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Home Improvement, the Old House Way

With summer fast approaching, I figured it was probably time to dig the window air conditioner out of the garage and set it up in the house. Fortunately, this is an easy task, usually requiring no more than ten minutes at the most, assuming you stop for a Mountain Dew halfway through. (And assuming it takes two minutes to get the Mountain Dew and another five to drink it.)

Since I'm feeling generous, I figured I'd share some of my famed goodwill and write this handy-dandy three-step guide to hanging a window air conditioner in a 1940s-era house, just in case it was too complex a job for someone on my flist to handle.

How to Hang a Window Air Conditioner in Three Easy Steps

Step 1: Take the air conditioner out of the box.
Step 2: Try to open the window.
Step 3: Realize it was painted shut some time during the Nixon administration, then again during the Ford, Reagan, Bush Sr., Clinton, and Bush Jr. administrations.
Step 4: Go to Home Depot and buy a razor knife.
Step 5: Cut the eighteen layers of paint along the inside AND the outside of the window.
Step 6: Raise the window an inch.
Step 7: Realize that the runner is also coated in eighteen layers of paint, half of which are probably lead based.
Step 8: Swear.
Step 9: Scrape paint.
Step 10: Scrape more paint.
Step 11: Muscle the window open.
Step 12: Place the air conditioner on the window sill.
Step 13: Attempt to plug in the air conditioner.
Step 14: Realize that the outlet immediately below the window is an old-fashioned 2-prong outlet rather than a 3-prong outlet.
Step 15: Swear.
Step 16: Go to Home Depot for a new wall outlet.
Step 17: Remove the face plate from the outlet.
Step 18: Discover old-fashioned 2-conductor cloth-covered aluminum wire with no ground lead behind the cover.
Step 19: Swear.
Step 20: Run an extension cord to the other outlet in the room, which thankfully is a modern 3-prong variety.
Step 21: Become suspicious.
Step 22: Plug a circuit tester into the 3-prong outlet.
Step 23: Discover that it may in fact be three prong, but it is not actually grounded.
Step 24: Swear.
Step 25: Remove the cover from the second outlet.
Step 26: Discover that the outlet is broken in the back, with exposed conductors that are dangerously close to touching one another.
Step 27: Swear.
Step 28: Return to Home Depot for more outlets.
Step 29: Rewire all of the outlets in the room. Remember to pull ground leads. (I hear this is important.)
Step 30: Plug a circuit tester into the outlets.
Step 31: Discover, much to your surprise, that the outlets now test good.
Step 32: Plug in the air conditioner.

And now, sit back and luxuriate in the modern technological miracle of climate control, basking in the knowledge of a 3-step, 10-minute job well done in only six hours and 32 steps!



( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 3rd, 2010 02:03 am (UTC)
I have an 18000BTU "through the wall" air-con in my dining room. Which has decided to ice up after 30 minutes use.

So now I need to find a replacement that fits into the existing hole. Given they weigh over 100lbs each and the hole is 6' above the floor I think I'm gonna pay someone to solve this problem!
Jun. 4th, 2010 10:10 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I know what you mean...I had an 18000 wall unit for 10 years...just recently put in a central air unit.
Have you already pulled your AC Unit? If it's icing up, that may indicate that it's just dirty, or not draining properly. Mine iced up too, and worse, when it thawed, it left water streaks down my wall. After we cleaned it and set up better drainage (it had shifted so the water wasn't draining properly), it lasted for another two years.
Just a thought.
Jun. 4th, 2010 10:19 pm (UTC)
No, there was plenty of air-flow and it was sufficiently clean. I had it inspected and the conclusion was "coolant leak" leading to inadequate amount of coolant. Which, really, was obvious based on how the freezing progressed (I could see it start on the back pipes, work it's way up the back of the unit, then down the front). I could pay $200 for a recharge... which might last 2 months or 2 years. Or buy a new one.

In fact, today, the new one was installed. 24000BTU now. All the replacement units were of a different size and so this required expanding the hole and lots of pain... but after 5 hours hard work it's in.

24000BTU should keep the whole floor cool :-) I hope!
Jun. 7th, 2010 06:01 pm (UTC)
Nice. Gawd, 24000BTU? You should be able to store your vegetables in your living room now...which is good, you can use the crisper trays in your fridge for something else!
Jun. 3rd, 2010 02:44 am (UTC)
chuckles... sounds like you had a good time putting it in ;) I hope you stay cool all summer long. I am just greatful for central heat/ac which i have to turn on.
Jun. 3rd, 2010 03:40 am (UTC)
/wipes tear

So.. So.. true
Jun. 3rd, 2010 03:49 am (UTC)
What is this thing you call ground... But then we live in an old house. and didn't have the money to rewire the entire darn thing.

