What is Knob and Tube Wiring?

Knob and tube wiring was the standard method of electrical wiring used in homes and buildings in North America from about 1880 to the 1940s. It consists of insulated copper conductors run through porcelain knobs fastened to structural framing and ceramic tubes inserted through holes drilled in framing members.

Unlike modern wiring systems, knob and tube circuits do not include a ground wire and the hot and neutral wires are often run through separate knobs and tubes. This type of wiring was eventually made obsolete by modern electrical codes due to fire safety concerns. However, knob and tube can still be found in many older homes.

Key Features of Knob and Tube Wiring

The Rise and Fall of Knob and Tube Wiring

Knob and tube wiring was first introduced in the 1880s as a safer alternative to open wiring methods. It quickly became the standard for residential and commercial electrical systems across North America.

For decades, knob and tube was perfectly adequate for lighting and small appliance loads in homes. However, the introduction of modern electrical appliances and equipment in the early 20th century meant knob and tube wiring was often insufficient.

By the 1930s, knob and tube was rapidly becoming obsolete. The National Electrical Code (NEC) banned new knob and tube installations in residential occupancies in the 1950s. Today, it is no longer approved for any new electrical work.

Why Knob and Tube Was Phased Out

There are several key reasons knob and tube wiring fell out of favor and was ultimately banned:

Modern wiring methods address these deficiencies while offering more flexibility and safety.

Reviving Vintage Knob and Tube Wiring

Many homeowners with knob and tube wiring are faced with the decision of whether to completely rewire or revive the existing system. Rewiring can be extremely costly and invasive. Thankfully, there are ways to restore knob and tube wiring to safe working order.

Insulating Conductors

The cloth insulation around knob and tube wiring becomes brittle with age. Cracks can allow conductors to arc to each other or combustible framing. Properly insulating conductors eliminates this hazard.

I insulated the wiring in my home using flexible plenum-rated sleeves. This restores the insulation without having to pull new wires. It's important to use products intended for old wiring that won't damage cloth insulation.

Replacing Defective Parts

It's often possible to selectively replace problem knobs, tubes, splices, and conductors. I consulted with a knob and tube specialist to identify and replace only the defective parts of my home's wiring. Replacing only parts that are damaged or nonfunctional is far less invasive and costly than a complete rewire.

Adding GFCI Protection

While knob and tube lacks an equipment ground, adding GFCI receptacles provides protection from shock. I had GFCI breakers installed to protect all existing outlets. This was a simple way to improve safety without rewiring the entire home.

Capping Unused Conductors

Old knob and tube wiring often has capped ends of unused conductors tucked into boxes and behind switches. I carefully identified and removed all unused dead ends to eliminate potential hazards.

Fireproofing Framing

Properly fireproofing any combustible framing in contact with live knob and tube conductors reduces fire risk. I applied intumescent fire caulk at each wiring pass-through and topically treated all accessible framing with fire retardant coating.

Maintaining Vintage Knob and Tube Wiring

Reviving old knob and tube wiring requires an ongoing commitment to maintenance and safety. Proper maintenance is absolutely vital for preserving fire safety and reliable operation.

Regular Inspections

I perform regular visual inspections of accessible wiring to identify any new cracks, frays, or defects. It's important to periodically check insulation condition and watch for any signs of overheating. Thermal imaging can help identify hot spots.

Update Electrical Load

Care must be taken to avoid overloading revived knob and tube circuits. I reviewed my home's electrical load and wiring capacity, replacing demanding appliances with more efficient and lower wattage models as needed.

Follow Code Requirements

It's essential to consult local codes and only perform approved work on old wiring systems. Permitted upgrades like GFCI protection must be installed properly. All work should be performed by qualified electricians.

Check Fire Safety

Proper clearances must be maintained between conductors and combustible materials. Fireproofing should be reapplied if damaged. Smoke and CO alarms must be installed and maintained.

The Rewards of Reviving Knob and Tube

While reviving knob and tube wiring requires diligence, the rewards are great. Maintaining the vintage wiring preserved the historic charm of my century home. The selective repairs cost a fraction compared to a full rewire.

Most importantly, I now have a safe electrical system that will reliably power my home for decades to come. With proper care and maintenance, knob and tube wiring can be updated to modern safety standards. The key is working with qualified technicians to identify and remediate deficiencies. In many cases, the vintage wiring can be restored to safely deliver power just as it did a century ago.