If I Could See It, I Could Fix It (2)

Posted by bob on January 31, 2024

I recently undertook a project which should have been straightforward, but proved to be goofy, twisted, and amazingly frustrating. Nonetheless, some eventual progress and satisfaction were achieved.

Safety codes change from time-to-time. In the course of exploring something unrelated, I found out that the newest Electrical and Fire Protection codes demand that every bedroom in a house include a smoke detector. Older versions of the code only required that a smoke detector exist in a hallway or space near a bedroom. (Different jurisdictions adopt different versions of these codes, so please don’t rely on my interpretations here. You should always research these kinds of safety-critical things for yourself and also confirm the local authority’s interpretation.)

My project became to expand our smoke alarm network. Wired smoke alarms use an additional wire between the various smoke alarms to allow an alarm in one location to cause all other alarms to loudly notify you at all locations of the danger. The newest alarms announce with horns and voice. They also include Carbon Monoxide (CO) detection. In mapping the wiring of the circuit branch that connected the existing alarms together, I found that my expanded wiring would need to go through an air-return space, cleverly hidden behind drywall and in a reduced-height ceiling space.

Wires that pass through such a space (commonly called a “plenum”) must be protected to prevent fire from turning them into a source of toxic gases that can spread quickly through the ventilation system. In some cases, low voltage wires can be plenum-rated to meet this need. Power cables must be contained in a metal conduit, flexible metal conduit, or armored cable assembly. Likewise, all of electrical boxes and fittings must be compatible with the new wiring.

Unfortunately, on a project like this, getting a new wire from one place to another often means cutting into the drywall. In previous projects, I had tried very hard to minimize any holes added to walls or ceilings. With time, I have started to realize that sometimes creating a much larger hole makes it easier to reach into a space to work on the parts you are adding or replacing. But it can be a little disturbing to my wife to suddenly find large holes in the walls of certain hallways and rooms.

As she tells the story, after creating one giant hole, I then moved to another room and created a smaller hole, that I then realized did not give me access to correct space. Even more important, I could not see into the most critical space where one new (fairly short) wire needed to be placed. So then, that second hole tripled in size. Peering into the space with a flashlight, still did not give me the visibility for the route I wanted. There was a small framing 2x4 in the way. The only purpose of this particular 2x4 was to give some drywall a convenient mounting surface. Unfortunately, the 2x4 in question was about 2 feet from my second access hole.

Suddenly, I was struck by what seemed like a smart idea at the time. With the use of some drilling extension rods, I could reach into that mostly hidden space and put a 1 inch hole through that 2x4 which was 2 feet away. The hole would let me see the final route and better yet, that hole would then act as a guide point to control the routing of the new armored cable.

As I started drilling, the electric drill suddenly stalled out. Hmm, 2x4s are not usually that tough. Further study with a bright flashlight showed me a streak of metal across the hole I was drilling. Doh! I was trying to drill through a nail. Some internet searches enlightened me that I was not the first to encounter this problem. Helpfully, Bosch makes a special spade-bit intended to drill through the offending nail. So we go back to the hardware store, again. This project has entailed many, many, many trips to the hardware store.

During this part of the adventure, at one point I perched my favorite flashlight into the second hole of the drywall, then got down off the stepladder. As I stepped on the floor, I suddenly heard a loud scrape and “thunk” from the wall. Looking up, I could not see the tail of the flashlight. It had fallen down inside the wall cavity. As my wife tells it, soon there were three holes in the drywall, because I could not be convinced to leave that flashlight in the wall.

With the new drill bit, I was able to chew through the nail and the rest of the 2x4 in reasonable time. Now I could see where the wire would go and the actual process of stringing that cable and terminating the ends of the wires went much more quickly.

Repairs to the drywall are taking much longer. I need to manage the process to keep drywall dust out of the HVAC (Heating, Ventilating, and Air Conditioning) system. I also have to remove the smoke detectors and protect them from drywall dust while working on the walls. Eventually I will need to repeat the process several times, including one or two cycles for painting.

A lot of projects are similar. You spend far more time thinking, planning, and cleaning up. You make mistakes, find unexpected barriers, and then find solutions to the new problems you have created. And so it goes.


Acknowledgement and thanks to Kurt Vonnegut and his novel Slaughterhouse Five for the phrasing, "and so it goes."