Home & Garden Columns

About the House: Don’t Let Your Plumber or Electrician Be a Cut-Up

By Matt Cantor
Friday March 14, 2008
Avoid cutting up your walls such as this if you want them to stay standing.
Matt Cantor
Avoid cutting up your walls such as this if you want them to stay standing.

I’m a Sci-Fi buff from way back and one of my favorite writers was always Robert Heinlein. Robert said the following: 

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.” 

I hope you agree because I certainly do. He even strikes pretty close to my subject here as well, that being that a human being should be able to build a wall. 

I was in a crawlspace the other day and saw an atrocity that had been done to the front wall of the building (we’d call this a cripple wall. Terrible term.) The electrician, in an effort to bring their circuits through from the huge panel that they’d installed on the front of this fourplex (a chopped up manor), had carved blithely through several uprights as well as a seismic bracing panel. There was clearly no more thought applied to the effects on the supportive framing of this two-and-a-smidge-story house than one might apply to noshing the final crumbs of a scone. It was in the way, they had a saw, end of story. 

The problem is that, if one does enough of this pruning, very bad things start to happen. Continuing the Sci Fi theme, I’ll quote Mr. Spock, who said "If I drop a hammer on a planet that has a positive gravity, I need not see the hammer fall to know that it has actually fallen.” 

Walls and floors don’t continue to stand or remain erect regardless of how much we cut into them. At some point, things begin to sag, crack or just fall down. In my world, an earthquake of unknown size is coming and I’m quite sure that it will do all sorts of fun things with framing that’s been cut into excessively, not to mention those houses that are simply unbraced or badly modified. 

There are rules about these things but before I start laying these out, and I will give some specific rules you can use before I’m done, I’d like to say that, in my very unhumble opinion, this stuff is largely obvious (thus our Heinlein quote). It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that if you start cutting into the framing of a house, something bad might happen. 

Building experts like to talk about the level of redundancy in construction and the notion that we size everything about four times as big as it needs to be. I think that these are reasonably accurate notions and am much glad of them. They allow for tolerance and the inevitable screw-ups that inhabit all vocations. But walls don’t stand up on their own and Mr. Spock might have said, “If I cut through all the cripple studs below your house, I need not observe the house to know that it has collapsed.”  

These margins we allow are also being quietly spent on fungi, termites, beetles and mistakes past or future. They should not be squandered. 

The framing of floors and walls can be cut into to a limited degree. Here are some of the current rules as expressed in the 2006 International Residential Code to give you a point of reference: (you can also skip the next four paragraphs if rules make you break out in a rash) 

You can notch into one side of a stud up to twenty five percent (about seven-eights of an inch on a two by four) and forty percent if it’s non-bearing (that means that the framing above it doesn’t really rely upon that wall for support and this is almost never true of an outside wall). 

You can also bore holes through these same studs of up to forty percent of the width on bearing and sixty percent on non-bearing walls. This is better for all sorts of reasons and is why they’re allowed to be so much larger. If we leave both edges of a stud intact, it’s far less likely to crack and fail. 

With joists, the big wooden boards that run horizontally across the building below the floor and above the ceiling, the cutting allowed is less. First, no cutting should be done along the critical bottom edge. This edge is held in tension as you and your Scottish dance troupe bound across the floor and a small cut in the bottom edge can tear right through leaving bits of kilt and small broken pieces of bagpipe everywhere. What a mess, so don’t do that. 

You can notch into the end where the lower edge of joist rests on wall but this can be no more than a quarter of the depth of the joist. You can notch a little (also one quarter) on the top of a joist but only when it’s near the ends (the third on either end, no cuts in the middle third where most of the dancing is taking place). Lastly, you can bore a hole, again in the outer thirds only, up to a third of the joist depth but not within two inches of top or bottom, Whew.  

Sorry about that. I hope didn’t lose you. If you are only left with general impressions about what’s unacceptable you are way ahead of our electrician. By the way, electricians aren’t the only ones doing this. Heating installers cut huge sections out of beams and floor joist as they run ducting and install furnaces, plumbers cut through walls and floors to run four-inch pipes and set toilets and carpenters who are only that in name, cut through whatever’s left over.  

Each of these parties has an obligation, as Mr. Heinlein might say, to know at least a little about how to build a wall or how not to unbuild one. Just because someone isn’t a carpenter or a general contractor is no excuse. If you’re not sure what you can cut, ask someone, right? This is not rocket science. It’s really pretty simple. I’d say that the vast majority of the substandard framing alterations I’ve seen in this arena would have been obvious to the average person and was tolerated solely because it was hidden below the floor or up in the attic.  

Nobody’s paid enough and everyone’s in a hurry. Carpentry gets outsourced to day-laborers (my friend, Harold calls this “slavery-light”) who can’t be held accountable, instead of being done by trained workers. 

So, here’s what I suggest for the homeowner being currently carved upon. Get a look at whatever you can see of the work being done on your house. There are certainly dangers below the house and touching wires is to be avoided but you might want to see if you can get a look at (or see some pictures of) the area being worked on. Hire the man or woman who comes well recommended and charges a little more. Experienced contractors know this stuff and they’re rarely the low bid. 

Take an interest in what day-laborers seem to be doing (drawing plans?) and consider having a consultant oversee larger bodies of work (this is just the sort of thing that they’re looking for). 

You know, it’s fine for your electrician, heating contractor or plumber to have a sense of humor but please, don’t let him (or her for that matter) be a cut-up. 


Got a question about home repairs and inspections? Send them to Matt Cantor at mgcantor@pacbell.net.