Renovating old houses – the basic infrastructure

The problem with renovating old houses is that you can’t just spend money on superficial things. Aesthetics are nice, but the structural blanket of the house matters as well. A lot. I have been working on my house for a l*o*n*g time. It seems to be never ending, but the main structure of this 90 year old house seems to be in good shape now. It is often the simple things – electrical, plumbing, and roofs that cause the most angst, and people in general and loath to spend money on these things, because nobody can see them.

So what does it mean?

Clay sewer pipes

In Toronto, many of the older houses have clay sewer pipes, which hook into cast-iron piping 1-2 feet from the cast iron stack. Unlike the Romans, who also used clay pipes, Canada has cold winters, so no one can expect clay pipes to last forever. That and the ability of tree roots to infiltrate and destroy clay pipes, means that eventually they need to be replaced. Old clay sewer systems often had the “bend” in the pipe to stop sewer gases, typically a “U” bend, located just outside the front of the house. Tell-tale signs of problems are when the clay “U” bend collapses. Modern houses have “U”, or “J” bends at each juncture of a drain, which allows waste to flow unimpeded to the sewer. That and after 70+ years, the cast iron pipe joint to the clay line has also probably rusted away. This normally requires replacing all the clay pipes, and the stack base with PVC pipe, from the city line, all the way through to the weeping-tile. At the front wall of the house, a back-flow prevention valve should be installed, and at least one floor drain somewhere in the basement. Excavating the old clay pipes might result in the discovery of “branch” lines. These were sometimes connected to roof downspouts, and have often been disconnected externally, and filled in (and if not they should be). Which leaves the cast-iron stack itself. Should you just replace it too? Well, you could, but a good portion of it above ground might still be in good condition. Cast iron is super quiet, that’s why its still used in high-rise buildings. PVC piping is uber noisy.

Knob and tube wiring

If your house has wiring that runs through ceramic insulators such as this:


Then you need to have the wiring changed – simple as that. The knob-and-tube in this image is actually dead, and it is not uncommon to see pieces of it in dead spaces such as ceilings, where it is too hard to remove (this is my living room ceiling, which is one of the few lathe-and-plaster ceilings left in my house). A disassembled ceramic “knob” is shown below. The wire sits in the grooves of the lower half, and is covered by the smaller cap with the circular grooves. The entire assembly is then held in place using a screw.


Look, replacing infrastructure isn’t as cool as installing a 6-burner stainless-steel industrial stove, but it is necessary.


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