By Nick Gromicko, Rob London and Kenton Shepard / used with permission
Knob-and-tube (K&T) wiring was an early standardized method of electrical wiring in buildings, in common use in North America from about 1880 to the 1940s. The system is considered obsolete and can be a safety hazard, although some of the fear associated with it is undeserved.
InterNACHI inspectors should always disclaim knob-and-tube wiring during their inspections.
Facts About Knob-and-Tube Wiring:
How Knob-and-Tube Wiring Works:
K&T wiring consists of insulated copper conductors passing through lumber framing drill-holes via protective porcelain insulating tubes. They are supported along their length by nailed-down porcelain knobs. Where wires enter a wiring device, such as a lamp or switch, or were pulled into a wall, they are protected by flexible cloth or rubber insulation called "loom."
Advantages of Knob-and-Tube Wiring:
Problems Associated with K&T Wiring:
Compared with modern wiring insulation, K&T wiring is less resistant to damage. K&T wiring insulated with cambric and asbestos is not rated for moisture exposure. Older systems contained insulation with additives that may oxidize copper wire. Bending the wires may cause insulation to crack and peel away.
K&T wiring is often spliced with modern wiring incorrectly by amateurs. This is perhaps due to the ease by which K&T wiring is accessed.
K&T wiring is designed to dissipate heat into free air, and insulation will disturb this process. Insulation around K&T wires will cause heat to build up, and this creates a fire hazard. The 2008 National Electrical Code (NEC) requires that this wiring system not be covered by insulation. Specifically, it states that this wiring system should not be inÖ
hollow spaces of walls, ceilings and attics where such spaces are insulated by loose, rolled or foamed-in-place insulating material that envelops the conductors.
Local jurisdictions may or may not adopt the NECís requirement. The California Electrical Code, for instance, allows insulation to be in contact with knob-and-tube wiring, provided that certain conditions are met, such as, but not limited to, the following:
When K&T wiring was first introduced, common household electrical appliances were limited to little more than toasters, tea kettles, coffee percolators and
clothes irons. The electrical requirements of mid- to late-20th century homes
could not have been foreseen during the late 18th century, a time during which electricity, to many, was seen as a passing fad. Existing K&T systems are notorious for modifications made in an attempt to match the increasing amperage loads required by televisions, refrigerators, and a plethora of other electric appliances. Many of these attempts were made by insufficiently trained handymen, rather than experienced electricians, whose work made the wiring system vulnerable to overloading.
K&T Wiring and Insurance:
Many insurance companies refuse to insure houses that have knob-and-tube wiring due to the risk of fire. Exceptions are sometimes made for houses where an electrical contractor has deemed the system to be safe.
Advice for those with K&T wiring:
In summary, knob-and-tube wiring is likely to be a safety hazard due to improper modifications and the addition of building insulation. Inspectors need to be wary of this old system and be prepared to inform their clients about its potential dangers.
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