Home & Garden

About the House: Home Repairs: Best to Broaden Your Approach

By Matt Cantor
Wednesday March 11, 2009 - 07:36:00 PM

Some of you may remember Rube Goldberg. He’s a favorite case study of mine when it comes to home remodeling. If you know who he is, you’re giggling now. Rube, a UC Berkeley grad and local engineer (he worked on the sewer systems in San Francisco!) invented cartoon machinery that would perform one simple task in 20 or more complicated and ludicrous steps.  

Complicated is fine for a cartoon. In your home, simpler is better. A lean, tightly designed system is more reliable and also easier to diagnose and repair when things go wrong. 

When I crawl through our old houses I’m often reminded of Rube’s work—but not in an amusing way. I often find twice as much piping as would be actually needed to feed all the fixtures in the house. Excessive piping and fittings reduce flow and allow for lots more leaks. Excessive and poorly designed wiring gets hotter and has many more chances to fail, increasing fire concerns. A gas distribution system with 60 parts instead of 25 is that much more likely to leak and to break during an earthquake.  

One of the most difficult areas of discussion with regard to home repair is the question of how deep or thorough a repair should be. I’m going to attempt to discuss this in a broad manner, but we’ll touch on some specific areas of common upgrade, such as plumbing and wiring. 

First, repairs are almost always best achieved when done broadly. This speaks to quality but also to cost, if one looks at things on a per-unit basis. For example, adding a single electrical outlet in an upstairs room far from the electrical panel may cost several hundred dollars, whereas installing five outlets in a circuit from the same source may be less than $100 each when done as a single job. 

This rule applies to all sorts of things and needs to be considered prior to beginning a course of work. However, the issue of primary importance here is that work must be planned and organized. 

When deciding to add a gas line to your kitchen (you’re finally sick of cooking on a electric stove), it’s a good idea to first have your plumber take a look at the whole gas distribution system. It may be that you are only feeding three appliances but that the gas piping is routed, a la Rube, back and forth all over the crawlspace to sites that are no longer using gas (such as the long-gone floor furnace, or the laundry which is now in its third location.) If this is the case (and I certainly see quite a bit of it), I think it’s worthwhile to have the plumber bid the cost of rerouting the entire system. It also may be possible to remove most of the extraneous piping while leaving some in place. It will cost more to redo things properly, but it may not cost much more. Don’t miss out on an opportunity for big improvement if small dollars are in the way. Also, old piping is often loose at fittings and poorly supported, not to mention installed in such a way as to obstruct inspection (thank you very much) and the installation of other systems, such as furnace ducting. 

Let’s take another common example. Say your dining room ceiling is cracked and unsightly, and you’ve been thinking about painting and putting in some nice lighting. In this case, it is almost certain that the removal of all the plaster in this room would be worth your while. When the room is free of encumbering and obstructive surfaces, it is far cheaper to do all the things that the room may require, such as a well-arranged spate of lamps, electrical outlets all around, switches in all the right places, TV cable, DSL, a skylight, or whatever your heart desires. All these things are so much easier to do when the wall material is gone, and when you’re done, drywall installation is relatively inexpensive and the finishes will be smooth and crack-free. Now this certainly isn’t the necessary approach when you need only one outlet, but it’s important to stop and ask yourself whether you might not be better off taking a broader approach. 

Let’s turn to the issue of old wiring. Say you have a house full of antique “knob and tube” wiring (are all your outlets two-prong?). If this is the case, it’s probably not worthwhile to take small measures when the house is in need of a lot more wiring and possibly the repair of existing wiring. Talk to your electrician and look at your long-range needs. Do you have a lot of computers, lamps and laser printers? Are you using lots of extension cords? (Naughty!) If this is you and you can set aside a few thousand dollars (gulp), it’s very much to your benefit to do a major system upgrade. You’ll be safer and, with a well-designed plan, you’ll get a lot more for your buck. (OK, your whole herd of bucks.) 

This thinking applies to almost every system in your house, so next time you’re thinking about one little fix, see if you can broaden the approach and make your home just a bit nicer in the process.