Using Your Crystal Ball - Future Proofing Your Build or Renovation

Electrician installing electrical outlet

There is no doubt there is at least one time each and every one of us has said something to the effect that I wish I had a receptacle here, or perhaps something like I did not plan on putting a welder in my shop at the time.  We all have been in the situation where we need to run extension cords to power our outdoor lights for a holiday, we received a new tool but don't have the power to run it or we even had to dig up the yard again to get something to a flower bed or new patio location.

One of the things that your Electrical Contractor (EC) should be talking to you about is the future plans and use of the space.  You will hear many people talk about the "minimum code"; which seems to be more of buzz phrase that implies inferior work, in electrical trade what that really means is the minimum that is required by the Canadian Electrical Code (CEC) and has nothing to do with the quality of the installation.  There is nothing stopping you and your EC from adding more to the requirements of the code to meet your future needs.  While there is a cost to do this, the cost of doing it during the renovation or build is far less than doing it several years down the road where it is possible that you will end up removing some of your new renovation work to facilitate the new requirement.

When you are talking to your EC, ask some of the following questions:

When deciding where to put receptacles, CATV, data, telephone, etc; what is the planned furniture configurations for that space based on the season?  There is a code requirement on the minimum number of devices and switches you have to install, but there is nothing stopping you from adding more; especially where you are planning on putting the entertainment centre or computer equipment.

When deciding where to put receptacles or how to control lights, what sort of decorations, wall art or atmosphere do you want to have and how does it change from season to season?  Do you have a lighted cabinet, an illuminated wreath or a family painting you want to accent?

On the exterior, if you have planned flower beds, gazebo, sheds, etc; how are you going to get power or speakers, etc to those locations?  In addition I always recommend putting in two oversized conduits so you don't have to dig up the yard again.  Don't forget about things like powered lawn tools, block heaters or other things you needs regularly.  Lighting requirements for security will change as plants and trees grow and should be considered well in advance.

You are building a new garage or shop; what services do you need or want out there?  Conduit is an inexpensive way to get several services to the garage without repeatedly digging up the ground over and over.  Oversize the power conduit to at least 11/4" or even 2"; even if you are going to put 30 amps out there, the price difference for the conduit is minimal and gives you plenty of options for the future and the cost to install is pretty much the same.

While WiFi and cordless is fairly common, there still needs to be wire to create the WiFi zone and usually power for the device.  So installing data drops and telephone drops around the home is a good idea so you can install the access points for WiFi or actually hardwire some of your devices that take more bandwidth.  In addition, there are many people that are now putting access points in and around their yards and pools for things like wireless TV, portable devices and security systems.

Controlling lights is another question to ask yourself.  How do you enter and exit the spaces as well what is there intended or future use?  While the code here is vague, there are a few specifics that must be met such as stairways and entrances.  But the question might be, do you want to walk to the garage to turn on and off the light on the side of the garage?  Do you want to automate the exterior lights with a timer or dimming function?  How does the exterior light support the landscaping while maintaining a good level of security and safety?

Many of these types of questions can be asked well in advance of any drywall or paint going up.  For the EC it is important to know what these future plans are so they can fully accommodate the specifics of the project.

While I have been focusing on the interior electrical and other wiring, there is also the issue of service capacity.  There are few instances in today's new homes and small businesses where nothing less than a 100 amp service is required and most insurance companies demand a minimum 100 amp service as part of the coverage.  One of the most overlooked portions of the renovation or build is panel capacity.  Without getting into the technical details of how it is all calculated, there is a difference between service capacity and panel capacity.  When we talk about panel capacity we are talking about the number of circuits your panel can accommodate.  Many panels can be twined or doubled up using mini breakers, however the difference in most cases between a 32 / 64 circuit and 40 / 80 circuit panel is around $50 (2014).  That is far less than the cost of a panel change several years down the road simply because you and EC did not plan for the future and consider the limited panel capacity.

A similar discussion should be had with the EC about the service size.  As mentioned a vast majority of services are 100 amps, but consider the cost difference between 100 and 200 amps; the labour and permit costs are essentially the same and there is minimal difference in the material price.  In addition there are larger options for panel capacity for the 200 amp panels.

There are a few other areas to consider during your build or renovation that should also be discussed with your EC.  One that I always recommend to my clients is putting each bathroom on their own circuit.  While there is an added cost, this helps to eliminate the issue of high powered appliances such as hairdryers and curling irons tripping the breakers.  Another topic I like to consider with my client is the separation of lights from the receptacles.  The last thing I want to be doing is fumbling around in the dark looking for a tripped breaker; generally a breaker only trips when something is plugged into a receptacle.  Finally I generally like to recommend putting a couple spare circuits in the attic to be used at a later date as we will inevitably forget something.

It is impossible to accurately consider 100% of the situations you may encounter in the future; it is also fair to say that even the items that you considered may be low cost now, it is still money that was not budgeted for and perhaps can't be spent.  So why it may appear that your EC is trying to "up sell" you on things you may not need or did not consider, your EC just may be trying to assist you in to looking into the future a bit to save money in the long run.  So one of the first things you need to do before your next renovation or build is get a receptacle for that crystal ball, plug it in and start looking into the future.

About the Author

John Kuehnl-Cadwell is a Master Electrician and an owner of Datawise Solutions Inc., an electrical contracting company located in Ontario. He has been licenced as a Journeyman Electrician since 1992.

Posted by: John Kuehnl-Cadwell
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