Installing Vintage Schoolhouse Lights

It took us a full month to do it, but we finally installed some real lights in the two main-floor bedrooms. Ever since we bought the place, this is what the lighting situation has looked like:

Probably should have taken the light down before painting, huh?

Yep. Just a light bulb hanging from live wires dangling above us. Not exactly attractive (or safe).

We’ve had our eyes on this fixture from Schoolhouse Electric for a while now, but the $145 price tag has been turning us off. We knew we could find some knockoffs for around $50, which sounded a lot better. But we also liked the idea of finding some authentic vintage fixtures,  so we headed over to Bauer Brothers Salvage in North Minneapolis. We were able to pick up these vintage schoolhouse lights for $40 each. Not bad, huh?

Vintage schoolhouse lights.

The shades are a little different, but the base pieces are identical.

The old wiring that was still attached to the fixture bases were in rough shape – frayed cloth insulation.

Old wiring.

To replace the wiring, the first step is to unscrew the ceramic insulator around the base:

Unscrew porcelain insulator.

This will reveal the wire connection points:

Wire connection points.

Before adding any new wires, we gave the fixture bases a few quick coats of “oil-rubbed-bronze” spray paint.

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To install new wires, just fish the new wires in through the holes in the bottom of the fixtures and secure them to the screws, making sure the neutral white wire connects to the socket threads. For this project, I just used standard 14-gauge solid wires. Typically, you would use a smaller stranded wire for this sort of thing, but I didn’t have any on hand.

Secure new wires to terminals.

On the back side of the fixture, I twisted the wires around each other a few times to hold the wires in place, and to reduce the chances of the wires rubbing against some of the sharp metal edges on this fixture.

Twisted wires on back.

Here’s where we had to really start getting creative. Since we were using a vintage light, we couldn’t find any new mounting brackets wide enough for this sort of fixture, so we were stuck using the old rusty ones. Since the mounting screws were all rusty and wouldn’t turn, we had to use the hack saw to  cut the screws out. Luckily, I was able to get the remainder of the screws out, and the threads were still good enough to accept some new screw posts.

Vintage mounting bracket.

Another factor that made this complicated is that the boxes in the ceiling were the “shallow” style, which didn’t help mounting the lights any easier. We ended up having to mount the bracket upside down… grrr.

Shallow box.

To get the now upside-down mounting bracket in the right place, I ended up using about 20 washers as spacers. I’m sure there are dozens of more elegant ways to accomplish this, but it worked.

Washers as spacers.

After we finally worked our way through the mounting shenanigans, here’s what the lights finally looked like after they were installed:

Vintage Schoolhouse Light Fixture.

And that’s it! What do you think of our new fixtures? Ever had to get creative with mounting hardware to install a vintage fixture?

Replacing Electrical Outlets

One of the first jobs I wanted to tackle when we moved in a few months ago was to replace every electric receptacle in the house. Every one of them was ancient, ugly, and barely usable. Most of them were only two-prong outlets (which means that we couldn’t plug in anything that requires the third ground prong – like a laptop!). They were all so loosy-goosy, plugs would just fall out of them. Many of them had been painted in place so many times that the slots were painted shut. Here’s a representative example of what they looked like:

Receptacle covered in paint.

Gross, huh? You couldn’t even plug something into that bottom receptacle if you wanted to! One plug I found was even so old that the slots weren’t even parallel to each other! I don’t know if this was some kind of special plug, or if all plugs used to have one slot angled like that, but I knew I definitely didn’t want it in my wall anymore. Anyone out there know what’s up with the angled slot?

Super-old receptacle with one angled slot.

Slowly but surely over the past few months I’ve been swapping them out one by one for new hardware, and correcting a few deficiencies along the way. A couple of the outlets were obviously newer than the ones pictured here, but the previous owner had mismatched a few of them with different circuit amps. The previous owner had used 15 amp outlets everywhere – even on the 20 amp circuits. When I replaced them, there were two outlets that I had to upgrade to a 20 amp receptacle. (HINT: you can identify a 20 amp receptacle because the neutral slot will be T-shaped like below):

New receptacle.

It also seemed like a good time to get around to sticking some of those plastic kid-blocker things in all the outlets since we’ve got a curious 8-month-old wandering around.

I was worried I was going to run into a bunch of problems with the old cloth-covered wiring, but it ended up not being much of a problem at all. Boy the difference in the quality of wiring used in our current 1939 home compared to our previous home which was built in 1909 is shocking! (lol – see what I did there?)

Anyway, replacing outlets is one of my favorite jobs, because it’s simple, and because it goes a long way to sprucing up an old room, don’t you think?

