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Home electrical systems stuck in 19th century

Why has residential wiring failed to evolve?

Friday, August 04, 2006

By Arrol Gellner
Inman News

While the field of electronics has made stellar advances in the past half century, electrical systems for homes, like so many other aspects of building, have remained firmly mired in the 19th century.

Other than adjusting to our seemingly boundless appetite for energy – the average electrical capacity of our homes has increased tenfold in the past century – the apparatus of home electrical systems has changed so little that Edison would easily understand it. In this era of miniaturization, our light switches are still primitive, clumsy affairs that are many times bigger than necessary. Installing home electrical devices like switches and receptacles still means wrestling with a recalcitrant jumble of wires and contacts little different from the ones your great-grandfather might have wrestled with. In the same span of time, mind you, we’ve gone from man’s first flight at Kitty Hawk to the International Space Station.

A brief glance at the history of electrification underscores how little has changed. Electric lighting began to supplant gas shortly after the dawn of the 20th century. At first, the junction boxes for switches, plugs and fixtures were simply screwed to the surface of walls and ceilings. If electric lighting was replacing gas in an existing house, however, the wires were often run inside the old gas pipes, and the relative neatness of such installations no doubt inspired builders to start putting wires inside of walls instead of on top of them.

The first concealed wiring systems had separate hot and neutral wires running side by side through the structure, spaced about 8 inches apart.

The wires were strung on porcelain insulating knobs where they ran parallel to wooden members, and passed through little porcelain tubes where they had to go through joists or studs. There was nothing inherently wrong with this so-called “knob-and-tube” system – it’s still serving countless old houses quite reliably – except that the wires were prone to damage by rodents or blundering homeowners.

Still, knob-and-tube wiring faded from use after World War II, replaced first by armored cable (“Greenfield”) and later by flexible cable (“Romex”), both of which combined the hot and neutral wires in a single cable instead of separating them. This made for better protection, but more important, it saved builders time and money because there were only half as many holes to drill through the structure.

During this same 100-year period, switches progressed from the early surface-mounted types to the push-button versions of the 1920s and back again to the familiar plastic toggle switches most people still use today.

So, while we’ve seen minor changes in operation – first a click, then a push, and now a click again – we’re still using devices that are fundamentally no different than they were a century ago. Put another way, if cars had progressed at the same rate, you’d still be driving a Model T.

In an age of routine electronic miracles, how can this be? By all rights, light switches could be the size of postage stamps, and could be installed (or replaced) in a matter of seconds by snapping them into a modular socket, instead of hooking them to an Edisonian tangle of wires. The few companies that do offer progressive electronic lighting controls have managed to make them both too complex and too expensive, once again leading builders to stick with the tried-and-true, two-dollar toggle switch.

What the electrical industry really needs is a few margarita-guzzling Silicon Valley types. At the very least, they could drag residential wiring systems into the 20th century, if not the current one.

What’s your opinion? Send your Letter to the Editor to
Copyright 2006 Arrol Gellner

There is some degree of trade inertia and a whole lot of “if it ain’t broke, why fix it”. What’s so wrong about a simple switch?
I do think the author is probably not really that familiar with what he is talking about by his misuse of “Greenfield”. There are also plenty of new things out there when the need arises. Edison would not have a clue what a VFD was or how an AFCI works. X-10 would be a foreign concept to most 19th century folks. I use a lot of solid state switching around my house but that is just me. My wife says when I die she will probably just have to abandon it all if it breaks.

lol…While I did find it an interesting article it is clearly not the view of everyone involved I am sure.

I just happen to wire a house that was “Automated” and some of the technology would NOT be something “Edison” would probably care to partake in…lol…

Also with OCC. Sensors and as greg stated X-10 and even some of the newer signal technology today I would say advancements have come quite a long way if you ask me.

Basically evolution is the process of desire and need…the standard switch has come from a plain ole’ exposed KNIFE design to push button to what we have today in a standard switch…need it be as small as a postage stamp…hardly…heck if it was I know my wife would PAINT over it and cover it up…

Also the SIZE lends itself to the fact we are dealing with conductors that produce heat…box fill and other calculations go along way to help reduce heat and so on…so smaller is not always a better thing…( God I sure hope that is the case…lol…:wink:

I am like you Greg…my house has so many things in it electronic from the alarm system I installed to the automation and well my wife just “leaves” that to me…

But as for the concept of the story…they did dable back long ago in low voltage wiring for the branch circuits…which activated solinoids to pull in contactors and well…it was rather technical and not cost effective…while it may appear products and production has not changed…it has in MY opinion over the years in a major way…but at the end of the day…it’s all good…:slight_smile:

In my Md house I used a lot of the GE relays for new wiring but I moved on. I like SSRs now with CMOS controllers. I have one running my hot tub and another for all of the outside lighting around the patio and pool. It really gives me a lot of flexibility. When the pool bar lights are on all of the motion sensors are disabled and the lights are on a dimmer. When you turn off the bar lights everything goes back to motion control. I also put a delay timer on those so they don’t see short power glitches. They stay off long enough to reset back to normal operation. Using SSRs there is virtually no limit to the amount of load that gets switched on with the bar lights and virtually no limit to the number of switches that can control them but that idea comes from the GE relay idea. SSRs only draw 5ma or so on the control leg at the 5vdc I run them on (1000 ohm resistor into a LED)

I knew y’all would have fun with that article.


I am sure I know what word cemented that article into your mind.

Someone read through the whole article, huh?

And someone else–not mentioning any names–seems to have made a one-word modification to the article. Ooooooops. :oops: