I will freely admit that running conduit in a house for the power distribution is, by far, the safest method of protecting wires carrying electrical current. The only downside is the difficulty of installation. Yeah, I'm certain that the pro's would quickly disagree, but we ain't pro's. Fortunately for these DIY'ers, our county still allows use of Romex wire for home power distribution. I have pulled a couple of miles of rope over my years, and use of this product suits me just fine. It provides the installation advantage that we seek and will be the product of choice. Fortunately, we have a few electricians in the family that I can use for tapping into the knowledge and experience bank. I make quite a few transactions with this bank; before and during electrical installation. The dividends pay off in the end.
Let's take a quick look over our shoulder to review the power source for this project. About a year ago, we finally pulled the power in from the county road. It came thru some 2000' of underground conduit. It passed through 2 transformers on the way and terminated at a meter box at the exterior of the garage apartment. Our end of the deal was installing and wiring the meter box, an electrical disconnnect, and the main power distribution box at the interior. The power company had the job of pulling in the juice and hooking it all together.
The smaller box on the right is the disconnect. It provides a place to tap in for power to feed another building (ie; future residential home for retirement living). Here's the deal. We pulled in 400 amps to the main meter box, the larger box on the left. Inside that box, there are additional lugs to allow splitting the power feed into two separate feeds. We ran one feed directly through the wall and into the 200 amp distribution box (breaker box) at the interior of this building. The other set of lugs are wired directly over and into the smaller disconnect on the right. This shoots the other 200 amps over to a resting place where they are terminated. When the time comes to add another structure at LNP that requires 200 amps, a conduit will be installed off the bottom of this disconnect box and the juice will be fed over to the new building. So, how do we "split" the 400 amps into 2 segments of 200 amps each? Well, we don't actually split into 2 equal segments. The entire 400 amp feed is available to travel in either direction. The idea is that if 2 buildings are using high demand, they will find sharing the 400 amp source as reliable and plentiful. Well, what if 400 amps sneaks into either building....won't that be a problem? Nope; the power distribution box (breaker box) inside each building is fused to allow only 200 amps into the structure's electrical system.
This is where we start at the interior. The meter box and disconnect box are just on the other side of the OSB sheathing. I selected a box with 40 spaces for breakers. It's pretty much the largest box available for residential use (or at least the largest in stock at the home center). In the end, pretty much every available space will be used. Although that's a lot more circuits than might really be necessary for this size structure, I go a little crazy and create numerous smaller circuits to allow a bit more control of the power distribution. It also provides lower amperage draw potential for each circuit....a good thing.
WAIT ! there's a little more stuff to this power thing; check this one out...
When we contracted the power company to do their work, the job foreman spent quite a few visits to the site and offered a lot of sage advice. One key point that came up more than once was the warning that rural power outages during bad storms can, and do, happen. I heard the story more than once of some of the outlying areas being down for 3 or 4 days. We are considered one of the subject "outlying areas". A secondary, backup power source is highly recommended.
OK, I get it. Unfortunately, though, a good backup generator package is pretty expensive and money that we don't have. Hmmm....what to do....? OK, what about the gas generator that we were using all the while when we did NOT have the electrical power back here? It's rated for 5000 watts continuous. This kind of power would be plenty for kicking on a furnace or even a well, let alone running lights and other stuff. We may have to be choosy on what we run at the same time, but that can be controlled. We elect to follow this path.
I pick up a secondary power distribution panel off of Ebay for about $100. It is a fairly simple project and gets installed directly next to the main power distribution panel.
A 220V double breaker is installed inside the main box and the power leads are run over to the backup box. These leads feed one side of a special switching breaker within this backup box.
What you see above is inside the auxilliary subpanel. We are looking at a stacked pair of 240V double breakers, one top, one bottom. The top one receives the utility power feed coming over from the main box next door (the two black 6 gauge wires). The double breaker below (no wires yet) will receive the power feed coming in from the generator. The silver metal rocker arm that pivots between them will only allow turning on one breaker at a time. The idea is pretty simple. The utility power breaker will be the one that stays on for normal conditions. This will charge the box with 60 amps of power. We can then run selected circuits from this backup breaker box. These selected circuits will power the things within the building that we might need electrified during a power outage. Under normal circumstances, this box will function without any need for changes or concern. In the event of a power outage, we will hook up the generator and flip OFF the utility 60 amp feed to this box and turn ON the generator feed. You can guess the rest.
(fast forward to completion of the generator feed installation)
Some months later, we finally finish this backup generator project. The generator power feed is wired into the lower breaker and a couple of the interior circuits are also wired in to provide power into the upstairs living area.
