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Dateline: Somewhere between electrocution and asphyxiation.

New & Improved

Shortly after I returned from Laredo, my electrician began bugging me. “So when do you want to start the electrical work? We’ve got some availability now.”

“Well, I still don’t have a complete plan together. Maybe you guys can start with the second floor, and maybe the easier parts of the first floor, and then we’ll just go step-by-step? I still don’t have a plan for the kitchen.”

“Sure,” he replied. “We’d be happy to do that.”

So I rushed to finish my electrical plan for the second floor. Then Victor and his guys showed up last Wednesday, and I’m now a fair chunk of the way through rewiring my old house. Initially, we had a long discussion about the merits of single-core wire versus stranded. I wanted single-core because that’s what we use in the States, it doesn’t tend to fray at the ends, and it can be easily attached to outlets and lamps. “Well, we mostly use stranded wire here,” Antonio, the assistant electrician said. “We used to use solid-core but gave it up. Stranded is better because if there’s a problem, the strands just melt down in a single spot; the entire line isn’t melted.”

“Isn’t this what the circuit breaker is for?” I thought, but said out loud, “I’d really rather have solid-core if you guys can work with it.”

 “Well, that’s OK, sure, we can do that.”

That conversation took place Wednesday morning, and in the afternoon, I was scheduled to meet Antonio in the Centro Histórico to buy wire and a few other things. When we got there, it turns out that they only have stranded wire. I was kind of annoyed, but figured I’d just go with that. Besides, Antonio also mentioned that it was more flexible and would be easier to thread into the ancient conduit of my old house. This is not an insignificant consideration.

So nine hundred and fifty dollars later, we emerged into the street with what seemed to be several kilometers of wire and 100 meters of plastic conduit. Fortunately, Antonio had brought his wife, who carried the conduit (it’s light but large) and he and I each had a good 25 kilograms of wire to carry. We hailed a taxi and dragged the supplies into to my house.

Since then, much progress has been made. Antonio has managed to rewire most of the ceiling lights on the second floor. We’ve established the locations of switches and outlets. And the dreaded “ranuración” has begun.

Ranuración after cleanup

Ranuración is perhaps the single worst aspect of this entire project, at least so far. It consists of cutting channels into the brick walls in order to lay cables between the outlets. First, you take a chalk line and mark where you want the channels. Then you take a diamond saw and cut a set of parallel grooves along that line. Finally, you chisel out the plaster and brick between the grooves. Oh, and you also cut out holes for the electrical boxes that hold outlets, switches etc. Amusingly enough, here those boxes are called “chalupas.” And no, don’t try to get one at Taco Bell.

So what’s so bad about “ranuración?” Well, it produces totally horrendous clouds of dust. Like dust so thick it looks like the house is on fire as it blows out the windows. It also produces a lot of noise, and a fair bit of rubble, which is hard to get the garbage guys to take. Fortunately, a 50 peso “service fee” smooths the waters considerably. Come to think of it, I think I did something similar with the garbage guys in Boston in 1997 when I remodeled my house there.

Anyway, I just couldn’t be in the house during the ranuración. The air was simply unbreathable. I don’t know how the guys could stand it. They were only wearing those flimsy covid masks, with all the leaks around the sides. I told them that they really ought to get something that would actually keep the dust out, and that it was bad for their lungs, but they just poo-pooed me. Color me shocked. Unfortunately, we’ve done the ranuración on only one bedroom so far. That means there are many more clouds of dust in my electrical forecast. Ugh…

Vintage is cool until it’s melted

Still, the benefits will be tremendous. Yesterday Antonio handed me a bundle of melted wires, missing insulation in places. “See this wiring? You’re right to replace it. It’s a guaranteed short circuit, and it was a mofo getting it out of the conduit.” I replied that the entire house had been on a 40 amp circuit breaker and that obviously was more current than the wires could carry. I replaced it with a 20 amp, but the damage was already done.

When the guys started, Victor, the boss, said it would take about a month. I’m hoping it’ll be less; maybe he’s under-promising and it’ll go faster? Meanwhile, there have been some setbacks. Victor and three of his team all got covid. So they’re out of the game, for now. Fortunately he doesn’t seem to be feeling too bad. And Antonio is fine, and seems to have no shortage of relatives who are helping out. So the job is continuing more-or-less smoothly.

Me? I’m just glad that the electricity seems to be moving forward and under control. I’ve had to do some running around to find things that I mistakenly thought were commonplace. But so far, so good. And after breathing down the guys’ necks for the first couple of days, I’m now confident enough to leave them to their own devices. I let them in in the morning, and then close up at night when they leave. Hopefully in the next couple of weeks, I’ll have a bunch of extra circuits, and plenty of outlets. And that will also open the door toward painting the bedrooms, and maybe refinishing their floors. That’s pretty much all that the two front bedrooms need, and will be a big step forward.

So the job is moving ahead, pleasantly, and without much drama. Next I need to think harder about the kitchen, plumbing, and the flooring downstairs.

Saludos and thanks for reading.