Everything You Need to Know About Cloth Wiring

Alison Kasch
Written by Alison Kasch
Updated October 1, 2021
Red Victorian home in peaceful setting
Photo: Anne Kitzman / Adobe Stock

Cloth-covered wiring can cause electrical faults and potentially pose a fire hazard

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If your home is from the 1960s or earlier, there’s a good chance of cloth wiring within its electrical system. Cloth wires have a cloth covering, which isn’t as safe or as durable as modern thermoplastic coatings. Although these wires aren’t always dangerous, replacing them is still a wise investment.

The Basics of Cloth Wiring

Cloth wiring is an older style of wiring that typically has a copper core covered in either cotton or rayon. You'll find it in anywhere from 12 to 22 gauge, and it will often have either paper or rubberized insulation.

Once common for how inexpensive it was, cloth wiring is now outdated and potentially hazardous. If your home’s electrical wiring contains cloth-covered wires, it’s due time to consider a replacement.

Why You Should Consider Replacing Cloth Wire

Cloth wiring may or may not be hazardous—either way, there are several reasons why you should consider replacing it.

Wear and Tear

Cloth wiring isn’t the best in terms of longevity. Over time, it can crack, flake, or become extra brittle. It’s also much more susceptible to damage from insects or rodents. Any wear and tear on the cloth covering can expose the hot wires underneath, creating a serious risk for electrical fires.

Poor Insulation

Cloth doesn’t contain heat anywhere near as well as plastic. This means that cloth wiring can become excessively hot, exposing the surrounding area to this heat. Again, this creates a serious fire hazard in your home’s electrical system.

Knob-and-Tube Wiring

Cloth wiring tends to go with knob-and-tube (K&T) wiring, which new builds no longer permit in the United States. This kind of wiring uses ceramic knobs and tubes to tie and run wires—but this comes with several safety hazards.Most notably, K&T wiring lacks ground conductors and GFCI outlets, both of which prevent power surges and dangerous electrical arcing. Many insurance companies won't cover homes with this type of wiring, and contractors will almost always recommend replacement.

Asbestos

Asbestos, an old building material that is now a recognized carcinogen, might be present in cloth wiring. This is because asbestos-containing paper acts as an extra layer of insulation. As the outer cloth coating deteriorates on old cloth wires, this can release dangerous asbestos particles in the air. Even if you can’t spring for all-new electrical wiring yet, it’s important to have your cloth wires inspected to ensure they’re asbestos-free.

How to Spot Cloth Wiring

Historic home with chandelier over table
Photo: Tony Anderson / DigitalVision / Getty Images

Just because you have an older home doesn’t necessarily mean you have cloth wiring in your system. There’s also a chance that wiring can appear rubberized but still contain an inner layer of cloth insulation. The best way to know for sure is by hiring an electrical inspector near you to perform an evaluation.

Cost to Replace Cloth Wiring

In total, rewiring your home can cost anywhere between $4,800 and $30,000, but this will vary based on the job. Not all cloth wiring will present an immediate hazard, but it’s still important to know what you’re dealing with. Your best bet is to have a local electrician evaluate the situation and provide a custom estimate.

If a complete wire replacement isn’t currently in your budget, you might consider splitting your wiring replacement into several jobs. However, be aware that most electricians charge per call-out, meaning you'll pay another service fee for every visit. Be sure to shop around before you hire; you might be able to have the service fees waived or possibly get a discount if you do your entire home. Either way, it never hurts to ask.

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