Sunday, January 06, 2008

A Shocking Day

It’s raining outside… no, make that pouring outside, so what better day to work on the house’s electrical system, right? Well, I thought so too.

For the past few months, the light in Matthew’s room has been giving us some trouble. The previous owner had a ceiling fan installed in that room, so he used a similar light switch as he had done in all the other rooms equipped with ceiling fans. It is a wireless switch so the fan can be turned on and off from any part of the room… but it is fitted into to the wall where the old switch had been. Over a period of a few weeks, the switch started to falter, working only intermittently, sometimes, all the time, and then never at all. The simple, cheap light came with one of those pull strings like the old fashioned lights in a downtown motel room, so when I was able to make the light switch work, we left it on and only used the pull chain.

Kara couldn’t reach the chain, naturally, so I had to add more chain because I grew tired of having to get up from what I was doing—or worse, come upstairs—to turn on the light for her.

Of course, with the lamp being cheap and all, the pull chain slowly stopped working, something to do with it being a cheap lamp with a significant design flaw when it comes to how the pull chain is used. From what I could tell, every time you pull on the chain, it is pulled straight down, when the lamp wants the chain pulled straight out from the lamp. Needless to say, it pulled out one day, the light went on, and the string didn’t flick back into place. It was completely broken… or so it would seem.

So, the degeneration of the light continued, and not to be bested by a $12 light fixture, I removed the glass lamp shade and turned the light on and off by unscrewing the light bulb.

Well, someone either pulled on the chain or pushed the button on the intermittent light switch and either one worked just that one time, forever darkening the room. Luckily for us, it was Christmastime and Matthew’s room was illuminated once again by Christmas lights. I know, why didn’t I fix it and stop living like we’re in the slums? Well, a fact that Kara repeated made clear, I’m not an electrician, and the funny thing was that I wasn’t about to call one to change out the light. I have a college education, a general knowledge of electricity and a five-foot tool chest full of tools.

I bought a new lamp at Home Depot last week (this one was $16! Woo, fancy) and it sat in Matthew’s room until today. There were three possibilities as to why the light would no longer work: 1) The light itself was broken…that was a no brainer; 2) The wireless controller was malfunctioning; or 3) The wiring was faulty or somehow disconnected. In the event of the second or third option, I bought a new light switch, thinking I would bypass the wireless switch with an actual switch.

Today was a good enough day as any to pull it all apart and see what the problem might be. I planned to replace the light anyway so it was just a matter of pulling it down. I didn’t take that extra step they always warn you about when working on electrical wiring and that would be turning off the circuit breaker. I figured, I’m wearing rubber shoes, my tools are insulated and I understand that touching the black wire and the white wire at the same time—or the black wire all by its self—will give you a little extra voltage. What I didn’t understand was how difficult it would be not to touch the wires.

It is a simple system. Two white wires and two black wires come from the light, they go into the base unit of the wireless switch, and from there, one black and one white wire heads up into the attic and down to the switch.

I pulled off the old wireless switch and played around with it for a while to discover that it still worked fine, so the problem was in the light or the wireless base. At this point, I decided that I’d bypass the wireless system and just use a standard wired switch. I pulled off the wireless base and hooked up the new wire, of course, not before accidentally brushing my hand up against the black wire and the base of the metal light fixture. It felt like a thousand 10-penny nails pounding in my shoulder. I hopped off the ladder and taught the kids a few new words, danced around a little bit and caught my breath. I’d been shocked by the full force of direct current before but it isn’t something you ever get used to.

Once the light fixture was wired to the ceiling, I turned my attention to the new switch. Once bitten, I was very careful about pulling out the wires, and I tested them to see if they had juice—and they did—before I attached the switch. And wouldn’t you know it, but when you touch the screwdriver to the black wire and then stupidly allow it to slip off of the screw and touch your finger, you’re going to get a jolt of 110. And this time, there was a flash of a spark and the power blinked out in three rooms upstairs… but not Matthew’s room. I found it odd that the light I had just hooked up with still shining bright, but there was no power to the actual switch.

After resetting the circuit breaker…in the rain… I was back to work on the light. I stood there a while wondering what to do. There was power to the switch and there was power to the light, but the switch and the light had nothing to do with each other. Whomever hooked up the light and the wireless switch rewired the circuit to exclude the connection between the two. But why? I pulled down the light fixture and left the two exposed wires sticking out of the ceiling, a fact that I would soon regret.

I decided that the wireless base was faulty, so back to Home Depot to get a new one (which I had to find myself, as two lackies had no idea—they are with the ceiling fans. Who knew?). Back at the house, I opened up the box and laid everything out. Climbing back up the ladder, I wasn’t paying attention and went one step too far, touching the top of my head to the black and the white wires simultaneously. I think I saw the future. My eyes went cross, all I could taste was lemon meringue pie and the only sound was an open E string on a mandolin.

I woke up downstairs where I had to go outside—in the rain again—to reset the circuit breaker.

A little wiser, a little more careful and a little more energized, I put together the appropriate wires and presto, chango, the light worked like it always had.

And it looks nicer to boot.

1 comment:

Clint said...

I got some great visuals while reading of your escapade. A little early in the year to be competing for the 2008 Darwin awards, isn't it?


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