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.

11 thoughts on “Border Fort Manual: Electrical Wiring Including Extension Cords

  1. Only thing I could see that I would change was to put a surge protector/ circuit breaker type power strip where the multi-colored nexus is. I like them because if something does heat up, it will shut things down. I use one for my desk and one for the entertainment center. Those also handle surges, which will fry your electronics. I also use one for the microwave. You would not see the surges with your set-up unless lightning strikes close by, which could fry your electronics anyway. More common to see surges on grid.
    If you installed enough solar panels on the roof, you could install regular electrical wiring in the entire house that would eliminate ALL extension cords. That of course, would connect to a battery bank. I would prefer that to the generators, but I can see keeping one for the laundry room and perhaps the whirlpool tub. It would be much more expensive to get set up that way though.

  2. Fascinating post, Ghost! I’ve pulled my load of wire, mainly repairing a cheap electrician’s mess, and I love using extension cords for temporary instalations. My brother actually does a LOT of electrical work, hardwiring everything but with so many junction boxes that repair work is almost more trouble than putting in new conduit (especially if a short circuit ever binds a wire to the metal conduit – which happened to the cheapo electrician). Your solution is great in that everything is in sight, and you use quality extension cords. 🙂
    Most homeowners don’t understand watts, and will try to use light duty extension cords for a microwave, fridge, and other large appliances, so the code had to be written very carefully. My cheapo electrician harwired my new home overseas in light duty wire, equivalent to christmas tree extension cords, and it started shorting out within a year… 🙁 That’s why I decided to rewire the main lines myself. Just to satisfy curiosity, the contractor also used under par water pipes (the main line burst within 3 years) and made other mistakes. 🙁
    Question: I think your dual solar/gasoline powered system is great, but don’t understand the logic between maintaining two high wattage generators, with one exclusively dedicated to the whirlpool tub. Of course, iI know we make decisions in real time, not hindsight! LOL

    thanks, Ghost, for your ideas and considerations.
    Manny

  3. Becky: You’re absolutely right; a surge protector for that nexus would be a good idea. As it stands, the lighter cord (left side) does lead to a surge protector sitting on “Dad’s table” (an oak table inherited from my father), protecting Pam’s computer (when she’s home) and otherwise serving as a charging station for rechargeable flashlights, cell phones, etc. Most of the rest lead to overhead lights, which–even if they did blow bulbs out–are fairly simple and cheap to repair/replace. One does lead to the microwave, the only “big item” not surge-protected, but that nuker only cost $60 and there’s a brand new spare still sitting in the original box, so…not too much exposure overall.

    I’ve thought about putting solar panels on the roof but have never been able to convince myself it’s a good idea. I really dislike the idea of penetrating the roofing steel AT ALL, for one thing. Beyond that, solar (as we’ve learned, living with it these past several years) is NOT totally reliable even in this frequently sundrenched part of southern Arizona. A couple of days of heavy overcast and you’ve got no battery bank juice left…unless the battery bank were to be made extremely large, which is a no-no in itself due to the extreme cost of the batteries. Our moderate sized solar generator charges an 840 amp-hour battery bank that costs around $2,000 to replace when the batteries wear out. (If top end batteries are used, and we’ve also learned to use nothing less.) So, what I’m saying is that a big roof panel system would be very expensive up front and still wouldn’t be reliable on rainy days, necessitating quite a bit of gasoline powered generator usage anyway. I would NEVER want to have to rely TOTALLY on solar.
    —————————————————–
    Manny: Your combination of shared experience and great questions is awesome. It’s a real joy to address a comment like this one (that you posted). So:

    1. I understand completely about your “cheapo electrician.” Never seen an installation using wires as light as you describe (Christmas tree lighting–certainly no heavier than 16 gauge at most), but wow, what a recipe for disaster.

    2. As for the metal conduit bonding to the wiring, obviously the insulation failed for a short like that to happen. Which means either that the insulation was worthless to start with or, most likely, it was damaged during installation. You know, knicked by a careless knife or even against the leading edge of the conduit when the wire was being pulled. But that brings home a point: I’ve always been leery of metal conduit (for that very reason, plus its conductivity) and much prefer PVC conduit, which I use exclusively.

    2. There really is logic for maintaining more than one high wattage generator. Bottom line, the bigger the gennie, the more fuel it burns per hour, period. There are sizeable differences between manufacturers on that score–a 5,000 watt Honda is a lot thriftier than a 5,000 watt Cheapo Special, for example–but we’ve never seen a 5,000 watt machine of any make that didn’t guzzle gas compared to a 2,000 watt machine.

    The smaller Honda running the house most of the time will run 12 hour or more on a single tank full of gas, which is roughly 3 gallons–so, four hours per gallon, give or take. The much bigger Subaru is “just enough” to handle the laundry machines easily and will run for 6 hours on about 2 to 3 gallons of gas, so say 2.5 hours per gallon. And the biggest machine, the “bathtub Honda,” guzzles somewhere around 1 gallon per hour. (It’s hard to be precise on that last one simply because it’s only run when the tub is in use, so the sample is smaller than the others, but that’s pretty close.)

    Bringing our logic forward, we then see that if we were to run the laundry washer and dryer for 8 hours once a week, catching up the week’s laundry, the huge Honda would require as much as 8 gallons of gas to get the job one. It might do better than that, but certainly not better than 5 gallons. And the Subaru currently powering the laundry uses 2.5 gallons. Now we bring in the alphabet:

    A. Using the huge Honda for laundry would cost double in fuel.

    B. Using the big Subaru for the walk-in tub would literally kill the Subaru because, big as it is, it’s not big enough to handle the monster power draw of the bathtub (which includes an inline heater, two separate jet blower systems, chromotherapy (lights), and an ozone generator, sheesh!).

