Wire Pulling In Walls Ceilings

Wire Pulling Tools and Tips

Dear Mr. Electrician:  How do I do wire pulling in walls ceilings?   Can I use a metal coat hanger for wire pulling?

Answer:  There are a few methods and tools available for wire pulling in walls ceilings.  How to pull wire depends on the wall or ceiling construction and the tools that are available at the moment.  NOTE: Some text links below go to applicable products on Amazon and EBay.

WIRE PULLING IN WALLS CEILINGS

My experiences with using metal wire coat hangers to fish wires through walls and ceilings have not been very good.  The steel wire used to manufacture coat hangers is a soft mild metal that bends easily.  When a coat hanger wire is pushed into a wall it becomes distorted and is not very controllable as to direction.

However I do keep some pieces of metal wire hanger on my truck.  I use them for hooking things and for probing inside of a wall or ceiling.  More about coat hangers is down at the bottom of this post.  A picture of my homemade tool from a coat hanger is below.

A wire coat hanger, cut and bent into a double L shape, used for probing through a small hole in ceilings and walls
A wire coat hanger, cut and bent into a double L shape, used for probing through a small hole in ceilings and walls

For working at home where you probably will not be installing long runs of electrical conduit, a twenty five foot fish tape would be adequate for your wire fishing jobs.  I recommend at least an 1/8″ x .060″ size fish tape.

In my inventory of tools I have several short pieces of fish tape of varying lengths from one foot to around eight feet.  They were all broken off of much longer fish tapes after getting bent or twisted the wrong way.

Short pieces of metal wire pulling fish tape
Short pieces of metal wire pulling fish tape

A metal Fish Tape is made of hardened steel with some flexibility built in.  It is mostly rigid, but can be bent slightly to get around obstacles.  It is excellent for fishing wires in walls and pulling wires through conduit.  If the hook breaks, you can heat the metal up and bend a new one.

A metal fish tape is used here to pull a wire through from the ceiling down into the wall.
A metal fish tape is used here to pull a wire through from the ceiling down into the wall.

The sloped ceiling in the photo above made it easy for me to push my fish tape up into the attic.  There was a space between the top plate of the wall and the ceiling joists big enough to put my hand through.

Once the wire was pulled in it was simple to push it through a drilled hole in the top plate and then fish it down the wall to a new switch box.

When I began working on electrical jobs in the early 1960’s the metal fish tapes available at the time were either loose or on a rigid metal reel.  The loose fish tapes were usually coiled into a short piece of flexible metal conduit.

An old style metal fish tape reel with a hand winder attached
An old style metal fish tape reel with a hand winder attached

I would cringe whenever I had to wind the fish tape back onto one of those old metal reels.  My hands would hurt from trying to pull it into the tight metal grooves.  Eventually an attachment winder was made to make the process easier.  I was in wire pulling heaven after my father bought a new plastic reel to wind the fish tape on.  So much easier.

A new Klein fish tape on a heavy duty plastic reel
A new Klein fish tape on a heavy duty plastic reel

WIRE PULLING FISH RODS

There are also Fiberglass Rods made for pulling wires through walls and ceilings.  These are available in different lengths and thicknesses and are excellent for pushing through insulated walls.  They don’t flex as much as a fish tape which is good if you are pushing it across an attic.

Assorted wire pulling fish rods with various wire pulling attachments
Assorted wire pulling fish rods with various wire pulling attachments

Wire pulling rods come in at least three different diameters depending on the manufacturer.  5/32″, 3/16″, 1/4′. The smallest diameter is extremely flexible and the largest diameter is slightly rigid.  I tend to use the 3/16″ the most as it has a combination of flexibility and rigidity that is good for fishing up and down walls with insulation.

Fiberglass rod pulling a 14/3 Romex cable across attic insulation
Fiberglass rod pulling a 14/3 Romex cable across attic insulation

Fiberglass rods come with some accessory screw-in tips for different applications.  At least one company makes additional accessories for attaching to rods.  I have found them to be helpful in different situations.  One accessory is a hook that is great for grapping wire across a suspended ceiling or an attic.

In the photo below you can see that I added a piece of number 12 copper solid wire looped on the end of one pull rod.  I used that when I had multiple wires to pull.

Wire pulling rod accessory screw-in tips
Wire pulling rod accessory screw-in tips
A quarter inch wide heavy duty fish tape for wire pulling
A quarter inch wide heavy duty fish tape for wire pulling

Above is a short piece of 1/4″ wide metal fish tape.  It used to be much longer.  I used the 1/4″ fish tape when snaking across long distances or up  inside insulated walls.

Since I started using the fiberglass rods I haven’t used the 1/4″ fish tape as much.  The rods have more control over long distances, especially the 1/4″ fiberglass wire pulling rods.

HOW I USE A WIRE COAT HANGER WHEN PULLING WIRE

I do keep a piece or two of coat hanger wire in my truck.  One piece is about a foot long and bent into an L shape at each end.  One bent end extends approximately 3.5″ and the other end extends approximately 2.5″.

Before I cut a hole in a wall or ceiling I will make a small hole (Approximately 1/4″), with an Awl or long thin screwdriver, into the center of the hole to be cut.  First I insert a long thin screwdriver or a short piece of fish tape straight into the hole to probe for obstacles.

If I detect no obstructions I will insert the screwdriver or fish tape at a sharp angle in four different directions to feel for pipes, ducts, wood, wires or anything else that might inhibit the installation of something into the wall or ceiling.

A screwdriver inserted into a starter hole for a ceiling light probing for obstructions
A screwdriver inserted into a starter hole for a ceiling light probing for obstructions

Amazon Sells Wire Pulling Gear

My final step before cutting the hole is to insert the L shaped coat hanger into the wall or ceiling.  I push the coat hanger in and out while rotating to sense for obstructions.

I find that the coat hanger is particularly useful to detect anything that is up against the backside of the wallboard.  It is the best way that I have found to determine if Resilient Channel has been used to reduce sound transmission.

Because the Resilient Channel is against the backside of the wallboard it is difficult to detect when inserting a straight probe such as a screwdriver.  If there is insulation in the wall or ceiling you may find that it will inhibit the coat hanger and also cause it to bend as you push it in.

I have also found it helpful to use a metal wire coat hanger to hook onto things inside of a wall or ceiling.  Sometimes I push my fish tape down a wall and it is just beyond my reach.

A metal coat hanger with a hook on the end is pretty good at reaching inside of a wall to grab behind a wire or fish tape or even a fiberglass rod.

A short piece of number 12 copper wire for fishing and hooking wires
A short piece of number 12 copper wire for fishing and hooking wires.

I also keep a short piece of number 12 solid copper wire handy for fishing through short difficult openings and for hooking wires and fish tapes in the wall.

14/3 Romex cable pulled through hole in ceiling
14/3 Romex cable pulled through hole in ceiling

A metal wire coat hanger is a good tool to keep in your tool box along with your other tools for pulling wires.

Click the link to see how I had to fish some wires when I added a dimmer and light fixture.