Saving Money on the Electrical System

With this post, I’m taking a step back in time to the spring of 2014.  Hopefully my experience will be helpful to someone who is thinking about doing their own electrical work for their new home…

Call me naive, but at some point early in the planning stage I had a brainstorm and decided that I was going to install the electrical system.  It seemed like a great place to save some fairly serious money, as the original bids ranged from $12,000 to $18,000.  Although it didn’t quite work out that way, I did manage to cut the total cost down to about $10,000.  But even in a relatively modest house like this, these savings required a lot more thought, planning, and work than I had imagined.

The first thing I needed to do was get power to the house.  And before doing that, I had to decide where the meter would go.

I knew from the start that I didn’t want the electric meter hanging off the side of the house.  I figured that it would be one more complication when it came to the exterior foam and siding installation that we didn’t need.  Fortunately, the garage was to be located between the house and the electric transformer.  So I decided to put the meter on the garage, and then run power from there to the house.

[As a side note, my house sits over 500 feet off the road, and when I purchased the lot I didn’t even think about what it would take to run electricity to it.  Fortunately, many years ago, in order to service several houses on adjacent lots, the electric company had already installed a transformer near the corner of my lot that happened to be closest to my  building envelope (less than 100 feet away). So I got lucky in that regard.  I don’t know how much it would have cost to have the electrical supply run the 500 feet from the road to the house,, but I am told it would not have been insignificant.]

Putting the meter on the garage brought it’s own complications; it required that I get conduit in the ground between the house and garage as the garage foundation was being installed.  We’d also have to install a switch in the garage that would be able to completely shut down the power to the house sub-panel that would be installed in the basement.

I decided that this aspect of the job was beyond anything I wanted to try to tackle.  So I set out to find an electrician.  I called eight electricians and left messages explaining what I needed to do.  Only one called me back.  He was a one-man operation, and agreed to do the job with my help in laying the conduit.  The cost would be roughly $4,000.

After the footers were poured, and after consulting with my excavator and the electrician, I had my excavator dig a straight-line trench from the spot where the main panel would be placed to the house.  The specific location of the box on the garage was a critical decision.  My initial thought was to put the box on the back of the garage.  But that would have required a longer run and at least one additional turn in the conduit.  And the more turns in the conduit, the more difficult it would be to pull the wire through (or to pull it out).

In this photo, you’ll see the main three-inch conduit, and the two one-inch conduits for the generator and garage light switches.  The third one-inch conduit is for Comcast.  We ended up using Verizon Fios, and the installers decided not to use it.

Once we settled on the placement of the main box (early fall 2013), I assisted the electrician with setting the conduit; the main feed to the house (3″), a secondary feed that traversed the yard in front of the house for the future second garage (2″), a smaller conduit so we could control the exterior garage lights from a switch in the house (1″), another smaller conduit so I could power the house sub-panel with a generator that would be plugged in in the garage (1″), and a conduit to run Comcast cable from the garage (which was also closer to the Comcast box) to the house (1″).

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At the house, I initially intended to run the conduit through the foundation wall below grade.  But in the end, that seemed like more work than it was worth, and should have been planned before the house foundation was poured.  So we brought the conduit up just outside the foundation, and ran the electrical through the rim joist.  The following photo shows the conduits entering through the rim joist:

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After the conduit was put in place, the electrician disappeared, for months.  That, by the way, was not unusual for the contractors that I encountered.  I’m guessing that some of them are horrible businessmen, and others simply place independent guys like me at the bottom of the priority list.  What I don’t get is why they can’t manage a five minute phone call or a 30 second email just to let me know they’re still alive.  Seems like common courtesy.  But I digress…

Just as I was giving up hope, he reappeared, claiming that he had been ill and hospitalized.  By that time, it was late December.  He showed up and fed the cable from the garage to the house, coordinated with the electric company and finished the job.  However, before the electric company would tie us in to the system, the work had to be inspected.  So he called an inspector, who came out and signed off on the job.  Once that was done, the power company completed the connection and powered up the system.  By then it was late January.

A couple of months later, I needed to install the recessed lighting in the porch and pent roofs because the siding subs were ready to install the beadboard ceilings.  So I purchased the fixtures, installed them, and wired them in.  When I finished, I called the electrical inspector that I was instructed to call by the building inspector.  This guy was not the same guy that the electrician used for the inspection needed to get power to the house.

I didn’t know it at the time, but in our township, the electrical inspectors work for private companies.  Apparently, many electricians develop relationships with a particular inspector, and call that person out to inspect their work.  And of course, the inspector that this electrician used was not the electrical inspector that my building inspector had assigned to my house.

