CAROLYN'S BLOG ABOUT THE HOUSE CONSTRUCTION
AND THE YEARS BEYOND
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Sun, Mar 27
8:00 am

Electric Wiring in a Straw Bale House: I am asked fairly often how we got the electric wires through the straw bale walls. Normally, electricians drill holes in the 2x4's that support the walls and run the wires through them. Obviously, you can't do that with a straw bale wall. Boy does a house take a lot of electrical wiring, too! I was astounded at how many wires I had to run in this small house. Take a look around your house now and look at every light, switch, outlet and anything else running on electricity in the area around you. Figure that each one of those items has a wire running all the way from it to your circuit breaker, wherever that may be. It adds up to many, many feet of wire.

I remember the day we turned on the current in the house and it was almost like blood flowing through a human body - life. The house wasn't just a shell of walls and roof any longer, it could power lights, computers, a toaster . . . very exciting. I had no solar panels, by the way. If you have read the book, you know I was on a very tight budget. I'm still waiting for the cost to come down. But my house uses very little electricity. I have low-watt light bulbs everywhere. I have my electronics plugged into power cords and I turn them off when I am not using them. I have no dishwasher and actually no clothes washer now. It's just me and I wash my clothes by hand, then hang them to dry. I grew up in an era with no dishwashers. We would gather in the kitchen after dinner and chat while we washed and dried. It was nice. I wash my clothes on Sundays - a day I reserve for myself with absolutely no outside pressures. Hanging clothes is a pleasant ritual, also. In the summer, it's often 100 degrees and windy here. The clothes are dry in about half an hour.

Here is a photo of the electric circuit breaker box outside my front door. It has to be somewhere near the driveway, so the electric company can come read the meter. We framed a cabinet around the circuit breakers, so I can get to them easily if needed and also to hide this thing. I painted it the same color as the rest of the house.

 

Electricity is nothing to do haphazardly or without full knowledge of what you are doing, so this is where you pull in your consultant. You can't possibly be building a house without a building professional to guide you through it! First, be sure he guides you through all the circuit breakers you need to purchase - or purchases them for you. Make a diagram of what wire will run where. It is not rocket science to run a wire from Point A to Point B when there is no current in the wire, so you can save hours of labor by doing this, as long as you are careful to do exactly what you are told. You will probably be using Romex wire and that is copper wire coated with plastic. Each little wire inside the romex is coated, also, to separate them. It is very, very important that you do nothing to compromise the plastic coating in the wire. Don't run staples or nails through it. There are special staples with plastic liners to use for securing electric wire. Be sure your builder tells you what size wire to use for each circuit - it's very important that the size of the wire correspond to its electrical purpose and to the size of the circuit breaker to which it will be attached.

Important!: label both ends of each wire!!! We numbered them and then had a chart of which number went to which outlet or appliance. It is very important when you connect up the circuit breakers, to be accurate in knowing which item will be turned on and off with that circuit breaker and boy can it get confusing when you have a mountain of wires heading into a breaker box! I think I had about 30 circuits in this very small house. I cannot even imagine what it's like to wire a huge house.

Now that I have said that, here is what we did. Jon Ruez was my consultant and he guided me carefully through all this. If an electric wire had to go through a straw bale wall vertically, we took the back of a hammer and made a trench in the wall for the wire, Your building code probably requires that wires have to be a couple inches into the wall, so we made the trench deep enough for code. Then I bought a roll of #7 fence wire and used big wire cutters to cut it into foot-long pieces. I bent each piece over the end of a saw horse into a large U-shaped staple, I used that staple to secure the wire into the back of the trench. One word of caution: code requires electric wires to be a couple inches into a wall so that your picture nails don't hit the wires. In a straw bale house, you may use 6" nails to hang pictures. The good news is that those nails are very dull. So, if you are pounding a 6" nail into your wall and it hits some resistance, stop. Move the nail. It would be good to keep the diagram of where your wires are in your walls and pass it along, if you sell the house.

Here is a photo of the wall by a window with paint marker for a switch box. Sitting in the window sill is a stake we made from a 2x4. In every area that needed a switch or outlet box, we first dug an area to fit the box using the back of a hammer or pliers, then we pounded the wooden stake into the back of that indented area until the butt of the stake was flush with the straw. Then, we screwed the box to the end of the stake.

If your electric wire needs to go horizontally through a straw bale wall, you can get a dull wooden wedge (very important that it is dull and wooden, not metal) and you can use that to push the wire between the bales. Again, be sure that you push it in deep enough for code. The bale will hold it very securely. In other areas and if you are not comfortable running your wires through straw, you can run them all up to the top plate, above the straw, and get around the house that way. You can also run them across the ceiling. Code will tell you how to secure the wire to the trusses or top plate. You will still need to run the wire down the wall vertically, because your outlets won't be up at the ceiling. If you don't like that, either, you can put conduit in those wire trenches and run your wires down through the conduit. This would make it more work and more expensive, but easier if you ever need to pull the wire back out for some reason. If it makes you sleep better because you have some protection between your wires and the straw, then by all means, do it!

I was never good at calculating electric current, wire size and breaker size. I still am not. So, I ran the wires under Jon's guidance and inspection. I then borrowed his tools to "dress" the boxes. This is where you run the wires into the back of the electric switch boxes and then remove the plastic romex from the end of them with special tools, so you don't damage the wire. You cap the end of the wires and this gets inspected. (It's one of my 23 inspections - electric intermediate). After that was done, I had Jon connect the wires to the circuit breakers. He showed me how to connect them to the actual outlets or switches and I got pretty good at it, but you might let an electrician do that part. When you turn on the current, you want everything to be perfect!

If you have other questions - send me an email - strawlady@comcast.net.

Keep it Simple - and be kind!
Carolyn