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From the Ground Up: Electrical Wiring

Setting up an electrical system for maximum safety and convenience

By Max Alexander of This Old House magazine // Illustration by Ian Worpole


Whenever we ip a switch, plug in an appliance, or adjust a reading light, we interact with the electrical
system in a house. A good electrician can make those interactions easier in a hundred little ways, so it's
best to communicate your needs earlyideally after the house is framed and before the drywall or
insulation goes up.
That's when master electrician Allen Gallant, who has wired many This Old House TV projects, takes his
customers on a job-site walk-through, showing where he plans to put switches, lights, and receptacles. "I'll
even ask them if they're left-handed or right-handed," he says. "It makes a big difference when you're
looking for the light switch." It's easy to make changes at this point in the process, but once the walls are
closed in, any second thoughts become far more dif cult and expensive to implement.

Once Gallant starts wiring a house, virtually every aspect of his work is controlled by codes, both local and
national. These codes are the nal word on safe installation practices. Gallant is meticulous in adhering to
them, yet he often goes a step further to make his electrical systems even safer and easier to use. On the
following pages, you'll see the basics of wiring a house to meet code, along with a look at Gallant's extras.


RELATED VIDEO // How to Add Outlets to a Room

Electrical Pathways

Allen Gallant's Choices

Outlet Boxes: Plastic or Metal?

When given a choice between installing outlet boxes made of blue PVC or those made of steel, Allen
Gallant chooses plastic. "People say metal is so durable. But so is plasticit'll be around foreverand it's
about 70 percent cheaper." Plastic boxes also save installation time because there's no need to ground
each one, as must be done with metal. (Local code has the last word, however; in some communities,
plastic boxes are forbidden.) Gallant does use metal boxes for one application: light xtures. He learned
that rule the hard way, when a heavy alabaster xture broke loose from a plastic box and smashed to
pieces on the oor. "Never again," he says.

Going Beyond Code

Allen Gallant's extras

Receptacles: Massachusetts requires electrical outlets every 12 feet; Gallant puts one every 8 feet.
"Not a big deal on the budget, but it's a lot more convenient."

Security lights: For added safety, Gallant mounts exterior oodlights controlled by a switch in the
master bedroom.

Light xtures: Gallant always hard-wires at least one light xture to a switch. If the switch just controls
the receptacle that a lamp is plugged into, "sooner or later someone turns off the lamp, and then the
switch won't work," he says. "It's a pain.

Outdoor receptacles: The code mandates two (with GFCI); Gallant installs at least three, in front and in

As Seen on TV

Arc-Fault Circuit Interrupters

A conventional circuit breaker can't detect the low-level arcing (a spark-generating short circuit) that can
occur on frayed or cut wires. Arc-fault circuit interrupters (AFCIs), installed at the service panel, protect
against such dangerous shorts and are now required in new bedroom circuits. Gallant rst used them at
the TV project in Billerica, Mass.

Low-voltage Lights
What a difference a transformer makes. By taking 110-volt household power and stepping it down to 12
volts, it allows most any homeowner to safely install low-voltage lighting xtures under cabinets, on
ceilings, or around gardens and outdoor walkways. Low voltage doesn't mean dim. The tiny xenon bulbs in
the accent lights in the kitchen of the Charlestown, Mass., TV project produce an incredibly bright light,
and they boast a 10,000-hour life span.

Airtight Recessed Lights

Standard recessed lights are stylish space savers, but they leave a hole in your ceiling where air (and heat)
can escape. That's why manufacturers have perfected so-called airtight recessed lights, which block air
leaks and even allow insulation to be placed on top of the xturea big no-no with old-style can lights.
Used throughout the Milton TV project, they're now required by code in many applications.
On the Horizon

Airtight recessed lights save space

High-tech Electric Meters
In the future, your electric meter may be able to sense power outages, detect wiring problems, monitor
appliance ef ciency, and send reports instantly to the power company. The company can then save you
money by notifying you of problems or by remotely shutting down noncritical appliances during peak-rate
hours. These are already in use with big industrial and commercial power users.

LED Lightbulbs
Light-emitting diodes (LEDs)now seen primarily in ashlights, traf c signals, and auto taillightsare
already saving billions of kilowatt hours of electricity. They use just 10 percent of the power needed for
incandescent bulbs of the same brightness and should last for at least 10,000 hours. These wonder bulbs
promise to be the next big thing in residential lighting. Gallant can"t wait. "They'd be great for a cathedral
ceiling because you almost never have to change the bulbs."
Where to Find It

Light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, save kilowatt hours of electricity

Master Electrician:
Allen Gallant
Gallant Electric
Lexington, MA

Worth a Look

LED bulbs:
Holly Solar

Low-voltage lighting:
Ambience, Sea Gull Lighting
Airtight recessed light:
Progress Lighting

For further information

Edison Electric Institute
Washington, D.C.

National Electric Code:

National Fire Protection Assocation (NFPA)
Quincy, MA

Copper Development Association Inc.

New York, NY

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