Border Fort Manual: Electrical Wiring Including Extension Cords

That’s right. Extension cords. The electrical wiring at the Border Fort leans heavily on the use of extension cords. If by the time you read this the property is on the market and the very thought of such a non-code long term electrical proposition freaks you out so that your hair looks like Tresses by Einstein, feel free to run screaming for the hills. Or, if you’re a by-the-book critic who can’t help leaving screaming comments that promise eventual death by electrical fires due to overloaded circuits, feel free to leave ugly remarks. I’ll simply delete them

But if you’re made of sterner stuff and think, “Hey, let’s see if this guy knows what he’s doing, and if he doesn’t and I decide to buy the place, I can always rip everything out and start over,” well then, feel free to keep on reading. Bottom line, three things:

1. This home was built by me (single handed) under a Cochise County owner builder provision in the county building code that allowed me to build whatever I wanted, however I wanted it. The only two exceptions to that freedom are (a) the electrical wiring would have to be redone to code if an owner ever wanted to hook up to the grid (gag me with a spoon) and (b) the county inspectors did hover over the septic system installation until that was finished to their satisfaction.

2. Everything, including every extension cord, is functioning “as is” for a reason. I did not just decide, “Hm, think I’ll be lazy and simply use extension cords.” Explanation to follow.

3. There is no inside-the-walls wiring at this time. All wiring, whether extension cords or hard wiring, are fully exposed, strung along inside the walls and/or ceilings of the various rooms. Which means that the entire system (such as it is) could be easily ripped out in a matter of hours without having to cut into a single wall.

EXTENSION CORD

Now, let’s get to the running-for-the-hills photos. Here are the two scariest looking in-house cord arrangements.

Rear bedroom power nexus.

Power comes in via the yellow heavy duty extension cord, a 75-footer that routes from the generator in front of the house around to the back. The medium and light duty cords plugged into the power strip lead to overhead lights in three back rooms (tiny “shoebox” bedroom, slightly larger “my” bedroom, and the utility room). Additionally, one line handles the Sleep Number bed. Total power draw from this “circuit” is never very much, as the overhead lights are 11 1/2 watt bulbs that put out as much illumination as 40 watt incandescent bulbs, the lights are not on unless needed, and the Sleep Number bed setting isn’t changed that often.

The extension cord powering the office uses the most electricity, though much less since I cancelled the DirecTV account in sheer disgust at their programming…and that is a 100-foot cord, since it has farther to go to reach the northwest corner of the building. Even so, total office usage never runs more than 200 watts at any one time and the wiring remains totally cool, no heating–or even warming–at all.

The multicolored “spider” extension cord arrangement powering the kitchen, the bathroom in the rear bedroom area, and a small portion of the front bedroom.

The biggest power drain on this circuit is the microwave oven, by a country mile. That said, its huge (for off grid) 1250 watt draw runs a few times per day at most and never more than 6 or 7 minutes at any one time. Again, we’ve never been able to detect even the slightest warming effect from that, not even at one of the plug locations (which always heat up first if anything is going to heat up).

Okay, so why on Earth do I have things set up this way?

The answer is simple:

1. From the beginning until, let’s say, sometime in 2016, this homestead was put together piecemeal. It had to be. We only had so much money to work with in the beginning, and later on I only had so much time I could devote to building and improving things on a daily basis.

2. Until fairly recently, I did not know what our final electrical power sources were going to look like. We’ve always had gasoline powered generators, but what else? I set up a small wind turbine at one point, so we might have had that to consider, never mind the fact that I learned just enough in the process to know I never want anything to do with wind power again, ever. Then in 2012 we had a manufacturer custom build a portable solar generator. At that point, I knew nothing-to-very-little about solar; I wasn’t even certain just where the best place to position the trailer mounted beastie might prove to be over time. As it happened, it took three years to trash the solar unit (half my fault and half manufacturer error) and a few months to rehab the unit so that it was bigger and better and far more durable than the original. By the spring of 2015 it was clear it needed to stay just where we’d parked it in the first place, so the wheels came off and it became a permanent fixture. Main gasoline powered generator positioning for general household usage had also been determined…but prior to all that, there was too much uncertainty to start hardwiring everything to code.

3. Even with the power sources positioned permanently, there were still two of them (plus two more dedicated units discussed farther down the page): The solar powered generator and the gasoline powered generator, sitting 20 feet apart from each other. A massive “power post” with junction box and a way to throw levers or push buttons to switch circuits between solar and gasoline–possible, doable if I felt like tackling the project, but if I wind up living here another century, I’ll likely still be running on extension cords. For me personally, changing things out just to “look pretty” just isn’t worth it. For a new owner, it might be totally worth it; you be the judge.

The solar unit outlet station, providing juice to power most of the house unless it’s been overly cloudy for too long.

The 3300 watt Honda inverter generator used for heavy loads such as the microwave oven. If a junction box is ever set up to make switching between solar and gasoline simple, a separate switch will be needed for each circuit because you don’t always want to switch everything over .

Caveat: If for any reason a new owner starts pulling thousands of watts through these cords on a regular basis, then yeah. The extension cords will be inadequate and the home will need to be rewired.

