Old houses... Oye.


I recently finished installing a new range hood vent in the kitchen and, as should be expected with my old house, the job was bigger and more difficult than originally planned.

So, it should come as no surprise that my latest project, a bathroom upgrade, was nothing short of a debacle, consisting of: more than 2-dozen trips to various hardware and supply stores, a number of unexpected issues that required significant re-engineering on the fly, a damaged mirror, and a light switch that started pouring smoke.

I've come to realize that any project on an old house takes 5-times longer and costs 3-times more than it should. It's just a fact of life with a 120-year old house.

If you'd like to read the entire story, and share (or take delight) in my misery, keep reading. Otherwise, the second paragraph from above essentially sums-up the project, and you can browse the pictures at your leisure.

The back story
The upstairs bathroom was "cute" (as some have described it) as it had a very small pedestal sink, a huge clawfoot tub, painted floors, and a nice 5-panel solid hardwood door.

Pedestal sinks may be nice in a powder room, but they're not that practical, especially when they're in the primary bathroom. They don't afford any space for things like: soap, a tooth brush, or anything other than a faucet. Speaking of which, I had recently replaced the faucet on the pedestal sink, as it wouldn't stop leaking, even though I had rebuilt the cartridges inside of it... that story never made the blog.

Some other "not-so-cute" qualities of the bathroom: lead water supply lines (yep, lead), no lighting over the sink, and a horribly located bathroom light switch (for the overhead fan/light combo) - it was located well-inside of the bathroom, near the toilet (of course).


I figured it was time to do a minor upgrade; I have plans to eventually convert the house into a single-family home, so I didn't want to pour a lot of money into replacing the vanity/sink.

As I shopped around for a replacement vanity and sink, I was shocked to learn how expensive (and generally poorly constructed) the "big box store" vanities were. I couldn't justify spending $500-$800 on a vanity, and purchase a $200 sink and still end-up with something fairly crummy.

My friends, Paul & Sallie, recently remodeled their basement and purchased all of the bathroom hardware, vanity, sink, toilet, shower, etc from IKEA, and it was *awesome* stuff. Yep, IKEA.

My renter's kitchen was from IKEA, and I have to admit, it's anything but high quality. So, when I found out their bathroom stuff came from IKEA, I couldn't believe it. But, apparently, the Scandinavians have improved their quality quite a bit over the past 10-years, so I drove down to Chicago and sourced a new vanity, sink, and faucet. All for under $400. Score!

I planned to: remove the lead water piping, remove and replace the vanity, and install a new light over the sink. I figured the work would take about a full day, maximum.


I started first thing in the morning, by removing the old pedestal sink. And that's when I realized my first challenge: the heating vent.

For some unknown reason, the upstairs portion of my house has a total of three (3) heating vents, one of which is positioned directly behind the sink. I now knew why there was a pedestal sink... anything larger would block 1/3 of the upstairs heating system.

Ugh. Making matters worse, the 100+ year old vent was rather, um, "robust" in that it consisted of not one, but two, layers of very heavy gauge steel, with a layer of some type of insulation (most likely asbestos) sandwiched in between them. Double ugh...

After much cursing, I devised a plan. The new vanity was designed to hang (or float) on the wall. So, I could install it at a height that would allow me to cut an outlet in the existing vent, just lower in the wall, so that the air would come out at the baseboard level, rather than 18" higher on the wall.

"Steve, you're a genius," I said to myself, as I began removing the old vent cover (which was very cool) and plotting my next moves.


And that's when the fun officially began. That robust venting? Yeah. It ruined four (4) $25 carbide-tipped multi-tool blades. That's how strong the stuff was. Tin snips didn't even put a dent in the metal... I'm guessing that metal could probably stop a bullet... After fighting the ducting for more than 2-hours, I had successfully cut a 12" wide by 6" wide vent opening in the baseboard and ducting. Woohoo.

Next up: trying to block off the old "upper" portion of the vent, so the hot air would actually escape through the baseboard. After trying to engineer several fixes, I settled on using 2" thick foam to fill the void between the baseboard and the old vent location, and then cutting the old ducting to block off the space above the baseboard, and sealing it with silicone and HVAC tape. It worked out nicely.

Up next, it was time to remove the lead supply lines and replace them with 3/4" PEX. I pulled PEX from the basement, using a "chase" that existed near that heating vent. Again, this only had to be a fairly temporary run, because when the time comes to remodel the entire house, I'll knock out the walls, get rid of the plaster-and-lathe, and run the plumbing supply lines in a more permanent manner.

The PEX pulled rather easily; minimal issues/problems. I used Sharkbite connectors and some super heavy-duty clips to hold the PEX in place. I removed 70-pounds of lead pipe and made cleaner, more direct connections with the PEX to copper in the basement.

Here you can see the 3/4" supply line coming through the chase, along with the original vent opening for the heat, the original locations of an outlet and light switch, and some of the original, exposed lead pipe.


After getting the PEX in place, I went into the attic and dropped new wiring for a light over the vanity, as well as wiring to support the relocation of the old light switch to a spot near the door. I stupidly (you'll see why later) re-used the gang box from the old light switch when I relocated it to the door opening, and called it a day, as that work more-or-less ate-up Saturday.

I had made several unexpected trips to hardware stores and fought like the dickens with that heating vent.

Flea was not very happy with all of this remodeling business, as I converted the living room into my staging and work room... I had to move her food/water dishes into the living room, and I stole all of her much-beloved couch space. The living room was looking like a disaster area, and she was none-too-pleased.


With things "roughed-in" from Saturday, I was able to start mocking-up the new vanity. Next problem? Dealing with the plaster-and-lathe and trying to mount a heavy vanity and an-even-heavier sink. I found one stud that was in about the perfect position, but had to improvise a bit with the other side...