    That said, if it had happened that we’d owned the Honda first, powering the laundry (since 2012), then certainly there would have been no need to buy anything else to run the walk-in tub. But buying something that monster-sized for the laundry in 2012 would have made no sense as we’d have been volunteering to spend double on fuel every time we fired up the washing machine. The walk-in tub was only purchased and installed last year, 2016.

    As for “maintaining” the two bigger gennies, maintenance is a breeze. Initial purchase cost is one thing, true, but once purchased…well, using the Honda for the tub only is a pretty sure way for that machine to last for many, many years. We should never have to replace it. Maintenance for any of the generators only amounts to adding fuel, changing the oil, and once in a while replacing a spark plug. How problematic is that?

    May the blessings be.

  4. thanks, ghost! 🙂 I’m very glad your generators are so easy to maintain. I had a small Honda generator for an off grid home I had built around 1987, and I remember that little machine was cranky as anything, specially if a few weeks had gone by without using it. Of course, being in the tropics does mean a lot of moisture and such.
    I am also amazed by your implied security, since I had that home broken into twice and they stole everything including the generator and a brand new transformer for connecting to the regional grid, about 2 miles away. I hope the karma was paid in full, of course. 🙂

  5. Our sense of security comes primarily from our neighbors. We’re one of now-somewhat-rare communities (those of us who live on acreages “below the wash” especially), about thirty extremely rural households. We’ve gotten to know a lot of the neighbors and vice versa, especially I attend as many of the Road Committee meetings as I can. A break-in is always theoretically possible, of course; I’m not trying to imply that the Border Fort is completely invulnerable. That would be, um…stupid? But (a) as stated, a lot of us know each other and that does make a difference, (b) our residence is just not that “noticeable” in the scheme of things, (c) the Border Fort is as you know built for defense and acts the part, making a break-in a bit more work than nearly anyone else’s slightly more tempting property, and (d) it’s impossible for anybody, even someone who knows us, to tell if the place is truly vacant or if someone might be at home. (There are a number of interlocking reasons for that, but those will not be shared here in case a break-in artist reads these pages. No use giving up all our defensive secrets.)

    And finally, for the entire community, there is only one way in or out. No “back roads” available for alternative getaways by enterprising burglars. Not to mention that a favorite pastime out here is eyeballing any vehicle we don’t know and working to figure out if the driver might be friend, foe, or something in between. This is a scary area for an enterprising burglar; the odds of someone spotting his vehicle as he’s coming or going is much higher than “average” and something any enterprising criminal is going to take into consideration–he’s not going to want to risk being spotted in the act of entering or leaving general area, and he MOST certainly does not wasn’t to risk being trapped.

  6. Fascinating, Ghost. I always enjoy reading about your work-arounds to make living off the grid as convenient as living on-grid.

    Are you planning on moving? You mentioned the Border Fort might be on the market by the time we read this post.

  7. I certainly wouldn’t be worried about your setup, unless I decided to use an oil-filled radiant heater, which I wouldn’t just because I don’t like them. There was an incident here a few weeks ago involving our oldest unit, a well-built 1500-watt-er. Its cord had been damaged at some point in the family’s history, and ‘repaired’ with (dare I admit it?) duct tape. My sister moved the chair under/around which the cord ran and watched the cord spontaneously catch fire. The only remaining evidence of this bit of redneckery is, fortunately, a permanent black smudge on the vinyl, but I quickly took that heater and another with damaged cord off duty.

    The only issue I see just from looking at your pictures is the exposed cords. They may last years like that, but the sun’s rays will eventually do what they do best where plastic is concerned. I would even recommend giving any outside conduit a fresh coat of paint every couple of years.

  8. You’re right on target, Leonid. I have had to replace some cords over the years, but those yellow ones have been in service for nearly six years now and are still going strong–faded by sun, but still supple and flexible and showing no signs of cracking. A few of the cords we started out with weren’t that durable. Fresh paint on outside conduit every couple of years is also an excellent idea, though PVC will last a lot longer without UV protection than you’d think. Decades for conduit, as far as my research to date has discover.

    We’ve used a number of those space heaters in earlier years, but none at this location. During the winter of 2008-2009, just before we left Colorado, we rigged an oil heater up in the garage, setting it near (but not in contact with) a “cave” we’d made for an elderly black cat who’d come in off the street and adopted us. (She didn’t fit with our in-house cats and had to have separate housing.) Her cave was a card table with a quilt draped over to provide walls on 3 sides, plus another quilt to serve as a bed warmer than the icy concrete floor.

    We left that heater on the 600 watt setting, not 1500 watts, and had a heavy duty extension cord between it and the wall outlet–and over time it STILL overheated at the plug-to-wall point enough to heat-scorch the plug insulation. No open flame or thrown breaker, but yeah, it pays to understand what sort of load you’re putting on your, um…duct tape! 😀

  9. Sha: I didn’t mean to imply that the Border Fort was going up for sale that quickly. Essentially, I will be remaining here as long as Pam needs to doctor here. She’s told me (I just got back from returning her to her apartment at her daughter’s house in Utah) that she can’t make any more of those long overnight rides, so we’re looking at flying her (with escort, of course) for future trips, but she’ll still need to rest up here for a period of time each go-round (every 2 months).

    But if she either (a) leaves this world or (b) decides she can’t fly and has no option but to stay in Utah full time and doctor there, then yeah. I’ll start getting the Border Fort ready for the market. Take me a year or so, I’m guessing, whenever that happens, but Pam is the ONLY reason I’m in Arizona in the first place. Eventually, I’ll look to shift back to Montana.

  10. Could be; I never really thought about that, or read up on it. Or maybe polyethylene. Now you’ve got me at least mildly curious; I may have to research that…someday. 😀

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