COMBINATION WIRING

As time passed and the shape of our blossoming home clarified itself, I began to hardwire appliances wherever I could. The operative phrase is “wherever I could” because no line could be totally hardwired; at some point, the far end (from the light or whatever) always needed a plug. The only way that “hybrid solution” could be avoided would be to, as stated, set up a junction box outside and route everything through that–but even then, there would still have to be plugs at the points where the line was accessing the generator outlets.

Unless one chose to crack open the generator case and hardwire directly to the machine, but that would most certainly (a) void the generator warranty, (b) make it a real pain to move the generator for servicing, and (c) leave the homeowner cussing a blue streak sooner or later. So hybrid is the way it is, at least for now.

But that doesn’t mean the “home wiring” I did is less than professional. I take my time on every electrical connection I make, no exceptions. An electrician will be faster–a lot faster–but I’ve seen a lot of commercially put together electrical goodies that made me cringe. If I ran the line, that line is safe. Period.

Here are some of the “hardwired at least at one end” circuits at the Border Fort. All of the overhead lighting circuits, including light fixtures and switch boxes. Plug ends were also manually assembled with extreme care.

Hardwired light fixture over the kitchen sinks.

Hardwired light switch.

Hardwired 30 amp safety switch for the walk-in whirlpool bathtub in the front bathroom. I used a heavy duty RV cable to handle this load with super-safety.

DEDICATED GENERATORS

All of the power sources will be discussed in more detail in another post. However, here are a couple of “dedicated generator” tidbits to go with this wiring discussion.

1. The 7,000 watt Honda inverter beast. This big beauty gets very few hours of usage on it; it’s what a car dealer would call “cherry” because it’s only used to power the walk-in whirlpool bathtub. It was a bit of a shock when that tub first arrived. I read the manual and discovered its whistles and bells pulled a possible total of 2,750 watts at any one time. No generator on the place would handle that; I had to go buy a new one.

This big Honda generator is used ONLY to power the walk-in whirlpool bathtub, which draws up to 2,750 watts.

2. The 5,000 watt Subaru generator is dedicated to laundry and only laundry. Modern washing machines, let alone dryers, pull one heck of a lot of juice. Not as much as that walk-in tub, but still a lot. The washer and dryer are set up in a separate steel shed some 200 feet from the Border Fort itself. Despite being a propane powered dryer, that appliance requires one dandy power surge every time it starts up; you can hear the generator grunt under the brief load.

The 5,000 watt Subaru generator dedicated to powering the washer and dryer.

UNDERGROUND LINES

As of this writing, there are two underground power cables in play at the Border Fort. One routes the walk-in tub cable from its wall exit down underground and roundabout until it surfaces again (in conduit) to enter the open faced shed housing the big dedicated Honda generator.

The conduit housing the walk-in tub RV cable as exits the wall and dives underground. This run is only buried six inches deep because it crosses over the home’s main water supply pipes and interfering with those was not an option. And there’s nothing but foot traffic in that area, which is good.

The other underground line is simply a heavy duty extension cord run through conduit. Unlike the walk-in tub’s shallow burial, though, this one is buried two feet deep, safe for vehicular traffic. The cord connects the water pressure booster pump (and warming light for winter) to the solar generator…most of the time. If there’s not enough juice in the solar, then a second 25 foot extension cord is added so that it can reach the gasoline generator. Despite the endless warnings we hear about “never” using two cords end to end, this has not produced any safety/heating problem.

Pump-side exit point for the booster pump extension cord. Burying this run between pump and solar generator made the yard look noticeably cleaner, but mostly it kept me from worrying about running over it with the tractor.

REWIRING THOUGHTS

I’ve put some thought into how I would rework the wiring to get rid of the extension cords, were I to ever undertake that task. A new buyer and/or a contracted electrician might have totally different ideas, and that’s fine–but here are mine, just in case you can use them. By the numbers:

1. Route all circuits on the inside walls, gathering to a central exit point in the front of the house next to the ceiling.

2. Cover the exposed cables with “track” (not to be confused with track lighting). Back in the fifties, this form of construction was not uncommon; the track (cable covers) came in either metal or plastic and could be painted to match the walls. Once painted, the electrical lines weren’t that noticeable–and once a family lived in the building for a while, they became “invisible.”

3. Drill a main line exit hole near the ceiling or, if need be, a bit lower. What you don’t want to do is run a drill into the earthbags, but those are easy to avoid: The bags are stacked to exactly the height of the tops of the windows. Above that, it’s all “stick built.”

4. Run conduit down the outside front wall to a few inches below ground, then over to a position midway between the gasoline generator and the solar generator.

5. Plant a big square post, or two of them with a board attached near the tops, to host the junction box.

6. Mount junction box on post(s).

7. Run conduit up from below-ground to the box and hardwire every circuit.

8. At this point you have options: Either figure out how to (a) rig a set of circuit-switching levers to go back and forth between power sources (gas or solar)…or (b) pull my “hybrid” trick and hardwire a line (for each circuit) at the junction box end while adding a plug at the other end. Option (a) would be magically deliciously perfect, obviously, while option (b) would still leave more than half a dozen cords out there. They’d just be one heck of a lot shorter cords.

That’s all for now on this one. The comments, I suspect, may prove interesting.