Handy Randy Strikes Again


Electricity has always been something I’ve had trepidations about. I have a healthy respect, nay fear, of anything that can kill me with just a touch. But owning a home means you have to get over your fears and do some things yourself. If you do your research, follow precautions, and just be smart about it, you can do simple wiring projects.

I’m not claiming to be an certified electrician. I’m not running new circuits to the breaker box. I’m just getting handy working with what’s already there. After all, I did change out my dining room light fixture with no problem.

The problem at hand
I have three light switches and an outlet by my back door. They control two out-door lights and an accent light over my mantle. One day, they all just stopped working. The rest of the outlets on the same circuit still worked, but this section just stopped. Online research lead to one conclusion: loose wire. Sure enough, there was one, unattached wire in the switch box. Further investigation showed that one of the switches was brittle and crumbling.

Solution? Replace the switch and figure out where that loose wire went. Aye! There’s the rub. Just where did that wire go? Here’s where things got dicey.

Caution!
If you’re going to tackle your own electrical problem you MUST do the following:

Map your breaker box. Know which breaker turns off the circuit you’re working on. If you don’t know, figure it out first. One touch of a live wire and you can be seriously injured. Once the correct breaker is off, you have no fear.

Know your wire colors. Normally, black is hot, white is neutral, green or bare copper is ground. If your house was wired by a psycho electrician who didn’t follow the conventions or you have an older home, buy a voltmeter and test your wires. Read and follow the directions for the tester. Normally, touching the probes to live wires is not dangerous, but you need to know what to touch and what not to touch.

Never get a screw driver near a live outlet. OK, replacing the face plate is not dangerous, but never, never, never go inside a switch box or outlet unless you know the circuit breaker is off.

Test from afar. If you’re guessing where that wire should go, turn on the switch and test it by turning the circuit on at the breaker box. If it’s wired wrong, the worst that can happen is the breaker trips. If you are turning on the newly wired switch locally, the worst that can happen is POP, BANG, ZAP, where did that metallic taste in my mouth come from and why am I lying on the floor?

Where does that wire go?
In my case, there were only two places that wire could go. These switches were wired so the outlet below stayed hot. All the common (white) wires were twisted together and capped. The black wires were chained from switch to switch with the last, left-most switch the end of the chain. Counter-intuitively, all the wires, including the loose one, were attached to the top, right screw. At first, I tried the bottom screw, but that just blew the circuit. No harm, no foul as I followed my own rules above.

Since one of the switches was damaged, I took the opportunity to replace all the switches. You can pay a lot for switches, but simple, single poles were called for and they are only about $3 each. I carefully connected the wires as I removed them so I was sure they were wired exactly like the original. I also took the opportunity to upgrade my face plates to some pretty wooden finished plates. Cost was about $15 for both the fancy switch plate and outlet cover. So electricity is not scary, but if you don’t feel comfortable with it, call an electrician.

Here are a few pictures:
New switches and fancy face plate

Might as well make the outlet match
Might as well make the outlet match

My breaker box. Notice all the labels? Know before you blow!
My breaker box. Notice all the labels? Know before you blow!

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4 Comments

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  1. P.S. Today’s Lowe’s trip included matching plates for the entire living, dinning, & entry except one odd ball light switch. I got wood…er…wooden face plates that is.

  2. Be sure and recheck the common wires with a voltmeter once the correct breaker is off to avoid getting bitten from backfeeding common wires… not fun.

  3. I covet that labelled breaker box!

  4. “Know before you blow!”

    The sentence just sounds so so so so so so wrong! :P

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