Home & Garden Columns

About the House: This One Hasn’t Happened Yet

By Matt Cantor
Friday July 20, 2007

Like most people, I want to think of myself as a good person. Someone interested in the general welfare, democracy and wholesome values. But like most people, I have a bit of a dark streak. Mayhem is fun. Trouble is more interesting than smooth, well-oiled continuity. Admit it, you probably find earthquakes and plane crashes interesting. The whole news business is based on our fascination with things gone wrong (especially things gone terribly wrong).  

In that spirit, I offer the following bit of lame-brained stuff. It’s only a tiny thing but it’s so rich in stupidity that I thought it might prove for a little good, old-fashioned, mouth-full-of-Cheetos, couch-potato gawking.  

Note our photo. Here’s what you’re looking at: This is a steel, electrical junction-box in the wall at the back of a sink cabinet in a kitchen. The cover plate for the “J-box” is of a type used to install an outlet (the big cover has a smaller opening just right for a small device). There probably used to be an outlet installed here, although given the lack of acumen and forethought in evidence, it’s absolutely possible that this was the coverplate the “electrician” (please excuse my very loose use of this term) had on the truck and “was gonna come back and put that little cover on real soon.” How the time gets away from us. Darn. 

Note the swell job done setting the J-box in the wall. It ended up getting “mudded-in” or buried in a layer of drywall joint-compound (AKA mud) because it was partially installed behind the plane of the drywall. This will necessitate excavation every time the box gets opened to make a change and will make it extremely hard to create a neat finish when installing an outlet and coverplate. Sloppy, thoughtless and no pride of workmanship. 

As a result, it was hard to get the cover to seat properly and as a result of that, it’s hanging open on the left side. Now, watch both hands closely. There’s nothing up my sleeve. It’s about to get interesting. 

Clearly, rats or mice were present. See the steel wool stuffed in all around the edge of the cabinet? This is common, if goofy, technique. Rodents, for all their tiny superpowers, can’t eat steel wool and, therefore, can’t re-enter through channels previously gnawed. It looks pretty awful but, up to this day, I’d never had more complaint about it other than to say that it was an unsightly fix and should be replaced by new drywall, blocked at the framing and supplanted by a more plausible approach to rodent control.  

But wait, this little exterminator was out for more than just rodents. They stuffed the steel wool inside the electrical box through the loose cover and wrapped it all around. This does several things. First, steel wool is a metal and is pretty darned conductive. Not as much as copper but it will do just fine for our experiment. We are, at very least, creating an electrical path between the junction box and the steel wool.  

If a hot wire touches the metal box (or the steel wool that’s been stuffed inside) as a result of some imperfect set of conditions, and this stuff really does happen, the steel wool would become energized. Like a bulb filament, steel wool is so thin that it would begin to glow red hot. 

Here’s an interesting fact. Steel wood burns! Strange, yes, but it’s true. Steel wool tends to glow red hot with only minimal flame (depending upon the air supply, temperature and other factors). In any event, it burns hot enough to set adjacent materials on fire. 

So, we now have a source of energy, a fuse (the kind used to set off a bomb) and some flammable material (your house).  

To make matters even worse, the gaps and holes around the edge of the J-box are, in part, clearly the work of rodents. This means that they communicate through to the crawlspace or the outside. The same small passage through works nicely as an air inlet to accelerate fire when the steel wool begins to burn, driving it up into nice flames and setting the cabinet on fire. 

O.K., I’ll give it a break. Yes, the wires in the box are fairly well covered over (for now) and the steel wool isn’t exactly filling the J-box. It’s not a sure-fire … fire. But that’s not good enough. 

We live in wooden houses. Let me say that again. We live in wooden houses. We put our babies and our parents in wooden houses. We run electricity through them, build fires in them and heat air, water and food with flammable (and explosive) gas inside them. This is, as they say, no mean trick. We do it with codes and practices that requires great attention to detail. We also do them sober and fully awake so that we can be aware of the many ways in which we can work around the rules and arrive at Waterloo. 

I see the work of the roving brainless on a pretty regular basis. This one was fun because it wasn’t obvious. I had to sit there for a while to get the full impact of it. The longer I looked, the bigger my eyes got. I admit it. It was, and is, fun.  

Everybody slows down to watch an accident. What I would wish for (is this my beauty pageant?) is to see a few more people slow down for the one that hasn’t happened yet.  



Photograph by Matt Cantor. This electrical junction box has become a fire hazard. 


Got a question about home repairs and inspections? Send them to Matt Cantor, in care of East Bay Real Estate, at realestate@berkeleydailyplanet.com.