Under the wire: Older electrical setups expose residents to potential risks

It all started with a box fan.

When Cassandra Pegg-Kirby got a phone call at work last November, she couldn’t believe what her neighbor was saying. Her house caught fire, emergency crews already busting through windows to extinguish and minimize damage.

The cause of the fire? A simple box fan left running while unattended, overheating to the point of melting the carpet it sat on, burning a hole in the hardwood floor and setting flame to a structural beam that spread to nearby rooms.

Fortunately, Pegg-Kirby’s husband and four sons weren’t home at the time — the family cat hold-up in the basement was the only one rescued from inside — but the house itself did not fare as well.

“The boys lost everything in their rooms, it was all destroyed,” she said, describing the aftermath, walls blackened and evacuated mattresses strewn out on the front lawn.

But now, just over a year later, as the Kirby family settles back into the newly renovated home, Cassandra, the interim director of Kent State’s Women’s Center, has a new attitude about the event: “The reality is, things happen.”

This type of electrical fire could, in fact, affect more residents at risk because of their homes’ electrical veining.

A melted box fan, the source of the Kirbys’ fire, inside the burnt bedroom on the second floor, November 2016. Photo by Anna Huntsman

In the case of the Kirby house fire, when the box fan overheated, it should have set off a breaker that cut power to it, stopping it from running. However, since part of the house had been rewired, the connection between the modern setup and the older knob and tube wiring didn’t work properly, preventing the current from breaking.

Prevalent in homes built between 1880 and 1950, knob and tube wiring is a system that feeds wire through porcelain tubes positioned in joists, with staggered porcelain knobs to clamp the wire and support it inside walls and under flooring.

Now outlawed in building code policies around the country and difficult to insure, the knob and tube wiring isn’t inherently dangerous. When disturbed, brittle insulation disintegrates, leaving a fire hazard in the exposed hot wires in contact with closeby materials.

The Ohio Board of Building Standards does not permit future installations of knob and tube, but allows homeowners to leave it in place if it isn’t a hazard, unless the building is intended for rental, in which case an update is required.

The Residential Code of Ohio Electrical Requirements, enforced at the city level by local building inspectors, also defines, down to the millimeter, spacing knob and tube wiring must have from conductors.

Another piece of the guidelines specify that it cannot be “used where spaces are insulated by loose, rolled or foamed-in-place insulation that envelops conductors.”

Cassandra Pegg-Kirby stands in her sons’ room where the fire started. The house is now renovated and the family is moved back in. Photo by Benjamin VanHoose

Pegg-Kirby’s home was built in 1924, and its knob and tube wiring was something she was aware of, inspiring her to rewire the majority. The entirety of the knob and tube throughout her house was a project they would get to eventually.

“You know the risk is there because of an older house,” she said. “You think about asbestos, wiring, plumbing, all of those things. I think it’s because you don’t see it, they’re in the walls. You think, ‘That won’t happen to me.’”

A few houses down from the Kirbys on Williams Street, Dave Cardy took the close-to-home fire as a sign to make rewiring his family’s home a priority.

“We decided that was the most important thing we needed to do,” he said.

Cardy, an employee of FirstEnergy, referenced a handy DIY guide and applicable YouTube videos to tackle the approximately $15,000 project himself.

Dave Cardy inside his basement where he replaced all knob and tube wiring. Photo by Anna Huntsman

Phasing out the last portion of knob and tube wiring — almost one year to the day of the Kirbys’ fire — allowed for a sigh of relief for Cardy.

“We just felt better getting rid of it all,” Cardy said. “Once we finally disconnected that last piece, it was a really good feeling.”

Although Cardy completed the task as a precaution, he found the sections of the knob and tube wiring so brittle they easily snapped and crumbled to the touch. Their home was built in 1901, and he estimated the old wires to be about 80 years old.

In Kent, a total of 2,221 buildings were constructed in the decades knob and tube wiring was standard practice (see graphic), according to the database compiled by the Portage County auditor. That number is comparable to Ravenna’s 2,149 built between 1880 and 1950.

Immediately replacing knob and tube isn’t something Lieutenant Jeffrey Coffee of the Kent Fire Department demands of residents. Coffee, who specializes in fire prevention and was among first responders at the Kirbys’ fire, said if left alone, knob and tube doesn’t have to be a hazard.

“It’s a very safe system as long as it remains intact,” he said. “When the system gives indicators that something is going wrong, you need to pay attention to those. It’s when it becomes disabled or altered for some reason that it would be unsafe.”

Lt. Jeff Coffee inside the Kent City Fire Department station. Photo by Anna Huntsman

Since moving back into their home, the Kirbys use the unfortunate event as a learning tool, starting each day with a checklist before they leave the house. Pegg-Kirby said her sons sweep the house to turn off and unplug items, and that she has rethought some of the practices she never considered before.

“We no longer have candles, we double check the stove, we don’t run the dryer when we aren’t home — things that didn’t even relate to our particular fire,” she said. “We were willing to take those risks before, but not anymore.”

As for box fans, a not-so-temporary ban is in place at the Kirby household.

Benjamin VanHoose is a City of Kent reporter, contact him at bvanhoos@kent.edu.