The conduit coming off the bottom of the subpanel/auxilliary box runs down to a metal junction box that connects with the exterior of the structure. At the outside, we install a receptacle that will accept a homemade pigtail that will feed in the power from the generator. We hook it up for a test run. Yeah, a bit of anxiety on this one....but it works like a charm!
Alrighty then, let's get back to pullin' some wire...
The first step is to locate and install all the electrical boxes that will be needed. Truth be told, I have absolutely no master plan for this. I know pretty much what I want, and where it should be located....but the electrical plan is only available in my mind. Yeah, I know...sounds like a disaster looking for a place to happen. Well, in the end, it works out OK. Did I have to do a quick dance and move or change any boxes? You bet! That's the price of admission to this dance. In the end, the key to success is performing any changes BEFORE drywall installation.
It takes a couple of weekend trips for me to lay out all the boxes (this includes some of those changes we discussed). Part of this exercise includes installing and wiring a multitude of can light fixtures in the ceiling. We both like the clutter-free look of minimizing interior lighting fixtures like table lamps, floor lamps, chandeliers, etc. We elect to use quite a few 6" can light fixtures throughout the upstairs living space. The fixtures are rated for insulation contact (IC) and are also rated as air-tight (to stop the flow of the ambient temp air within the living space from creeping up into the attic area). Are they truly air tight?....no, but they are pretty well sealed up to slow down excessive air exchange. We also install boxes to hold ceiling fan/lights. There will be one fan/light in each of the 2 bedrooms, and 2 more fan/lights strategically placed within the great room living space.
All 120v circuits are fed by 12 gauge wire. Although 14 gauge is acceptable, the upcharge for 12 gauge is reasonable and I won't take the low road when it comes to routing electricity. Yes, the 12 gauge wire is a bit more difficult to handle and stuff into boxes when it comes time to hook up switches and receptacles, but that's tough. The only main circuit that is powered with 14 gauge is the smoke alarms. They are a very low amperage draw. Any sub-circuits that power only lights and/or ceiling fans is fed with 14 gauge. There is no need for concern of compromise on these low power consumers. In fact, each of the ceiling fan/lights has 14-3 wire running to it from the switchbox. This will allow controlling each function (fan or light) on it's own switch at the box. The same is done for each of the bathroom fan/light fixtures. Speaking of bathroom fan/lights, let's take a look...
Bathroom fan-light installation
Each of the 2 baths has a fan with a light built into it. The master bath is a little larger in cubic footage, so it has a somewhat nicer unit; a bit quieter and a bit stronger fan. In fact, it actually has 2 lights built into it (unexpected bonus, discovered during installation). One is the normal ambient room light, and one is a small wattage night light. I didn't really want this option, but what the heck. The only downside is that it will require one more electrical feed and switch to operate the night light; whatever.
Once again, it is my job to take a normal run-of-the-mill installation and make it some kind of overkill project. I accept this challenge and rise to the occassion.
Bathroom fans are critical. Not so much for stink removal, but more for humidity removal during and immediately following showers and/or baths. The normal installation is a fan unit somewhere in the ceiling, reasonably close to the source of humidity. Since our ceilings are all pitched (cathedral), and since heat and humidity rise to the high point, we locate our fan right outside the bath/shower stall and fairly close to the ceiling peak inside the room.
After the fan, there are 3 more facets to route the air out: a damper, the pipe, and the exit vent. Simple stuff since all fan units come with a plastic damper built into the unit. The pipe is usually a length of 4" diameter flexible foil (looks like a foil covered slinky, all stretched out), and some type of vent unit (there are many different designs to cover the many different areas on a house where a vent may exit). Well, none of this is good enough for me...there; I said it.
Those cheesey plastic dampers built into fans are just that...junk. Yeah, they work OK for the most part, but when you get a little wind whippin' up outside, they are constantly popping open and closed....annoying. Also, they really only stop about 80% of the air exchange that may occur when the cold (or hot) air is trying to blow in from the outside. I pop that cheesey plastic flap out and replace it with a butterfly unit like this.
This backdraft damper costs about $15 (yep, on-line) and should make all the difference. It is made of stainless steel and aluminum. The two butterfly flaps swing on a skinny hinge across the center and are held in the closed position with an extremely sensitive, tiny coil spring wound on the hinge wire. You can blow on it like you're whistling and they will open. The damper unit has soft weather stripping surrounding the perimeter that allows insertion into a 4" diameter pipe. Yep, no foil slinky pipe for this guy.