Corrosion on Galvanized Water Supply Pipes

Time to address another one of our TISH repair items! Recall this item from our list of 9 items to address:

4. Water Supply Piping – Corrosion noted on water piping in areas.

I wrote previously about how we hired an electrician to do some work around the house, and one of the items we asked him to address was the missing ground clamp around the water meter (also one of our TISH items). The electrician did exactly what we asked him to do, and we were thrilled with his work. Unfortunately, about 24 hours after he had left, I found this in the basement:

Leak caused by replacing ground wire clamp.

The leak seemed to be coming right from around the new grounding clamp about 6 inches above the basement floor. It’s hard to tell from this photo, but the pipe in this location was about as rusty as a pipe could be, and water seemed to be just seeping out the side of the rusty pipe. It was an ancient galvanized pipe, and I suspected that the pipe was damaged while the electrician was installing the new clamp. I called the electrician, and he confirmed that this was probably the case. He said that to install the new clamp, he had to remove the old one, which had pretty much rusted itself solid to the pipe. When he pulled off the old clamp, some of the pipe surely came with it.

It was pretty good timing for something like this to happen since we were going to have to address the corroded pipes for our TISH inspection anyway. As handy as I like to think I am, I still have never learned how to sweat copper pipe fittings.

I called around to a few plumbers, and found one that would be able to come over in a few days. In the mean time, we kept the water main turned off any time we weren’t home. This probably wasn’t necessary, but it made me feel better since I kept having daydreams of the pipe bursting wide open while I was at work and flooding the entire basement.

When the plumber came over, we asked him to replace about 8 feet of galvanized pipe with copper. The previous owner had already replaced many of the pipes with copper, but the first 8 feet after the water meter were still galvanized. Here’s what that 8 feet of pipe looked like on the inside:

Corrosion inside galvanized water supply pipe.

Gross, huh? That orange stuff inside isn’t mushy goo inside the pipes, it’s rock hard corrosion that is literally choking off our flow of water. This is part of the main water trunk that feeds the entire house – we were probably only getting about a quarter as much water through here as we should be.

When the plumber had finished and we turned the water back on, we could instantly tell a difference in how the water flowed out of the faucets throughout the house.

So at the point that I’m writing this, we only have 10 more days to address all the TISH items OR ELSE… Here’s how the list looks right now:

1. Sump Pumps – Sump Pump lacks a secure cover.
2. Smoke Detectors/CO Detectors – Improperly located smoke detector in the basement.
3. Electrical Service Installation – Missing house side grounding clamp at water meter.
4. Water Supply Piping – Corrosion noted on water piping in areas.
5. Plumbing Fixtures – No backflow device installed at laundry tub.
6. Plumbing Fixtures – Improper air gap on toilet ballcock.
7. Exterior Pluming Backflow Prevention – missing backflow preventers on exterior faucets.
8. Electric Service Installation – Electric panel located in bathroom.
9. Electrical Outlets/Fixtures – Power mast is loose.

The other items on the list are all pretty easy fixes, so I’m not too worried.

Relocating the Electric Panel from the Bathroom

We knew when we bought the house that there were a few pretty substantial issues with the electrical system. Remember from our TISH report, 3 of the 9 required repairs were electrical items:

3. Electrical Service Installation – Missing house side grounding clamp at water meter.
8. Electric Service Installation – Electric panel located in bathroom.
9. Electrical Outlets/Fixtures – Power mast is loose.

Electric panel located in bathroom.

This power mast just needs to be screwed back onto the side of the house.

We were pretty confident that installing a new grounding clamp at the water meter would be easy enough, and we were also prepared to tackle the power mast issue, but we weren’t quite sure what to do about the electric panel in the bathroom.

I searched all over the internet for ideas of how to correct the electric panel in the bathroom. I found a handful of sites that recommended a possible option would be to construct a “small room” (minimum 30″x36″) around the electric panel, so that it (technically) would no longer be in the bathroom. At first, we thought this would be our best option – the bathroom was already small, so we weren’t excited about giving up the space. But the whole room needed renovating, so we thought we could expand the room later to get the space back. We figured that building a “small room” would just be a strategy to buy us time beyond the 90 day limit required by the City to make the repair, and we’d figure out a long-term solution later. However, the more we thought about it, the more we realized that we should probably just hire an electrician to move the panel out of the bathroom.

We hired Ben Sowieja from Luminous Electric to help us out with this job. He was very patient with all of my questions and concerns about the project, and he did a great job with the work. We decided to move the panel about 5 feet to the north, just on the other side of the bathroom’s northern wall – right underneath the stairs down to the basement. Ironically, this is where the original fuse box had been located, which had been abandoned years ago when the new service panel was installed in the bathroom. The old fuse box was now being used as just a large junction box. Check out this mess of boxes and wires:

Old fuse box.

