Analog Corner #315: The Electrical Cure

A 50-year-old corroded meter box with aluminum wire.

Rex Hungerford, Edward DeVito, and Craig Bradley rode into town last week and, together with Audioquest’s Garth Powell, solved all the electrical problems that have plagued my audio system for years.

Garth Powell, a name familiar to many Stereophile readers, is AudioQuest’s electricity guru and designer of the Niagara series of power conditioners; he is also responsible for the company’s line of AC and signal cables. Bradley is a local electrician and audio enthusiast who has done electrical work for me in the past, including replacing dedicated lines—one for the low-power signal components and another for the amplifiers—with a single line, hoping that might solve years of annoying ground hum and other noise issues. You’d think the ground potential would be almost nothing between two sets of adjacent AC jacks on the same circuit, but the ground potential between the jacks remained unusually high, and the hum wasn’t gone.

I had tried many times to troubleshoot and fix my ground-loop problem; once, I even sought help from a highly regarded New York City studio-tech wizard. But I had put the problem on hold until, for reasons unrelated to audio performance, I installed a backup generator (footnote 1). The transfer switch inserted in the line damaged the sound to the point where reviewing audio equipment would have been impossible. It was, as Powell described it, the “straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Two PS Audio Power Plant AC regenerators got me through, a P15 and a P20—many thanks to PS Audio for the loan. But the regenerators merely masked the problem; I needed a “ground up” solution, no pun intended.

Last winter, Hungerford and DeVito emailed me, having read about my electricity issues in those previous columns. They offered to fly in from their Seattle-area home base to investigate.

Hungerford is a master electrician, licensed in Washington state. DeVito owns commercial fishery businesses in Alaska and Maine and is also a high-performance audio dealer, specializing in power-related products including his own Audio-Ultra Performance Series Power Distribution box. Both are avid audiophiles. Both are obsessed with electrical infrastructure quality, and they’re eager to spread the electrical-upgrade gospel.

While the two collaborated on my project and may occasionally work together again (“sort of like Mick and Keith,” DeVito joked), they later told me that they’ve started operating independently; see footnote 2 for their contact information.

By the time Hungerford and DeVito emailed, I’d already arranged with my auxiliary generator contractor to bypass the transfer switch with a direct line from the meter box to a new, dedicated subpanel in the utility room adjacent to my listening space. This setup would bypass the transfer switch and the rest of my home’s wiring. A win-win, I thought.

During that dead-of-winter visit, Hungerford inspected the property and examined the house’s electrical infrastructure inside and outside, starting on my roof where the Rockland Electric line from the transformer across the street connects to the mast running down the side of the house into the recently installed, Wi-Fi–enabled “smart” electrical meter. “The wires are rubbing on the roof,” he shouted down from the ladder. “That’s not good!” A subsequent inspection indicated no apparent wear.

The meter was new, but everything else out there was old. Hungerford removed the meter box cover and pointed out the heavily corroded aluminum mast wires and corroded clamps to which they were attached nearly 50 years ago when the house was built (for a family named Kuzma; probably related, Franc commented in an email). The old-style meter box clamp had a single ridged contact point. “All of the electricity in your home first goes through that corroded clamp’s tiny ridge,” Hungerford said, adding “You don’t think you hear that?” He also pointed out uncovered outdoor AC receptacles that he said probably “sparked” when wet; that, too, would produce line noise.

Hungerford inspected the auxiliary generator system contractor’s work and declared it very well done, which is what I thought he’d find, since the same people replaced our heating and air conditioning systems a decade earlier and did excellent work. “Of course, it meets code and is a very nice job, but code isn’t sufficient for what we are after,” Hungerford said, precisely mirroring something Powell had told me earlier.

“What are we after?” I asked sheepishly. Well, I could try this: Both Hungerford and DeVito suggested getting Rockland Electric, my power company, to replace the pole-mounted transformer across the street, which serves my home and about a half-dozen others, with a heavy-duty one that I would pay for. DeVito said he’d convinced his power company to do that, but since mine had been replaced within the past decade—and because success seemed like a longshot—I decided not to approach Rockland with a transformer-replacement request.