During the cold weather months, the attic that contains the vent pipe wll be cold; so will the pipe. When that warm, wet air leaves the fan fixture, goes just past the damper, and hits that cold pipe, it condenses....turns to cool air with water sticking to the pipe walls. Foil slinky pipe is not smooth, but has ridges and valleys between each winding of the wire that forms the pipe wall. The condensed water will run down and pool in these valleys. This is OK, I guess, providing the foil is never compromised by a tiny puncture (could never happen during installation...right?). Also, it's a place for mold to grow....bad enough if it is inside the pipe and worse if it's outside a tiny puncture and in the surrounding insulation. OK, I poo-poo'd the damper and now I'm diss'ing the pipe. This is the prerogative of the King of Overkill, so get used to it (Donna has.....I hope). Anyway, I use a rigid 4" drainage pipe to route air from my bath fans. Any condensation will run through the pipe without the chance of leakage and the air flow is totally unhindered by the smooth bore of the pipe. I do have to tell you, though, that the drainage pipe idea only works if you can route it's exit on a continuous slope downhill, all the way out. We don't want any condensation rolling backward into the fan housing, nor do we want a low spot to capture a pool. Our cathedral ceiling design is the perfect downhill trajectory toward the eaves, so the 4" pipe works great.
We had to add a rubber coupling to get it up and over an existing drain vent line, but it worked fine.
Probably the most popular method of venting a bathroom fan when it's close to the roof is to use a roof vent. They work fine....kinda. For us, this would mean an uphill section of pipe; no good for the ejection of condensation. Also, and this is just as bad, it would mean cutting a hole in the roof. Not horrible I guess, except we have a beautiful new metal roof. I HATE cutting holes into a roof and avoid it whenever possible. It's like drilling a hole into the bottom of a boat. Worse that that, a roof vent will stick out like a sore thumb when viewed from the outside.
So, if we eliminate a roof vent, that pretty much leaves us with only one other option: the eave. The eave is a good option for minimizing and hiding the gawdy look of a vent, but the exit of the air must be directly away from the house. The last thing we want is hot, moist air exiting the house, hitting the cold outside air, then rising into the eave venting on either side of the exit area and entering the cold attic area....not good.
We have a few more complications, and this is a perfect example of the issues that we encounter along the way when we use the "build-it-as-you-go" method. The eaves at the upstairs level are pretty short. The overhang of the eave is only about 6" total and the area just inside is very cramped. They are perfectly suitable for the necessary air flow to manage the atmosphere within the attic area, but they are not very conducive to sneaking in a 4" pipe with a bath vent. Like so much of what we have done, I get lucky. I searched the internet heavily and went to the home centers to sample every type of vent I could find. In the end, a unit on the internet should just barely fit and do the job nicely.
It requires some tweaking of the fascia board on the eave, but it just barely sneaks in. Yeah, another little job that should just slap together and be done, but we wind up spending way too much time. The payback? It works and looks good.
The bath vent at the guest bath worked pretty much the same way, exiting at the eave on the other side of the garage-apartment.
OK, back to the electrical stuff...
The downstairs electrical circuit installation follows similar process as the upstairs. Since we have framed out the partition wall to separate the garage from the shop area, it creates a few more circuits. No worries; I have 40 potential circuits, plus the 8 available in the generator subpanel. Right...no worries....you haven't worked with me enough, have ya? Like I said in the beginning: thank goodness we installed the larger breaker boxes.
Let's get back downstairs and start pulling some serious wire. Not only are we installing the boxes, but the time is here to lay in all the main feeds from the breaker box(es) to the entire matrix of power distribution.
The shop is wired.
One by one, each of the circuits is wired in. It's really quite simple. One main wire is routed that starts at the breaker box and ends at the first blue device box (usually where an outlet will be installed). From there, the power is continued on to other boxes. Each box that receives power from this one main feed is a circuit. I try to capture all logistically related boxes into one circuit. For instance, all the electrical feeds in the master bath are on one circuit; the outlets, the lighting, and the vent fan. I continue to use this practice for each of the areas within the house. In the beginning, it's not too bad and I approach it like all other projects....just keep picking away at it. As each circuit is completed and I start the next, though, it starts to get a bit crowded and confusing. I use a lot of masking tape with a sharpie marker to identify each circuit and each wire termination. In the end, the wires coming back to the breaker boxes looks like my hair when I get up in the morning (OK....I wish I had that much hair)
We want to provide whatever possible insulation we can in these wall cavities, so we use the high density rigid foam. The 2" thick stuff just barely fits behind the breaker boxes. Expanding foam is added to the perimeter of each foam board to seal the deal; works pretty good and is much better than trying to stuff fiberglass in there. A few cross blocks are added to support the wire runs and we get to this point...
After much organizing and an extra shot of patience, all simmered in a vat of anal-retentive attention to detail, we get this...
What's up with all those extra boxes and LNB elbows below the the breaker boxes?
