Electrical fires are a leading cause of house fires in the United States, resulting in over $1 billion in property damage each year. Many of these fires start from outdated or improper electrical wiring that fails to meet modern safety standards. However, there are some obscure and forgotten electrical wiring methods from history that could potentially prevent electrical fires if brought back into use. As a homeowner, understanding these historical wiring methods and their fire-preventative benefits could literally save your house from burning down.

Knob and Tube Wiring

Knob and tube wiring was commonly installed in homes built from 1880 to the 1940s. It consists of insulated copper wiring run through ceramic knobs fastened to framing members, with air space between the wire and wood acting as an insulator.

While knob and tube has largely been replaced by modern Romex wiring, it poses significantly less fire risk than Romex when properly maintained. The open air gaps in knob and tube runs make overheating failures far less likely. Properly installed knob and tube can safely carry 15-20 amp circuits, enough for most basic household needs. Its fire safety comes from:

While I don't recommend full knob and tube rewiring, integrating some key runs in high risk areas could make electrical fires less likely.

Gas Pipe and Conduit Wiring

From the 1890s-1930s, a common DIY wiring technique was to run insulated electrical wiring through gas pipes and conduits. This approach provided ample air circulation and non-combustible pathways to run wiring through walls and ceilings.

Metal gas pipes were used in many homes during this era for lighting and heating via natural gas. By running electrical wires through these pipes, wiring was separated from combustible materials. Additionally, metal conduit installed specifically for wiring acted as a fireproof channel.

Lead-Covered Cables

From the 1880s through the 1930s, lead-covered cables provided fireproof insulation on electrical wiring. With a lead sheath surrounding the copper conductor, these cables could resist tremendous heat without melting or catching fire.

The lead insulation minimized oxygen contact with the conductor, preventing an ignition source for fires. While lead is toxic and no longer used, lead-covered cables demonstrate the fire resistance potential of non-combustible sheathed wiring.

In-Floor Conduit

Pre-wiring homes using in-floor conduit was common in the early 20th century. Metal or ceramic conduits were laid during construction and wiring threaded through later. This approach allowed safely pulling new wiring as electrical needs evolved.

Having wiring underfloor or embedded in non-combustible conduit provided protection from damage and ample fireproofing. Like lead sheathing, an enclosed metal or ceramic conduit prevents oxygen exposure while resisting heat damage. Integrating select runs of in-floor conduit could mimic these fire safety benefits.

The Fire Safety Principles Behind These Methods

While obsolete, these historical wiring methods incorporated simple principles we can still integrate into homes today:

By incorporating these concepts, either through full rewiring or adding dedicated circuits for high-draw appliances, we can make our existing electrical systems safer and less prone to starting fires.

Next time you're in the attic or walls upgrading wiring, consider using conduit, adding ceramic insulation standoffs, or isolating runs from contact with insulation or wood. The right materials and methods can prevent minor electrical issues from turning into full house fires.

Evaluating Your Home's Fire Risks

Here are some tips on evaluating and addressing fire risks from electrical wiring in your home:

Don't Ignore Warning Signs

Electrical fires don't just happen without warning. Be alert for any of these signs of potential wiring issues:

Any of these could indicate faulty wiring that poses a fire hazard. Have it thoroughly inspected and repaired by an electrician immediately.


Our grandparents' generation often did electrical work themselves using wiring methods that prevented fires by design. While we can't recreate those DIY approaches today, the principles they incorporated can make our modern electrical systems safer. As homes age and wiring wears down, integrating some old-fashioned fireproofing ideas could prevent catastrophe. Stay vigilant, get professional help when needed, and consider whether any of these obscure and forgotten methods from the past could help reduce your fire risk.