If your house was built between 1900 and 1950 there is a good chance you’ve got cloth wiring in your house. Is it time to panic? Not necessarily. Most of us have heard of the perils of knob and tube wiring, but cloth wiring is another form of historic wiring that can be found lurking in the walls of old houses that has some special considerations.
Personally, I lived in a 1920’s Bungalow quite comfortably for about 10 years with original cloth wiring and had no issues. But you may be different. I’ll share the potential hazards and offer you some solutions to keep you safe in this post so read on.
The History of Cloth Wiring
Cloth wiring emerged in the late 19th century and gained popularity in the early 20th century as a safe method for electrical installations. It typically consists of copper wires covered in cloth insulation made from cotton or rayon. It was an upgrade and was easier to install since it did not require the porcelain insulators and tube of knob and tube wiring which also brought down costs. Cloth wiring was prevalent until the 1940s when modern electrical standards were established, but still lingered into some houses in the 1950s
The Dangers of Cloth Wiring
It’s historical yes, and while I love most things historic some things are best to have faded away and cloth wiring is one of those things. Cloth wiring presents several dangers due to its age and outdated design. Here are the primary hazards associated with cloth wiring:
- Brittleness: It’s old, just like your college t-shirts, and so cloth wiring has been sitting int he walls getting more and more brittle. That cloth has been tugged on and rubbed against rough framing lumber for decades. That brittleness means that every time there is a renovation it looses more and more of it coating which is the only thing that keeps it safe.
- Electrical Fires: Over time, the cloth insulation can deteriorate, become brittle, or wear off, leaving the bare wires exposed especially around fixtures or outlets where the wiring has been moved constantly. This increases the risk of arcs (where electricity jumps from one wire to another) and therefore electrical fires.
- Overloading Circuits: Cloth wiring was not designed to handle the electrical demands of modern appliances and devices. Electrical use in homes of this age were typically 25% to 50% of the needs of a modern home. The outdated wiring may struggle to handle the load, leading to overheating which once again leads to…fires.
- Lack of Grounding: Cloth wiring systems often lack a grounding wire (that bare copper or green wire common in modern electrical systems), which is crucial for protecting against electrical shocks. This absence of grounding increases the risk of electrical accidents and poses a threat to the safety of occupants. There are ways to resolve ungrounded outlets in a pinch though.
- Asbestos: We used this dang stuff everywhere it seems. Some cloth wiring had a paper like wrapping underneath the cloth which often times contained asbestos since it provided some fire protection. If the cloth is in poor shape that asbestos can become exposed and that’s not something you want.
Resolving Cloth Wiring Issues
If your property has cloth wiring, you may or may not need to take immediate action as it all depends on the condition of the wiring and your electrical use. If you’re wiring is in still in excellent shape and you’re not cranking major amps through your house you may be safe. If you have major electrical needs or you notice lots of bare wires with rumbling cloth insulation then it’s time to act. Here are some solutions to consider:
- Electrical Inspection: Hire a licensed electrician to conduct a thorough inspection of your electrical system. They will assess the condition of the cloth wiring and identify any areas of concern or potential risks. Don’t DIY this inspection. Hire a pro.
- Rewiring: In many cases, the best solution is to replace the entire cloth wiring system with modern wiring. This involves rewiring the building with up-to-date materials that comply with current electrical standards. While it can be a significant investment, it ensures the safety and reliability of your electrical system in the long run. Depending on the size of your home and your location this could cost around $3-$7 per square foot.
- Partial Upgrades: If a complete rewiring is not feasible or practical, partial upgrades can be considered. This involves replacing cloth wiring in high-risk areas such as kitchens, bathrooms, and areas exposed to moisture, where the risks are greater or where the wiring is in particularly poor condition.
- Regular Maintenance: If you’re not able to afford a rewire then at the very least have regular inspections by a pro to help you stay safe. It’s certainly not ideal, but like I mentioned earlier there are some houses where the wiring may be old but it is in good enough shape to keep you safe.
How Does Cloth Wiring Affect Homeowners Insurance
The presence of cloth wiring in a home doesn’t preclude you from having homeowner’s insurance, but it certainly can make it much more difficult. AS a part of your home purchase you’ll likely need a 4-point inspection which covers the major drivers of insurance claims in the house (Electrical, Plumbing, HVAC, Roof). There only a few paths most people get when it comes to cloth wiring and insurance:
- Refusal to Insure: Some insurance companies will not even consider the house once they see cloth wiring show up on your inspection. This will severely limit your options for insurance companies.
- Limited Coverage: Some insurance companies will cover the home but specifically exclude the electrical system and any issues that are caused by it. That leaves you exposed to huge loses if an electrical fire does occur.
- Higher Premiums: The best you can hope for, sadly, is higher premiums for homes with outdated wiring. Cloth wiring can cause insurance premiums to be multiples times that of a new home. Be prepared for a big pain in the wallet if you do find insurance.
If you’re looking to buy an old house with cloth wiring the best path for most homeowners on the insurance front is to buy the house with whatever insurance you can get and then quickly get a rewire completed so you can have a new 4-point inspection showing the new wiring. That will result in only paying a couple months of the high premiums and keep you safe for the long run.
The End of Cloth Wiring
While cloth wiring played a vital role in early electrical installations, its time has passed. In the 1950s and 1960s as thermoplastic-coated wiring (fancy name) came into regular use cloth faded from popularity.
Understanding the history, hazards, and solutions, though is crucial to understanding old buildings. By taking proactive measures, such as conducting inspections and considering rewiring or partial upgrades, you can mitigate the risks associated with cloth wiring and ensure you and your family are safe.
Remember, when it comes to electrical systems, it is always best to consult with a licensed electrician who can provide expert advice tailored to your specific situation because every house is different especially every old house.
Founder & Editor-in-Chief
I love old houses, working with my hands, and teaching others the excitment of doing it yourself! Everything is teachable if you only give it the chance.