One more look with some illustration
Generator feed: we discussed this one in the text above. The other side of this box is the receptacle at the exterior where the auxilliary power (generator) will feed to power the sub-panel circuits in times of utility power outages
A/C power: This will feed straight back thru the exterior wall and to a box to power the central air conditioning unit.
Welder power: A simple 240V 60 amp receptacle will be installed here to provide a high amperage tap to power a welding unit. No, I don't have one...and no, I'm not very good at welding....but ya never know.
Power to 10x12 garage: This is a 240V 60amp circuit that leaves the garage-apartment, heads straight down into a buried conduit (on the other side of the wall), and runs about 125 feet to the 10 x 12 garage (aka; the 10x12 love nest....our original temporary home and shelter for short stays while we build this thing).
Yardlight power: Another buried conduit that follows the same trench that carries the power to the 10x12 garage. This conduit stops about half way there and pops up at the far edge of the driveway. We will someday plant a 20 or 25' pole and install an exterior outlet and a yard light at the end of this circuit.
Let's spend a moment reviewing the power to the 10x12 garage and yardlight
When we had the power company in here some months ago installing the utility electric feed from the county road, we had an opportunity to take advantage of the on-site equipment they were using. The guy driving the trencher quickly buzzed in most of the trench we needed to connect the garage apartment to the 10x12 garage. Of course, I had to pay for it, but it was much better than having to rent a trencher later on. I say "most of the trench" because he had to stop about 15 feet short of the garage because we would have hit an existing conduit that carries power from the 10x12 garage to the covered dock. We laid in the conduit, popped it up and above grade where the trench had to stop, and wired in the power between the garage-apartment breaker box and the 10x12 garage.
Some months later, we pulled out the wires and finished the excavation job by burying this last segment of conduit.
Let's go back inside...
The only other significant electrical project happens at the mechanical room. This is the area downstairs that we sectioned off between the shop and the garage parking area. It's about 4 ft x 10 ft and will house the furnace-A/C unit, water heater, well pump pressure tank, and the hot water system for heating the radiant slab in the shop area. It's only real significance is that it has the highest amount of power sent to it.
In the beginning, before we even started on this garage-apartment project, we wrestled with the costs of bringing in electricity. The projected cost was expensive. This opened the conversation to solar energy, perhaps even going completely off the grid. Very interesting thought, particularly since there are significant government programs that will kick back a large portion of the cost to make a solar system happen. In the end, amongst various pros and cons, we succumbed to the generic process of pulling in utility power. The moment that this decision was made, though, I knew that I was going to USE IT! In fact, the long range plan was to use geothermal heating and cooling, another electrically powered utility. This lead to the idea that we could now feasibly completely forego installing a propane tank. What the heck....we can actually make this entire shooting match a (somewhat) efficient energy consumer and run it ALL on electricity. Well, the ebbed and flowed and now we also have the propane tank. Anyway, we still managed to promote a lot of electric powered items, and the mechanical room is a good example. The furnace-A/C uses electricity, the water heater is a tankless electric unit, the well pump power feed will run from this room, and the radiant slab heater will be another electric water heating unit. Wait, there's one more thing (and we will spend more time on this in the plumbing section). The entire room will be electically heated during the winter at a low temp to allow leaving everything inside as functional. This way, when we go during the winter, we will have running water readily available without having to heat the entire structure. Like I said, this stuff will be better explained in the plumbing section.
So....are we efficient with this plan? Well, not really. In fact, after considering the costs and payback of geothermal heating for a vacation home, even that idea got scrapped for conventional LPG furnace heating. In the long haul, we are pretty much like most other average homes....comparatively inefficient. Our justification for all these decisions ultimately comes down to one simple fact: this is a part time residence. The long-term payback for all the efficient upgrades would not cover the up-front costs. If we were going to live in this structure full time, all these decisions would be different....but not for a vacation/get-away home.
...and finally, the big moment
At this point, we have laid in most all the electrical stuff. We have gone over it once, twice, three times to make certain it all looks good. For an average Joe DIY'er, I can't find much more to do and the time comes to bring in the county inspector for his opinion. Our anxiety is running a bit high as we wait and listen. If ever the phrase "no news is good news" was appropriate, this would be the time. Finally, as he stands there perched in front of the breaker boxes and looking it up and down, we hear: you do nice work. Wow! The 400# gorilla on my back shrinks down to about 200#. Then he takes a short walk looking around the downstairs area, still scanning back and forth and says "I can't find anything wrong" . I pee a little in my shorts, smile widely, and flick the 1# gorilla off my shoulder. "Pleased" doesn't even begin to describe my high. We chat a bit and he shares some thoughts about how we might want to improve things, but they are trivial and not a deal breaker. When he leaves, Donna and I do a high-five and I go change my shorts. Done.