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Is Cloth Wiring Dangerous?

If you own a home, are under contract to purchase one, or are thinking about it, you've probably heard of the issues involving cloth wiring. If you haven't, it may sound like an insane concept... wires made out of cloth?

What is Cloth Wiring?

In the first half of the 20th century, before plastic was affordable and commonplace, cloth wiring was often used. Cloth wiring is an older style of electrical wiring that is composed of copper wire covered in either cotton or rayon. It is typically between 12 and 22 gauge, and it also commonly has paper or rubberized insulation. The wiring was used because it was inexpensive. If your home was built before the 1960's, it is pretty likely there is some cloth covered wiring in your home.

Cloth wiring is an outdated and potentially dangerous form of wiring that could cause issues in getting a home insured. Let's explore why it's dangerous.

Why is Cloth Wiring Dangerous?

  • Brittleness - Over time cloth wiring is known to become brittle and once this starts happening the cloth can flake or fray. Flaking of the insulation can expose the wire underneath which is an electrical Hazard. If the flaking continues the chances of an electrical arc occurring increase. An electrical arc is when electricity travels through the air from one conductor to another. This is a serious fire hazard.

  • Asbestos - Like in many other parts of a home, before the health risks associated with asbestos were known, it was commonly used in wire insulation. Asbestos was one of the most effective forms of insulation known and was cheap. Some, not all, cloth wiring used asbestos. Over time cloth wiring becomes brittle and begins to flake and fray. When this occurs, the asbestos can become airborne making it incredibly hazardous.

  • Doesn't Contain Heat Efficiently - Though it seems obvious when read aloud, cloth wiring can't insulate heat like modern wiring can, especially with the power needed in today's homes. The excessive heat is a fire hazard.

  • Lacks Modern Safety Features - Older style wiring often lacks safety features like GFCI and grounding. These features send overcurrent into the ground or trip breakers rather than sending them back into the electrical system which can cause arcing.

Cloth Wiring Vs Cloth Sheathing

There is an important distinction when it comes to how the wire is covered in cloth, and this distinction will often change the outcome of the reported defect.

Cloth Sheathing (Shown to the right) is not always an issue with insurance companies as long as the individual wires are covered in more modern plastic and a ground is present.

There are cases when the cloth is covering a rubber insulator of a single wire that is also outdated and beginning to crack and break apart. This is a hazard that will surely be reported.

How Does This Affect Home Owner's Insurance

In Florida, insurance providers will ask for what is called a 4-Point inspection on older homes before they will provide coverage. A 4-point is a look at 4 specific systems of the home to determine the insurer's risk. Those 4 systems are the roof, HVAC, plumbing and electrical. For a more in depth look at 4-points click here.

Depending on the insurance provider, what kind of cloth wiring it is, if there is an insulator and the condition of the wire, there are usually two ways cloth wiring affects home insurance:

  • Will Not Insure - Some companies will flat out refuse to insure a home with any sort of cloth wiring due to the fire hazards associated with them. In some cases you may need to replace the cloth wiring before they are willing to even give you a quote.

  • High Premiums - If the company is willing to insure the home with the knowledge of the cloth wiring, they may charge you much higher premiums because of the risk they are taking on. In some cases the premiums can be so high it is more financially feasible to have the wiring replaced.

What To Do If You Have Cloth Wiring

If you suspect you have cloth wiring in the home the first step is to make sure by contacting a professional to come and examine. That could be a licensed home inspector like Cosmos Inspections or a licensed electrician.

If you do have it our recommendation is to have it replaced with modern wiring. In many cases if you do not have what is called Knob and Tube wiring in the home(an older way of running wires through the walls and attics no longer used) there's a good chance there are only a few circuits that are using the cloth wiring. If that is true, replacing would only cost a few hundred dollars.

If your system is fully Knob and Tube you would likely need to get it all replaced costing in the thousands. Though this could be a major expense for some, replacing knob and tube with cloth wiring to a more modern up to date system is the safest, most efficient way to power your home.

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