While I wasn't able to use the brackets as supplied, I did install a cross brace and used it to secure the vanity to the wall's other stud. My genius-skills continued to grow.

Once I knew where the vanity would reside, I was able to cover the old vent opening with some 1/4" cabinet-grade plywood (and seal it with silicone and insulation), and rough-mount the new sink supply lines (1/2" PEX with Sharkbite valves).

I also ran new PEX to the toilet and to the shower, thus eradicating all sources of lead from the house. I decided to mount the PEX along the baseboard, in the same location as the original lead plumbing. Again - I did this only because this solution only has to remain in place for a few years.


With the plumbing essentially done, I was able to focus on patching holes from the old light switch, repairing various old gaps and dings, and painting the walls and baseboards. I also roughed-in the vanity light box and mocked-up my drain for the new sink.

And that was the next problem: my bathroom has a floor drain, rather than a standard wall drain, and that necessitated several trips to the plumbing supply store before finding a solution that would work without interfering with the vanity drawers.


I ran out of time on Sunday to wrap things up; paint was still wet, the drain wasn't connected, the electrical work was only roughed-in, and the sink and vanity weren't permanently mounted. The work would carry into the following week. Yay.

I spent most of Monday night doing cosmetic work... more painting and filling of holes/dings. This took much longer than expected.

I mounted the vanity light, installed my LED lights, and realized that the LED bulbs were *insanely* bright and would need a dimmer switch.

Unfortunately (if you'll recall from earlier), I had cut and mounted a single-gang box for the light switch. A single-gang box can hold one (1) light switch, and I really needed two switches: a dimmer switch for the vanity light, and a toggle switch for the bathroom fan/light combo.

After much consulting and research, I found just what I thought I needed. A Lutron duplex switch, with a dimmer on the top and a toggle on the bottom. Perfect! Only problem? It cost $55, and was the only option for my situation... I ordered it and had it over-nighted.

The $55 light switch arrived, and I promptly installed it, only to discover that it wasn't fully LED compatible... the switch "leaked" electricity, so the LED bulbs would stay on, ever so dimly, even when in the "off" position. ARGH. "Well, looks like I've got a built-in night light," I reasoned.

In addition to installing the switch, I set about finding a mirror that would work in the space above the sink. I wanted to get rid of the tiny mirror I previously had and fit something bigger, but not too obnoxious.

I went to: Menards, Bed Bath & Beyond, Cost Plus World Market, Home Depot, and scoured the internet, all in vain. I couldn't find the right-sized mirror anywhere. During a last-ditch shopping attempt, I stumbled across one single mirror at Home Depot that looked like it would work. Problem? It was insanely expensive. But, I bit the bullet and purchased it. I was extremely pleased to learn (by way of the mirror's packaging) that it included "all mounting hardware."

That said, I knew I'd need special wall hooks, because with plaster-and-lathe, you can't simply pound in a drywall anchor and call it good. Oh how I loathe that lathe... I purchased a set of special "OOK" hooks designed for plaster-and-lathe and headed home to mount the mirror.

When I opened the mirror, I discovered the "mounting hardware" was configured so that the mirror would *only* hang in a "landscape" (horizontal) orientation. Ugh. Being the genius that I am, I quickly decided to re-position one of the mounting parts to the "top" of the mirror, thus allowing the mirror to hang in "portrait" (vertical) orientation.

As soon as I relocated the mounting bracket to the top of the mirror, I heard a "pop" and noticed the screw just started spinning in place. I flipped the mirror over and the screw had somehow popped-out through the front of the mirror trim.

Upon closer inspection, the trim around the mirror was tapered, so the edge that was now the "top" of the mirror was thinner (just barely) than the original mounting location.

"No problem," I declared, "I'll just throw some caulk in that hole and no one will be any the wiser." So, I did just that, it looked great, and I moved on to mounting the OOK hooks.

Hook #1 installed without any issue. Hook #2 presented yet another problem. I went to pound one of the special OOK nails in through the hook, and when I did, the nail immediately folded in half. I grabbed the second nail and tried to pound it in - it folded in half again. And, it was past closing time at the hardware store, so... the project would push into Thursday.

First thing in the morning, I went to the hardware store and bought some replacement OOK nails. I got home and tried one more time to pound the nail into Hook #2. And, guess what happened? Yep, the nail folded in half.

I took Hook #2 off the wall (it had special adhesive in addition to the nails) and inspected the nail holes. They were sealed shut. The factory had never drilled them through.

A minute later with the drill, Hook #2 was on the wall, and the mirror was hung in place. I went to wipe-down the vanity and sink so that I could photograph my hand work, and that's when the next problem occurred: the mirror fell off the wall.

Luckily, the mirror glass didn't break, but... the mounting hardware did. There was a hinge-pin that had sheared itself in half, and the mirror fell off the wall.

As I was inspecting the mirror and hinge, my LED lights (which were in "nightlight" mode) turned completely off, and the bathroom fan/light turned itself on.

I looked over at the wall switch and immediately smelled burning ozone/plastic and saw a steady stream of white smoke pouring from the wall plate.

I quite honestly almost picked up Flea and walked outside to let the house burn to the ground...

Instead, I went downstairs, turned-off the breaker, and removed the switch. It turns out the $55 switch was not compatible with LED lights. I tried to search (in vain) for an alternative solution, but I eventually had to remove the single gang box and install a double-gang box so that I could have a dedicated, LED-compatible dimmer for the vanity light, and a dedicated toggle switch for the fan/light.

After all of that, the bathroom was officially finished on Friday afternoon.


Don't you wish you had an old house with character and charm?

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Steve published on March 15, 2016 6:38 AM.

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