When the “official” electrical inspector showed up, he quickly gave my work the OK. Then he noticed the panel in the garage and asked why it hadn’t been inspected.  I explained what had happened, and he walked over to take a look.  He quickly found two problems.  First, the electrician had only installed a single grounding rod, whereas two were required.  And second, the electrician had used the wrong wire in the conduit from the main (garage) panel to the sub panel in the house.  I’m not sure exactly what was wrong with it.  But I think the problem was that the wires were encased in a sheathing, much like typical Romex.  Evidently, the code had changed in our area, and the wires had to be of a type that is unsheathed, when run through underground conduit.

I have no idea why the prior inspector didn’t catch these problems.  But it didn’t matter.  It had to be re-done.  Fortunately, the electrician took it in stride and showed up.  I helped him pull the cable out, put the new cable in, and install the second grounding rod.  Fortunately, because the run from the garage to the house was straight, pulling the 60 feet of cable out of the conduit only took five minutes.

That was pretty much it until I finished the interior framing.  Once that was done, my next task was to install all of the electrical fixtures in preparation for wiring.  This turned out to be close to 200 items.  Boxes for outlets. Boxes for switches.  Boxes for sconces.  Boxes for ceiling lights.  Boxes for ceiling fans.  Boxes for fire alarms.  Boxes for the water heater, the ERV, and the minisplits.  Outdoor outlet boxes.  Boxes in the garage.  Recessed light fixtures, closet light fixtures.  Porch “carriage house” light fixtures.  Light fixtures on the outside of the garage. The number amazed me, particularly given the size of the house.  I had never imagined that there could be so many.

But it wasn’t just the number of fixtures that took so much time.  It was also the placement of the fixtures.  In the bathroom we used sconces on each side of the mirrors; that’s four sconces in the master bath and two in the guest bath.  This required me to decide exactly how big the cabinets would be, how large the mirrors would be, and the size and style of the fixtures.  Since I hadn’t yet built the cabinets, and we hadn’t yet picked out light fixtures, this was challenging.

For every area of the house, when it came to lighting the questions were how many, what type (e.g. ceiling, wall, or recessed) placed where (e.g. how far apart, how many rows, how high on the wall, how far from the door/window), and controlled how (e.g. a single switch, three-way, four-way)?

I ended up making significant use of sconses.  Two in they foyer, two in the family room, one in the back hall, four in the second floor hall, eight in the bathrooms, and two in the master bedroom.

To keep penetrations through the second floor ceiling at a minimum, I used half-inch deep pancake boxes for the bedroom ceiling fans, closet lights and bathroom ceiling lights.  I attached these boxes directly to the Zip ceiling (reinforced from above as necessary for the fans).  In doing this I only needed to drill a half-inch hole through the Zip ceiling for the wire, instead of cutting a four-inch hole for the entire box as is typical.  Once the drywall was completed, these boxes were flush with the finished surface.  I also placed the second floor smoke detectors and the bathtub and shower lights high on the wall instead of in the ceiling.

At the same time, I had to be mindful of the code requirements, which dictate, among other things, how far apart outlet boxes can be and how high the fire alarms must be placed.  I also tried to be mindful of the drywallers by keeping outlet box heights consistent and switch box heights set at the drywall seams.

I had to ensure that I had the necessary exterior light and outlet mounting plates/boxes in place before the guys installed the siding on the house and the stone on the garage.

And I had to ensure that the wall boxes were set at the proper depth; basically 1/2″ for interior walls and 5/8″ for the perimeter walls.  In most cases, on the perimeter walls, I used adjustable boxes; where the surface of the box could be moved in or out after the drywall was installed.  They were more expensive, but well worth it.

All in all, it wasn’t particularly difficult.  It just took a lot of thought, planning, and time. It took me weeks, off and on, to get everything in place, exactly where I wanted it.

I finished all of the above work in May 2014, and started to run the wire.  I finished wiring the recessed ceiling lights in the kitchen, family room, and office, and realized that it was just going to take too much time for me to finish the job on my own.  Again, it wasn’t so much that it was difficult, it was just too time consuming.  So I contacted another electrician that had done some work for me in our prior house, and it proved to be a good move.  He, his son, and one employe spent three days on the house.  They worked like a well-oiled machine and finished the rough-in, running all of the wires hooking everything up to the breaker box in the basement.  That cost me another $4,000.  But it was well worth it.

That was it until the insulation, plumbing, and drywall were finished.  Then it was back to work on the electrical.  Fortunately, the electricians had done a great job of organizing the wires neatly in the boxes.  I was able to install all of the 200 or so outlets and fixtures without a single problem, although, again, it took a lot of time.

I was subsequently warned by someone in the business that some less ethical electricians sometimes screw with a customer who wants to install the fixtures himself.  As I was told, they do this by first telling the person something like, “I’ll do the entire job for $8,000, or I’ll do the rough-in only for $4,000.  But if I have to come back and install the fixtures, it will be an additional $5,000.” Then, if the customer chooses the rough-in only option, the electrician wires the house in such a way that it becomes very confusing when it’s time to install the outlets and fixtures; almost assuring that the customer will have to call him back to complete the job.

Fortunately that wasn’t the case with my electrician.