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Old 10-18-2009, 11:28 PM   #1
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May be buying a house -- need some info/advice.

Iím having to relocate and have been looking at homes in the new town. I have a limited budget for this so Iíve been looking at foreclosures and short sales primarily. All these properties have had problems.

I have found one which may be suitable, and I had a home inspection performed. For the most part it was OK. It will need some work before we can move in but I should be able to handle many of the deficiencies. For others I will need to hire a contractor. This will still cost a few (several?) grand.

There are two things which are really odd about the property, at least to me (and the inspector!). Iím wondering if anyone else has seen anything like these and has experience with them.

First weird thing: The electrical system. In most houses the power (roughly) goes from the breaker to a switch to the device. In this house switches activate relays, located in a panel in the basement, and the relay completes the circuit to the device. The home inspector was completely baffled by this system. I called an electrician, who was unfamiliar with such systems in homes. He said it would make more sense in an industrial facility.

Second weird thing: the plumbing system. Not all drains lead to the septic tank. (Iíve never lived anywhere that had a septic tank -- this may be a new experience as well.) The drain from the kitchen sinks, one set of bathroom sinks, and the laundry area are routed to a line which does not appear to go to the septic tank; it exits the house on the side opposite the septic tank! I guess this house could have two septic systems (or a greywater system) but this confused the inspector also. I called a septic service who has agreed to send someone out and take a look at it for free.

Why I am still interested in the house: large lot, lots of privacy, quiet neighborhood where the homes have kept their value for the most part. The price is low enough I can do it as a cash deal. Plus the foundation, roof, and framing all appear to be in excellent shape. Biggest plus: itís zoned for one of the better school systems in the city (so Iím told).

My big fear: these two oddball installations will either require very expensive fixes or they will make it extremely difficult to sell in the future. It may have become a foreclosure for a reason.

Any advice or suggestions?


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Old 10-19-2009, 06:10 AM   #2
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I have seen one relay operated electrical system in my 25 yrs as a remodeler. They seem to work fine while they are working, but when they don't they seem to baffle some electricians. And very difficult to makes additions or modifications to. Not all that hard to understand, but I am not sure of the reasons for such a system in a house. Low voltage(24V)is used to make/break relays that control the high voltage. It is like having two switches. Electronic systems use relays all the time, and they work well, but it makes no sense in a house.


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Old 10-19-2009, 06:44 AM   #3
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It is possible that they have connected that drainage just to a soakaway, although this is not allowed in our codes it can happen in the country.
The drainage company can put a camera down to check where it goes and the condition of the pipework. As long as the work involved is reflected in the price there should be no problem.
My wife's uncle used to be an Estate Agent and used to say that the 3 things to look for in a property in order of importance are it's location, it's location and it's location. Always buy the worst house in the best street as you can improve your house but not the area.
We have got an old septic tank, 13.5 inch brickwork and rendered, but it still works well. It's best to have them emptied before the solids get too high and enter the pipework going to the soakaway.
Good look, could be a good buy.
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Old 10-19-2009, 07:50 AM   #4
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Well it sounds like you have the old low-voltage electrical system that was put in post-war homes and is still found today. Small 22 guage wire to the relay box, typically 24-volt, and then regular wires from the service entrance to the relay box - does that sound right?

Where are you and how old is the house? Like many older things they work OK for now but spare parts may be hard to find...
ďThe average American woman is about 25 pounds heavier than she was in 1960...Recognizing obesity as a disease will help change the way the medical community tackles this complex issue that affects approximately 1 in 3 Americans,Ē
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Old 10-19-2009, 08:36 AM   #5
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My last house had a greywater system for the laundry
It didn't bother me or the Town

Are you able & experienced in doing electric work?
You could slowly replace the wiring
I've replaced almost all the wiring in my house over the past 6 years
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Old 10-19-2009, 04:37 PM   #6
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Thank you all who have answered! The information has been great.

The house was built in the 1970ís and has always been a single family home. Iím assuming all components are this vintage.

My best information has it that at the time the house was built the area was an unincorporated area of the county and there were very lax building codes. The best guess is that the house was professionally framed but the owners installed the wiring and plumbing.

From research Iíve been doing into this situation the life of a septic leach field is limited. The one here could be at the end of its life. The laundry area drains to a separate line which exits on the opposite side of the house from the septic system. This might keep indigestible solids out of the septic tank. But it also looks like the laundry area was relocated to the basement -- could problems with the septic system be a reason?

The property is sloped away from the house. There is very little ďflatĒ area to the property. Would this may make locating an area for a new leach field difficult (assuming the worst case scenario of having to replace everything)?

I donít know what voltage the relays work at. I didnít look for a 24 volt supply either. I do not have any information about the actual relays, sorry. Things look ďmodernĒ, but I know this is really subjective. Plus, I donít really know what I am looking at.