I know we don't have knob and tube. I don't _think_ any of the cloth covered wire in the basement is still live. But I do know that _none_ of the outlets in the house are grounded.
Jun. 3rd, 2010 03:59 am (UTC)
Step 21 is essential in any three-step process.

Congrats on getting the AC up!
Jun. 3rd, 2010 04:04 am (UTC)
I think the first time our windows were painted shut was somewhere in the Hoover administration. I've been slowly rewiring the house too, trying hard not to think of the friable silk-wrapped rubber crumbling and causing fires before I can yank and replace it.

In my case, steps 80 through 301(a) included figuring out that, despite the dizzying number of RPMs on it, an angle grinder is NOT the right tool for cutting through centenarian plaster walls. And that three-dollar dust masks don't keep out the smell of scorched horsehair.

On a more serious note, you can do without a safety ground lead by replacing an old 2-prong outlet with a GFI outlet. (a GFI on an ungrounded circuit is actually safer than a standard 3-prong receptacle with ground.) In case you run across one that you can't just pull grounding leads into. Cheers!
Jun. 3rd, 2010 05:51 am (UTC)
The wiring you found is actually tinned copper, not aluminum, so it is safe to use with standard two prong receptacles and switches. Knob and tube wiring is always copper and it was tinned to make it easier to solder the splices.

The danger with that type of old knob and tube wiring actually comes from disturbing it as the rubber insulation it was originally insulated with under the cloth covering is always brittle after 60+ years. The cloth covering usually also contains asbestos. Left alone and in undamaged condition, knob and tube is perfectly fine on a 15A 120V circuit where you just have two prong receptacles. Where it becomes a problem is when people have tampered with it over time, extended it, replaced two prong receptacles with three prong and not connected the ground (or worse, connected the ground to the neutral -- which is very very dangerous), or put the circuit on a higher current circuit breaker or fuse.

If you find yourself having to replace receptacles and switches with this type of wiring, covering the brittle part of the insulation with a sleeve of heatshrink can often help. Two cautions however -- one, don't get the wiring too hot while using a heat gun (the cloth covering contains an asphalt material and can burn, especially the loom sleeving which is used right where the wiring enters boxes), and two, always watch out for switched neutral connections (not permissible today for new construction as it is a dangerous practice, but it was sometimes done in the 1940s and 1950s to save copper).

I know this comes a little too late, but you could also by code (if the box has room) replace a two prong receptacle with a 3-prong GFCI receptacle and apply a sticker at the receptacle indicating that there is no ground present. Any downstream receptacles wired to the protected side of the GFCI receptacle should also be marked with such a sticker.
Jun. 3rd, 2010 07:52 am (UTC)
Six hours, 32 steps and how many Mountain Dew?
Jun. 3rd, 2010 11:55 am (UTC)
I *really* wish I'd read this before I bought the house built in 1908, might have stopped me,lol!!!
Jun. 3rd, 2010 01:50 pm (UTC)
The sad thing is that our house was built in 1998--and they were just too LAZY to actually wire in the ground, so 3-prong outlets, ground cord was in the walls, but was not actually run to the outlets--or ceiling fixtures.

The company went bankrupt from lawsuits 5 years before we bought the house--wonder why!

But, enjoy your a/c for the 2 weeks you use it!
Jun. 3rd, 2010 03:17 pm (UTC)
That's cold.
Jun. 3rd, 2010 03:58 pm (UTC)
Hehehe! Thank you for the laugh. Glad you have your cool air.
Jun. 4th, 2010 05:14 am (UTC)
Sounds just like the last two (1950's) era houses I've lived in. We had the added fun of having to replace all the circuit breakers in the one before this one too as they were outside and the breakers were not made to be left out in the weather.

Good work though!
Jun. 25th, 2010 03:51 am (UTC)
Old Wiring
I know the story all to well in a 1929 Craftsman.
It isn't so much the legacy wiring that is scary, but what has been done by enterprising previous homeowners with artistic interpretation of electrical codes.

The rule that applies upon removing ANY switch cover is "What has been seen.. cannot be unseen." So pretty much anything requires running another circuit.
( 17 comments — Leave a comment )