New meter box minus new copper wire, below which is the new main breaker box.

With that idea nixed, Hungerford lit up and laid it all out, starting with a full copper wire strike (mast) replacement to a new meter box (footnote 3). He pointed out the sloppy ground connections, including crimped-wire connections that combined aluminum and copper—a definite no-no, he said. He noted several small, close-to-the-foundation ground rods, which he also didn’t like seeing. When he was finished laying out the plan’s general contours and a few obsessive specifics, I said to him and DeVito “If I call my contractor, who provided a meticulous and carefully considered plan based on NJ electrical code, and lay this all out to him, I can tell you what his response will be. He’ll say, ‘Are you f*ckin’ kiddin’ me? I ain’t doin’ that!'” I ran all of this by Garth Powell. He was impressed and had a few other ideas. He asked me to connect him with Hungerford.

Hungerford’s energy and passion for the subject reminded me of Powell’s. They were on the same page. For two days, electricity was all Hungerford wanted to talk about. Get Powell started, and he could only do likewise. When I tried to change the subject—to learn, at one point, what else fired Hungerford’s passion—the conversation snapped immediately back to the grid or grounding or electricity-based war stories. Fortunately for me, I love obsessed people. Go figure.

I was a little bit concerned about the two of them working as a team. I expected one of two outcomes. Either Hungerford and Powell would get along well, and Hungerford would incorporate some of Powell’s ideas for an even better result, or a high-voltage feud would ensue accompanied by a thermonuclear mind-meld explosion.

They got along well.

Powell provided Hungerford with some ideas that he—Hungerford—liked a great deal. Hungerford gave Powell the benefit of his in-the-field experience, which helped produce a more practical game plan.

A few days after Hungerford and DeVito flew home, I submitted a conceptual version of the new plans to the contracting company Air Group.

I got a phone call from the head of the electrical department, with whom I’d dealt more than a few times over the years. We were on friendly terms. After reviewing the plans, he replied, and I quote: “You f*ckin’ kiddin’ me? We ain’t doing that!”

Bradley, though, was definitely up for it, and his involvement was consistent with how Hungerford and DeVito are used to doing business. After plans are drawn up, the customer hires a licensed electrician to do the work, with Hungerford or DeVito (or a member of DeVito’s team) supervising.

On April 1, Hungerford sent a superdetailed plan for bypassing the transfer switch that included replacing the existing electrical service with a new copper mast running from the utility strike on the roof to the new meter distribution box.


The new indoor utility room subpanel.

A new 3R panel (footnote 4) mounted directly below the meter box would become the house’s new main distribution panel, feeding both the original 200A main distribution panel in my office and a subpanel installed in the utility room a decade ago when we renovated the kitchen. Both of those panels would now become subpanels.

A new copper feeder branch would be run in a PVC conduit across the side of the house from the 3R box into the utility room, to a new subpanel holding four 20A branch circuits dedicated solely to the audio system (footnote 5). In other words, the new feeder branch would service only the audio system and completely bypass the noise-producing home electrical infrastructure including the air conditioner, the pool pump, the heating and hot water system, internet, and cable TV. Of course it would also bypass the transfer switch and generator system, the original goal.

Footnote 1: In Analog Corner #307, I wrote, “After years of frequent power outages due to wind and snowstorms, we decided we were done with losing power and that gasoline-powered generators were a royal pain in heavy snow. We—my wife and I—bit the bullet and ordered a 22kW natural gas–powered generator. A few days ago, the workers arrived to install it.” For more of the story, see AnalogCorner #308.

Footnote 2: Rex Hungerford: Web: Ed DeVito: Web: AudioQuest: Web: Bradley Electric Inc. (for NJ residents only)

Footnote 3: The following description is provided for guidance only. All electrical work described herein was done to code by a licensed electrician.

Footnote 4: The “3R” designation indicates that the enclosure has been certified by the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) to provide protection for wiring and junction boxes against falling rain, sleet, snow, and external ice formation outdoors but that it does not have a gasketed seal.

Footnote 5: There are now two panels in my utility room. The new one services only my hi-fi system and the home theater system upstairs.

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