Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Let There Be Light…

We’ve only lived at this house for 18 months or so, and since we had the patio cover installed about a month after we moved in, I’ve wanted to upgrade the lights on the patio from the one feeble 60-watt bulb encased in the stock three-dollar fixture that track houses always include to a system that would actually cast some practical light down on the patio for when the sun goes down.

I’ve mentioned this before, but electricity has always been, for me, a source of shocking discovery, namely that I have a difficult time understanding the concepts of the wires, where they go, what they’re for, and any time I pull apart a light fixture or a wall switch, I’m dumbfounded by the mass of wires. I suppose it is a simple proposition and I can imagine that logically all of the wires have very clear purposes, but I don’t get it. I have had a couple of books about home repair and basic wiring, but every time I refer to them about a problem or project I’m currently overwhelmed with, the examples in the books don’t remotely resemble my situation, rendering them useless.

I know that black is hot, white is the return and copper/green is ground, but have you ever looked at a light switch when the wires aren’t attached? There’s no clue on it as to which post each wire is supposed to attached, and forget it if it is a three-point switch.

I pride myself on my DIY abilities. I might not be good at carpentry or welding or engine repair, but at least I give it a shot… it sure beats paying a professional for the same work and maybe my fixes involve a lot of duct tape and bailing wire, at least it works again. However, this time, working with electricity, I decided to call in a professional, as I had a few things I wanted done, the lights on the patio, a plug in the back corner of the yard (on the hill) and 220 in the garage for my comatose compressor. I met up with an old neighbor at Target one day (who is an electrician but won’t do work for people he knows, for whatever reason) and he gave me the number of a fellow electrician who was spending a few post-divorce weeks sacked out on his couch and could use the business, promising to give me a good deal. Thinking that was my most economical option, I had him over for an estimate. Well, for the three things I mentioned above, the estimate was $2900. Thank you for stopping by; I’m happy I could help you exorcise your math skills with big numbers. That’s slightly out of my price range.

I figured I could do better. How hard could it be? I went to college. I can grasp new concepts. I could do it myself for a fraction of the cost. Or could I? Four months of thought rolls by.

I had had enough.

I decided that I was tired of bringing a flashlight to the barbeque and I hated the inconvenience of having to set up some temporary lights if we wanted to eat outside on a hot summer night (which is nearly 300 days a year around here). After all, I have only been contemplating this project for over a year now, and I have visited the electrical aisles at Home Depot and Lowe’s every time I went there, weighing my options, considering the possibilities and formulating a plan. I felt ready.

Well, the first step to walking is to have faith that the ground will still be there when your foot comes down, and last weekend was the day to give it a shot. While the kids were playing in the sandbox (and Matthew was alternating between playing in Elsa’s food bowl to rinsing his hands in her water bowl), I measured all of the particulars and drew up the plans—half the fun is drawing up the plans and making the list of needed items. My arrangement consisted of replacing the existing 60-watt light near the backdoor with two 150-watt halogen flood lights on the other side of the patio cover, one in each corner that would reflect light up on the white cover so they would disperse light evenly all over the patio. In addition, I wanted to add a 300-watt flood light to light up the backyard so the kids can play after dark. For that, I had planned to add another switch inside, which meant that I would have to cut the drywall, an anxious proposition; once the drywall is cut, a significant level of commitment has been reached. There would be no going back after that.

The worst case scenario is that I would have to call in an electrician, hand him my manhood and admit that I’m a white collar guy in a blue collar world and that I don’t know a screwdriver from a glass of vodka and orange juice.

On the other hand, I don’t know whether I can do something or not until I start to do it. After all, it isn’t brain surgery or rocket science… just 30-feet of wire, three connections and three light fixtures and a new light switch. What could possibly go wrong?

I spent $128 on all of the stuff I needed, and already I was feeling good about it by saving a ton of money (the breakdown by the electrician was $900 for the three lights on the patio). I started a couple of days before the weekend by painting the conduit white so it would blend into the patio cover (which, I didn’t notice until I put them up, is off-white—oh bother), and then I removed the old light, ceremoniously chucking it into the trashcan.

Everything went up much easier than I expected, but I altered my plans significantly. After realizing that the circuit controlling the outside light is the same one that controls everything in the living room, I felt that by adding an additional 600 watts to it would overload and melt something important so I decided to scrap the yard lights idea, which worked out nicely after I opened up the wall switches and decided that I was diving into a pool without first testing the waters. I foresaw a snickering electrician in my future if I had continued down that path, so I buttoned up the wall, set aside the switch and the big light and moved onto the abbreviated version of my project. Another change was that I had planned to run the conduit on the inside of the patio, the side of the main beam you would see when you walked out the back door, giving everything that industrial exposed-materials look—which would have looked more like a half-assed do-it-yourself project done by an amateur. Instead, after discovering that the aluminum beam is hollow, I decided to put everything on the back side, so you would only see the lights and not all of the connection boxes.

To make a long story short, it took me all day and an additional trip to Home Depot (which I factored in) to get it completed, and once everything was connected, all the boxes sealed up and the circuit breaker back on, I flipped the switch. To my surprise, the lights worked exactly as I had imagined they would.

I put all of my tools away, leaving the last step for later: fill the big hole left by the original light and repaint the area to match the house.

A few hours later, after we bought the patio furniture, I was sitting under the radiant glow of not only my new lights that I had installed myself, but my immense pride of a job well done, assembling the patio furniture, when, all of the sudden, the light on the right starts to flicker and then fades to black. I fumed in the half darkness, muttering obscenities. My pride dissipated, exuberance eradicated… my light had gone out.

I got out my tools, the ladder and, groan, a flashlight to see what might have caused the outage. The bulb was fine and the connections seemed fine, so I decided to wait until morning and then rewire them. Perhaps I missed something. In the meantime, I got no joy out of assembling the patio furniture (usually putting things together makes me happy) and I went to bed full of questions.

The next day, I pulled everything apart and rewired it all, making 100 percent sure that the connections were rock solid. A couple of the wires were a little short, so I added wire to it, making them even stronger. Flipping the switch, they both shined bright, and I left them on all day just to make sure, but now, every time I turn them on, a small spark of insecurity flashes in the back of my mind, wondering if they’ll go on or not. So far, their performance has been 100 percent, and my confidence level for my electrician abilities has soared, so much so that I’m sure I could do the other projects as well, not to mention add some fluorescent lights in the garage—there’s only two bulbs in there, and more light comes from an open fridge than anything else.

So, I get it: Electricity is easy; connect the wires and let the juice flow!

Then, one day later, we get an email from one of Kara’s friends, telling us that her house had just burned down because of faulty wiring…they lost almost everything because of a crossed wire in the attic.


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