A Renovator’s Guide to Rewiring


Yes, I know it’s back to front, but what do you expect when shopping for tea in Sainsburys at 9.30 at night after a very long day and you spot your article title on the mag rack! Great to be commissioned by Homebuilding & Renovating Magazine to write a feature on rewiring, with particular reference to how renovators should ‘do it’, as it were. I’m no time-served sparkie, but I’ve employed many of them, both good and bad, and devised an awful lot of property electrical layouts.

For those of you without the eye sight of a peregrine falcon, here’s the text in larger format….
“Lots of DIY is trial & error but, understandably, electrical installations need a careful approach and are subject to both regulation and legislation. Part P covers significant alterations and new additions in UK homes, for example a new kitchen or extension.
There are always tell tales signs that a house needs rewiring and those over 20-30yrs old usually do, not only because the wiring is potentially dangerous but also because older wiring systems just can’t cope with the demands of modern living. To the untrained eye, a sure sign is the existence of old round switches, rubber/fabric buried cabling last installed in the 60’s or sockets fixed to the skirting boards, though these things are increasingly rare. A modern consumer unit will have a series of circuit breakers and residual current devices (RCDs), whereas an old fusebox has a series of fuses with replaceable wires. If you have a fusebox with a wooden back and a mixed selection of fuses, maybe even cast iron, it needs to be replaced.  

The length of time it takes to rewire a home depends on the size of the house, how complicated the specification is, how accessible all areas are and how many times the client changes their mind! A kitchen re-wire may only 2 days, a three bed semi probably two days to first fix, then the same again to second fix, whereas a huge mansion – much longer! 

Rewiring a property is messy, disruptive work, best undertaken when a property is ideally empty of inhabitants. It happens in two stages, the first fix when cables and wiring are installed and the second fix when everything is joined up or made ‘live’, when the front faces of sockets, switches and lights are fitted. Think about it, those spaghetti runs of wires need to get everywhere: under floors, through walls and across ceilings, so no wonder the first fix is so disruptive and best done without carpets or furniture so floorboards can be lifted and ceilings cut into. To position new sockets and switches at legally correct heights, plaster generally needs to be chased into. Be prepared for more old plaster than planned to fall off the walls!
This is why it’s so important to plan carefully what’s going where in each room before commencing the first fix, so you know where you need lights, plug points and any other electrically driven items. Additions mid-way through is costly and time consuming, and therefore should be avoided. Draw a plan of your home with each room on graph paper and mark up beds, sofas, kitchen units etc., then consider the lighting and switches required – you’ll be amazed how many you need. Create task, mood and feature lighting, but also remember practicalities like smoke and heat alarms, garden RCD safety sockets and external security lights.
Little things like under cabinet and bedside lighting is easy to do when planned from the start, but costly to do as an afterthought. Many self builders have items considered as ‘luxury’, like electric window voiles, hidden track LEDs or bathroom sensor lighting at night, however these items are not necessarily expensive, they just need initial thought.
If you really can’t move out then ensure you dust-cover furniture and expensive items, preferably moving electrical equipment into a separate room. This is not your electrician’s responsibility, though he or she should tidy up after themselves. I’m smiling wryly as ever electrician I’ve ever used has been a mucky devil who can’t clean for toffee. It’ll be dusty. Accept it.
Full rewires usually happen when homes are empty, but for hardened self-builders and renovators  it is possible to live in one room whilst having works happen around you. We’ve lived in one room with no lighting and only temporary sockets for two years now and it’s, um, challenging, so think carefully about your sanity before embarking down this route. You need to be hardy, especially in winter. If you must live-in, get your electrician to install the new consumer unit and prep your habitable room with a temporary supply of sockets. This is quite do-able, you just have to be flexible and low maintenance. 
Partial rewires are very common during kitchen / loft extensions, or basement conversions for example. The wiring is laid throughout the new build sections, then connected up at the final stage, assessed and passed off by Building Control or your appointed alternative.
Remember too that wiring in wet areas like bathrooms is subject to special rules covered by the I.E.E. Wiring regulations and rightly so as these areas carry the highest risk of water based electrocution. All items installed should be IP rated and properly tested. 
So what about future proofing? Years ago few electrical points were needed in homes, but now we’re a super-consuming society hooked on tech. In terms of electrics, this means mood lighting, surround sound, high speed wi-fi, kitchen gadgets and TVs in the bathroom. All that extra ‘load’ means electrical circuits must be up to the job and able to provide that supply without tripping, or worse, burning out. Not only does the cabling need to be modern and the consumer unit large enough to cope with the required circuits for modern amenities, but you also need to plan ahead. Do you want ethernet cable to every room to ensure uninterrupted wi-fi? Will you want speakers in each room? A security system? A kitchen worktop which can charge your phone (I kid you not!)?

Decisions decisions!
OK, what about getting a good quote. Most competent and qualified electricians work on a fixed price basis for domestic work, then add in costs for alterations. Most include first fix supply and fit, i.e. cabling and back boxes as standard, then discuss with the client the specification for the second fix. It’s all about communication and being clear from the outset who’s responsible for what.
Try keeping costs down with a friendly electrician by prepping everything for them, such as chasing out plasterwork, lifting floorboards and generally making access really easy to save their time. As long as both you and your electrician are aware at the start of works of the division of tasks, the competent renovator can chase plaster out to exactly where they want sockets and switches, buy the switches, sockets and lighting and maybe even assist with the installation. You might get some good prices online but remember a professional often gets preferential trade rates so double check whose prices are best!
It is possible to do all the works yourself but you do need to be very, very sure you know what you’re doing. This involves making a Building Regs application, having your work inspected before and after completion by a properly qualified electrician then having a safety certificate issued which passes that work. Make sure you have someone in place before you start as many professionals will not simply sign off someone else’s installation. There’s a risk with this approach, both from a safety and a financial perspective.
A good renovator knows planning and lots of research is key and decides up front how they want their house to work and what they want it to do. All singing, all dancing electrics aren’t imperative, but not having a socket next to the best place for your kettle to sit is. Good luck!”
Got another tip for us? Pop it in the comments! x

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