Ben and I agreed that to do the job right, all those boxes needed to be removed, including the plywood they were mounted on. Ben removed all this old junk, and re-installed the panel on a new chunk of plywood on the wall. I told Ben that I was sensitive about the idea of drilling a bunch of new holes through joists since they were supporting the stairs right there, and he was willing to accommodate my request to re-use as many of the existing holes as possible – even if they weren’t in the best possible location.

New panel location.

Here’s the old panel location in the bathroom. Ben only installed a single, non-imposing new junction box that will be hidden from view once we put that lovely ceiling panel back in place:

Electric panel removed!

Ben also tacked that power mast back onto the side of the house for us. He also informed us that since moving the panel required him to open the meter, we’d have to upgrade our meter to a newer model that meets current code. In addition, since we moved the service panel further away from the meter on the back of the house, Ben said he was also required to install an additional whole-house breaker in a separate box on the outside of the house (it’s the lower box in this photo). I wasn’t too excited about the idea of more, bigger boxes on the back of the house, but I think Ben did a good job making it look as professional as possible.

New meter and whole-house breaker.

Overall, we were very happy with the work Ben did for us and I strongly recommend his work. The final invoice came in at $1,150, which was exactly the estimate he had given us a few days earlier.

Well, here’s how we’re coming on our list of TISH repairs:

1. Sump Pumps – Sump Pump lacks a secure cover.
2. Smoke Detectors/CO Detectors – Improperly located smoke detector in the basement.
3. Electrical Service Installation – Missing house side grounding clamp at water meter.
4. Water Supply Piping – Corrosion noted on water piping in areas.
5. Plumbing Fixtures – No backflow device installed at laundry tub.
6. Plumbing Fixtures – Improper air gap on toilet ballcock.
7. Exterior Pluming Backflow Prevention – missing backflow preventers on exterior faucets.
8. Electric Service Installation – Electric panel located in bathroom.
9. Electrical Outlets/Fixtures – Power mast is loose.

We have about 45 more days to finish the rest of these items. Think we’ll make it?

Installing a Programmable Thermostat

Here in Minnesota, energy efficiency is pretty critical to keeping your heating bills down in the winter. In our last house, we were able to keep our monthly gas bills down to about $120-$140 during the coldest months of the year. We’re a little worried to find out what it will cost to heat this place over the winter.

One thing that definitely helps, however, is a programmable thermostat. This is the type of home improvement project I definitely recommend to everyone. It’s very easy, and programmable thermostats range anywhere from the $35-$100 range. Most houses will be served perfectly well with a $35 unit – especially if you keep a pretty routine schedule week to week (i.e. work 8-5 weekdays, home most weekends).

After we painted the living room, our old thermostat was left just kind of dangling in place. We had pulled it off to paint under it, but never hung it back up because we knew we would be replacing it.

Dangling in place.

This is kind of a problem, since I’m pretty sure the mercury thermometers in these things need to be mounted upright to work properly.

Right Side Up.

Replacing one of these is as easy as pulling 3-5 wires off the old unit and screwing them onto the new unit. Even if you have no idea what you’re doing and have to sit down to read the entire instruction booklet, this will take you no longer than an hour. All the wires are low-voltage, so there is no risk of receiving an electric shock. Folks confident doing this kind of thing can be done in 15 minutes or less.

New Thermostat

No, it’s not really 75 degrees inside our house, but I’d had my grubby hands all over this thing, so it was reading a higher than normal temperature. After a few hours, it dropped down to a more appropriate temperature.

Obviously, we still need to fill some holes left in the plaster from the previous couple of thermostats that had been mounted in this same location.

Truth in Sale of Housing

The City of Minneapolis requires that all houses sold in the City undergo a Truth in Sale of Housing (TISH) inspection by an inspector approved by the City. The inspections are pretty basic, but if something doesn’t meet minimum requirements, the homeowners are required to make all repairs within 90 days of the sale of the house.

What happens if we don’t do them?  I dunno. Maybe the take the house away or something. I don’t want to find out.

We knew before we bought the house that there were a number of items that would require fixing, some of which are not insignificant. Most of these have to do with plumbing and electrical issues.

Here’s the list:

1. Sump Pumps – Sump Pump lacks a secure cover.
2. Smoke Detectors/CO Detectors – Improperly located smoke detector in the basement.
3. Electrical Service Installation – Missing house side grounding clamp at water meter.
4. Water Supply Piping – Corrosion noted on water piping in areas.
5. Plumbing Fixtures – No backflow device installed at laundry tub.
6. Plumbing Fixtures – Improper air gap on toilet ballcock.
7. Exterior Plumbing Backflow Prevention – missing backflow preventers on exterior faucets.
8. Electric Service Installation – Electric panel located in bathroom.
9. Electrical Outlets/Fixtures – Power mast is loose.

One by one, we’ll be following up with each of these, showing what we did to correct these problems.