How to Rewire Your Historic Home Without Ruining Its Character

Assess Your Home's Electrical Needs

When rewiring a historic home, it's important to understand current usage and anticipate future electrical needs. Take inventory of all existing outlets, lighting fixtures, appliances, and electronic devices. Consider how your family uses electricity now and how usage may change over time. Pay special attention to the kitchen, laundry room, home office, and areas used for entertainment, as these tend to require more power. Thoroughly evaluating your home's electrical requirements will ensure the new wiring is sufficient without overdoing it.

Develop a Rewiring Plan

Work with a qualified electrician to develop a rewiring plan that upgrades the electrical system while preserving the historic integrity of your home. Have the electrician inspect the existing wiring to identify necessary repairs, replacements, and capacity increases. Opt for a phased approach if needed, starting with areas of greatest need. Select new wiring and components like circuit breakers that are appropriately sized - don't go overboard. Have a plan for concealing new wiring in walls and ceilings to minimize visible change. Strategically plan ahead to avoid shortcuts that could damage historic fabric.

Prioritize Safety

When rewiring an old home, safety should be the top priority. Ensure the electrical plan includes sufficient circuits, properly grounded outlets, GFCI protection in kitchens, bathrooms and outdoor areas, and AFCI protection on most circuits. While fuse boxes are period-appropriate, upgrading to a modern circuit breaker panel provides vital safety features. New wiring should meet the capacity needs of today's electricity usage. Though maintaining a historic look is important, it should never come at the expense of safety.

Choose Period-Appropriate Fixtures and Materials

Seeking out period-appropriate light fixtures, switches and outlets will help preserve the historic flair of your home. Visit antique stores and architectural salvage warehouses to find vintage or vintage-style materials that align with your home's era. Refurbish and incorporate existing period light fixtures if possible. Stick with traditional toggle light switches rather than modern paddle switches. Seek out vintage-looking switches and outlets available from companies like Legrand. Use cloth-wrapped wiring where visible rather than plastic-sheathed wire. Attention to period-appropriate details will help retain historic character.

Conceal New Wiring

Taking steps to hide updated wiring will help maintain your home's original appeal. Use existing chases, conduits and cavities wherever possible. For new wiring runs, strategically place them behind walls, under floors, above ceilings, or within soffits and boxed beams. Tuck surface-mounted wiring inside historic woodwork like baseboards or chair rails. Paint wires and conduits to match wall and ceiling colors for camouflage. Properly fireproof concealed wiring per building codes. Leaving wiring visible should be a last resort - make the extra effort to conceal for better historic preservation.

Consult Historic Guidelines

For homes in historic districts or on registers, consult historic guidelines and preservation standards before rewiring. Local historic commissions or national programs like the Secretary of Interior's standards provide direction on balancing upgrades with preservation. They may require special permissions, restrict certain changes, or require you to conceal wiring in specific ways. Consulting guidelines can head off any conflicts with requirements related to your home's historic status. Make sure needed safety upgrades aren't prohibited. Where flexibility exists, choose options that are most sympathetic to historic character.

Execute Carefully to Limit Damage

Take steps to minimize damage to historic elements during the rewiring process. Limit chasing wiring through plaster walls, which risks cracking and necessitates extensive patching. Use creative techniques like wiring above crown molding to avoid cutting into ornate ceiling medallions. When drilling or notching is unavoidable, take care to avoid weakening structural framing. Repair and patch walls, ceilings and floors with in-kind materials and proper preservation methods. Working carefully and thoughtfully during the rewiring process reduces unnecessary harm to the historic fabric.

With careful planning, strategic wiring techniques and attention to period-appropriate details, it's possible to get a home's wiring up to modern standards without sacrificing historic character and ambiance. Prioritizing safety while consulting historic guidelines and standards, concealed wiring, and minimizing invasive construction will go a long way toward a successful rewiring project.