I am about as ďun-handyĒ as it comes. Iím really clueless! I can learn, but re-wiring the house seems really daunting right now!

This will also be my first house purchase.
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Old 10-19-2009, 04:53 PM   #7
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Originally Posted by greymuzzle View Post
..... I called an electrician, who was unfamiliar with such systems in homes. He said it would make more sense in an industrial facility......
carlisle nailed it.
The light switch/relay system that you describe was momentarily popular in the 50's and was most commonly called a Touch Plate System.

The relays were usually all together in a closet, attic, or some other out of the way place. To check for this yourself have a helper continually turn a room light on/off from a wall switch while you prowl through the house listening for the telltale clicking of the 24V relays.

Most houses that had these Low Voltage Relay Lighting Systems have had them replaced with conventional light switch wiring. That is the reason he was not familiar with them. Plus the fact the Electrician was probably younger than 35. An old timer would have known right away.
  • Choice One is to partially or fully convert to conventional lighting controls with dimmers or other modern 'Smart' switches
  • Choice Two is make the original system functional by repairing any parts that do not work.
As of today parts are still available from:

greymuzzle, Sorry I missed your 2nd post. The 70's sound late for Touch-Plate, but still could be. Are the wall switches conventional toggles or touch plates. Sorry I didn't read through post #1 to see that you have found the relay panel

& Stay Safe
.....Bob Lavery

Last edited by PaliBob; 10-19-2009 at 05:10 PM. Reason: Added Note
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Old 10-19-2009, 05:06 PM   #8
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I could not tell where you are thinking of purchasing, but the septic system issue is potentially serious trouble. In Massachusetts, every house with a septic system requires an inspection by a licensed inspector prior to being sold. If the system fails the inspection (and the criteria for failure are clearly set forth in an administrative rule), the system must be replaced. I know, the house I bought back in 1991 had a failed system, and the owner had to replace the system before I moved in. Cost the Relocation Company about $25K for a new system.

I have no idea whether your new house is in a location requiring an inspection, however even it does not now, at the time you wish to sell it, an inspection may be required. If so, if the system fails, you are likely to be on the hook for the cost to repair or replace, so it would be in your best interests to get a careful, professional evaluation of the septic system condition now, so you can determine how much money to set aside for future upgrades/repairs.

In Massachusetts, it is no longer permissible to run greywater out to an undesigned pit. Greywater has to be directed to the septic system. You need to check the rules in your new location. In Massachusetts the rule is that the system has to be sized based on the number of bedrooms in the house, however if an existing undersized system passes inspection, you can keep the system. In the future, if the system fails, the replacement system needs to be sized for the number of bedrooms in the house, which most likely means the replacement system would be larger (and more costly) than the existing system.

What a lot of people do is get the septic inspection, and negotiate a deal with the owner to split the cost of upgrade to make the new system compliant with current code. Something to think about.
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Old 10-19-2009, 05:24 PM   #9
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That depends upon where you are & the sale
I bought my last house - bank short sale
As far as I know the septic was not inspected before I bought the house
Possibly the bank paid for an inspection, but I doubt it
And it wasn't even a septic system, it was a cesspool - just a big deep hole in the ground
It was working, but prior owners at one point had too many people & the lady was running a dog grooming business out of the house
She & her husband moved out, ex boyfriend (husbands brother) moved back in
So it was in "working" order when I bought the house

Title 5 does not require that a system be in passing condition prior to the sale,
I went to the Board of Health & inquired about process for replacement etc
They basically said if it's working don't worry about it
I replaced it 7 years later when we went to sell the house


On a recent inspection my septic system did not pass the inspection. In addition, I have a drain for my washing machine greywater that goes through 300 feet of crushed stone. The Inspector told me that I must tie this drain into my septic system. Is this necessary?
No. Title 5 does not specifically require the tie-in of the separate laundry discharge as long as that discharge is inspected and passes a Title 5 inspection.
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Old 10-20-2009, 12:25 AM   #10
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Wow! Yaíllís good! And PaliBob nailed it. That is exactly what is in that house.

I followed the link you provided and found these systems had a resurgence in popularity from the 60í to the 80ís -- roughly the time this house would have been built.

It also appears that there is more than one company still making such panels. It looks like at worst the panel and controls could be replaced and the wiring would still work. Best case is they still make a compatible component. I would have to get details inside the panel. Might be prudent to stockpile some components.

Youíre all also correct, my septic questions can be answered with a good inspection. I looked into this this evening. It will cost me some money but could save me from a major mistake! Needs to be done if I buy the house, so, I might as well do it first because the knowledge could affect ultimate price.

You all have been incredibly helpful. Thank you so much!

I am feeling better about the property.


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