Collaborative Electrical Rewire – Part 4 : Looking at the old installation

Friday 16th December 2016

The running of wires & beginning to install sockets/fittings etc had taken slightly longer than expected, and rather than leave us with a only a partially completed installation for a week – Sam had very kindly offered to give up his Saturday to install the consumer unit.

Until then we decided to take a look at some of the old electrical equipment to satisfy our curiosity.

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There are several bakelite switches in the house, some are the round design made by Crabtree and others are a more Art Deco style made by Tenby Pilot, several of which have been painted. These do sell for a reasonable amount on eBay, so people obviously still use them (hopefully ensuring they meet or are upgraded to modern safety standards first!)

The mounting points for these were either twisted wooden pegs (aka the dochan) or a fibrous type of wall/rawl plug. Whilst Ian thought it was hemp/flax fibre similar, I was immediately suspicious of these.

Indeed, when looking it up online I found that some of the old wall plugs were made of asbestos! It always pays to be very cautious when it comes to health and safety when renovating old houses. Wearing proper fitting rubber/silicone dust masks, being aware of possible sources of asbestos and other potentially toxic or dangerous substances (eg. creosote or other wood preservatives) is very important.

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I have developed a coughing type asthma since I moved into this house for the first time in my life. Whilst it may just be to do with high dust levels in general, it is really quite anxiety-inducing thinking that there might be asbestos fibres hanging around in the air from where we have disturbed things. Unfortunately one wouldn’t know if you had been affected until 40 years later – so it really does pay to be as cautious as possible. Realistically in a city you are probably more likely to be exposed to various toxic types of pollution just walking down the street, so it also pays to keep things in perspective & not worry overly.

This is the rats nest junction box of wires under the hallway :

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Although I used to have negative associations with bakelight switches due to knowing they were probably a sign of ancient potentially dangerous electrics, like other people, I have grown to like the wonderful satisfying click that modern switches simply do not have.

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They are a classic period feature, a living, functional piece of history in keeping with the house. As many things were from the previous century, these were truly built to last. The back is a cast ceramic construction and they are mounted on solid wood pattresses.

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The cables poke through the pattresses and are attached onto the ceramic back with solid brass screws.

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The mechanical switches have strong springs and feel solid, definite – an antidote to so much of the ephemeral, flimsy products we are now bombarded with. I will miss these!

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Simon has suggested these can be upgraded to modern standards, although I not 100% sure exactly how. I will be holding onto the two circular Crabtree switches for now & would look to source matching ones in future if budget allows. For now, we will use cheap LAP switches to get everything safely up and running.

As an aside – I initially thought that there couldn’t be much difference between basic white switches. I liked that LAP came with little screw covers and had a curved, low-profile design. However, it turns out that I really dislike the dull, dirty blue-ish hue of LAP electrical fittings. MK have a much nicer quality, slightly warmer toned clean-looking white plastic (Crabtree and BG are also pretty good). MK have a much more satisfying click to them too.

The part of the old installation that I was more than happy to see the back of was the old consumer unit.

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Read more about that here…

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