn’t even a country in short pants when it was built. And old enough that electricity was yet a twinkle in Thomas Edison’s eye (or whatever other bodypart first got the twinkle and buzz). So wiring wasn’t something that was ever even considered.

Around the turn of the century, however, it was fashionable to install this new-fangled electric-light-thingy that everyone was going on about. And so plaster was fussed with, wires were run, switches were installed, and people got very stern warnings about what to plug into where. (Even a few decades on, for example, guests of the Empress Hotel in Victoria were encouraged to let the building electrician plug in their hairdryer for them. Honest).

The wiring that was installed was called ‘knob and tube’. Mostly because the wires (copper insulated wires, I might add) were periodically wrapped around ceramic knobs when strung for long distances, and when they had to pass through a beam a ceramic tube was first inserted in the hole and the wire then passed through it. A few other odd conventions were occasionally employed, like fusing the hot and the ground wires, which meant that a blown fuse didn’t mean there wasn’t power to the circuit. But these were early days, and people were still experimenting. As people will do. So we shall forgive them their youthful transgressions.

Of course, back when this wiring was originally installed, people didn’t normally have computers, multiple cell phones, bread makers, fridges and hairdryers all vying for the juice. People eased into their addiction to all things electrical with just a few lights at first. But then, of course, they upped their demands. In time, more and more things with plugs entered the house. And eventually people discovered that if you plug too many things into one circuit then bad things can happen. And so we evolved to our current state of 200 amp panels, plugs every six feet and a well-populated double row of circuit breakers.

Find an old house, however, and chances are there is still some old wiring in it somewhere. And so there is in ours. In one room. On one circuit. We know, because we checked. The light in the dining room is fed by knob and tube wiring. It eventually merges in a junction box in the basement to modern wiring, connected to a shiny new circuit breaker, in an impressively immaculate panel. But that one stretch of the dining room wall and ceiling? Yup. Knob and tube.

Looking at where the switch of the dining room is installed, it is easy to understand why this wasn’t replaced when the rest of the house was rewired. Below the wall in question is the stone foundation of the house, so there is no way into the wall from below. The only way to replace the wiring would be to rip through the plaster of the dining room wall and ceiling, which is not something that is easy to do without the subsequent repairs to the plaster being blindingly obvious. At which point, a small problem would become a very, very large mess indeed. Far easier to just leave that one stretch of wire safely where it is.

So the previous owner clearly thought. So we thought. So the home inspector thought, when it came to that. Our insurer? Our insurer, when we mentioned the fact, had other ideas. Now, you could argue that it would have been better to shut up about the whole thing. But failing to disclose material information can lead to a whole world of other issues I would have preferred to avoid. So yes, we told them. Their first, and least helpful, suggestion was to disconnect the light. And the discussion just proceeded from there.

To provide some perspective, knob and tube wiring is safe. At least, it is not inherently unsafe, provided certain basic (and really rather common sense) provisions are adhered to. In fact, a quick search of the internet reveals that Ontario’s Electrical Safety Authority, whose business it is to fuss about these sorts of things, is quite comfortable about the whole issue of knob and tube wiring. In fact, they’ve gone to some effort to publish a position paper on knob and tube wiring that not only provides clear reassurance that such installations are safe, but also that they meet current code and “…may still be installed to this day.”

So armed, I was fairly confident in negotiating with the insurance company. I had facts and knowledge on my side, and the Electrical Safety Authority at my back. What I didn’t count on, however, was the obstinancy of actuaries armed with large underwriting rule books. Despite my broker putting up a strong and sustained argument on our behalf (for which I am grateful), the closest we got to a compromise was an offer to accept the installation if we promised not to add any more switches or outlets on the line, and we got an inspection from the ESA verifying the installation was safe.

This was a victory of sorts, I suppose, but still required more work on our part (not to mention another day of my time, arranging another inspection with the vendor and a payout of about $266). All to inspect something that is already safe, and that the insurer would probably still get uppity about if there ever was a problem down the road.

And so how did we solve this little challenge? Well, in this particular instance, we simply took the high road and found another insurer. One familiar with rural properties, comfortable with the fact that older homes do have instances of knob and tube and happy to still insure the home in its current state. And, in fact, one who was already insuring the property.

Several weeks on, we finally have insurance. In another five days, the transaction will close. And then, we’ll own a house again. All rather exciting, really.

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