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Old 08-08-2008, 10:55 PM   #1
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Old house switch forensics


Recently moved into a 1930's house, and have had some fun replacing non-grounded outlets, marveling at the steel conduit they used to use, etc. I have a pair of mystery switches, one at the bottom of the stairs, one near the entrance, that I've verified are part of the same 3-way switched circuit, with power coming into the one by the entrance, and a standard 3-way pass through to the other. Power is correctly reaching both switches.

However, they don't seem to control anything. There is no overhead light fixture, and I have verified that none of the room's outlets are switched. It's a long dark living room to have no switch available.

A few questions:

1) Did individual outlets ever get put on 3-way switched circuits back in the 1930's?

2) Is there anyway I can determine if the common wire coming out of the 2nd switch is actually passing through a device or outlet?

3) Next to two of my horizontally mounted original receptacles in the living room are two normal sized receptacles with two small holes, through which brass "buttons" protrude. I pulled the face plate off, and found two dangling neutrals and no other wires in the box. Any chance this is related?

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Old 08-09-2008, 03:58 PM   #2
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Old house switch forensics


Quote:
1) Did individual outlets ever get put on 3-way switched circuits back in the 1930's?
Yes. Anything is possible.

Quote:
2) Is there anyway I can determine if the common wire coming out of the 2nd switch is actually passing through a device or outlet?
When you flip the switches, do any receptacles go dead? Have you checked both halves of all the receptacles? Are the the wires color coded? Or are they all the same color? Does it look like any wiring has been added / changed since the original? I would suspect cloth and rubber covered conductors for this vintage. Has any work been done on the ceiling or any evidence of a lighting outlet anywhere? Any remodeling happen there recently?
Quote:
3) Next to two of my horizontally mounted original receptacles in the living room are two normal sized receptacles with two small holes, through which brass "buttons" protrude. I pulled the face plate off, and found two dangling neutrals and no other wires in the box. Any chance this is related?
Maybe a picture of this would help.

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Old 08-09-2008, 08:03 PM   #3
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Old house switch forensics


Thanks for the thoughts.
Quote:
When you flip the switches, do any receptacles go dead? Have you checked both halves of all the receptacles? Are the the wires color coded? Or are they all the same color? Does it look like any wiring has been added / changed since the original? I would suspect cloth and rubber covered conductors for this vintage. Has any work been done on the ceiling or any evidence of a lighting outlet anywhere? Any remodeling happen there recently?
Checked all receptacles in area, both sides, and there is no change. Definitely cloth covered, colors difficult to tell (white has turned black with soot). I investigated the ceiling, and while there has been patch work, it seems to be consistent with patching a long crack, not an old fixture. Most houses in the area do not have overhead lights in their living rooms, so that doesn't surprise me.

There was major remodeling (addition) 4 years ago, but there doesn't seem to be any relation between the old and new systems. I briefly thought the non-functioning switch at the stair base was for a light in the kitchen which was removed during the remodel, but given that it is tied in a 3-way with the light at the entrance in the opposite direction (separated by the living room), this isn't likely. So, it's rather a mystery.

It's not possible for a pair of 3-way switches to "fail hot" is it? I.e. they should be switching an outlet, but one is defective? The hot does show up alternately on the A and B sides of the stair-well outlet, which is connected to the common side as expected depending on the state of the switch, so it seems to be functioning. It's just a question of whether that hot outgoing wire actually goes anywhere and does anything.
Quote:
Maybe a picture of this would help.
See below, pulled out of the wall. Two neutral wires (yes, those are white), nothing else in the box, right next to a normal outlet (6" to the left in this picture). One is a "real" neutral, in that the hot on the adjacent outlet is 120V above it. The other seems to float. The mystery switches don't seem to have an impact on them whatsoever. The little holes in the posts are paint filled, but you could see a coax-type or RCA-type plug fitting on them. The other one across the room has the neutral lines dangling free in the box. What sort of outlet has no hot wire in it?
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Old 08-10-2008, 05:37 PM   #4
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Old house switch forensics


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Originally Posted by jdsmith View Post

It's not possible for a pair of 3-way switches to "fail hot" is it? I.e. they should be switching an outlet, but one is defective?
Switches can definitely "fail on", but usually the switch feels differently than it should. With a three way setup, with one switch failed on, the other switch should still control the load, whatever it is. If you haven't already, you could take a look at the receptacles, to see if they are the split wired variety. If they are not of the more modern type, it may be hard to tell as many of them where special kind as opposed to the variety today where a tab is broken. It is also a possiblity that if you changed receptacles, that there was a split wired receptacle and by replacing it with a new one without the tab has now bypassed the switch. There isn't much else you can do besides poke around a little, open up more boxes, and try to see where the conduits lead. They have to go somewhere. Open up nearby light boxes, look in the basement (if this is the first floor) for junction boxes. The switched hot from the switches is probably disconnected somewhere in a box. Sorry that without being there, I can't give you any other ideas.
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Originally Posted by jdsmith View Post
The little holes in the posts are paint filled, but you could see a coax-type or RCA-type plug fitting on them. The other one across the room has the neutral lines dangling free in the box. What sort of outlet has no hot wire in it?
What that probably is is a radio jack, and one wire is at ground potential, and the other is usually attached to an antenna. It is a rare find, something dating from a house of your vintage. People connected their radio sets to them, which probably explains the nearby receptacle. It really has no use nowadays, so it can be another project for you to figure out. I bet one of the wires (at ground potential) is connected to the grounding system somewhere. The antenna wire probably goes to the attic, where it is probably hacked off.
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Old 08-11-2008, 01:18 PM   #5
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Old house switch forensics


Very cool guess, thanks. They must have loved radio, since they had two such outlets in the same room. I'll see if I can find something up in the attic.

Regarding the switches: all the outlets in the room look original. This is the 1st floor, but unfortunately this section of the basement is finished, so I'll have a hard time poking around like I'd like to. I presume you'd be able to distinguish between a hot wire that is disconnected, and a hot wire which still powers some (unused or unidentified) load, if you could isolate two sides of the same circuit.

I'll poke around in the nearby outlet boxes and see if any look like they used to be switched but no longer are. I presume in that case you'd have two hots in the box, one of which is dangling? I can't imagine why anyone would do that, as there is no light anywhere, and life without a switched light in that room is rather unfortunate.
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