Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Fixing Electrical Problems & Feeling Like A Man

For some mysterious reason the light in our backroom when out a little while ago... and so did a single wall outlet... and changing the light bulb didn't help.

Welcome to summer project #1: Fixing the back room's electrical

Now, I have been very blessed to not have to deal with many electrical problems. And when I did, I was at home and let my dad handle the situation. Ah... growing up... I may not have been at home, but that didn't stop me from having multiple video conferences with my dad, including one where I literally propped up my phone so he could watch me test fixtures.

The light fixture. There are 3 sets of wires running into it.

Since I'm an electrical newbie, I couldn't figure it out and ending up calling an electrician for help. I learned from him that the trick is to figure out the logic of the wiring. Once you know the logic, you often find where the problem occurred. He also looks for clues: First, the age of the house will suggest wiring conventions of the time. Also, he looks for signs of repairs or "non-original" items. Apparently repair work is often done by a general contractor, who isn't an expert in electrical wiring, which is genuinely confusing, and therefore mistakes are often made.

It took him 45 minutes figure out what was going on. Which I felt good about how long it took since I gave him a head start by undoing everything and pointing out what worked and what didn't head of time. He assured me that it wasn't easy to figure out. He then spent 15 more minutes explaining to me how to fix the issue and providing me the necessary materials (wiring, boxes, nuts, etc) to complete the project.

I had 4 reasons for wanting to do it myself.

  • He charges $78 per hour. He estimated it would take him an hour to do it. Do you know how much Yogurt Extreme I can get for $78? Going out for "something sweet" is how Jessi & I reward ourselves for accomplishments.
  • Also, he also wanted to add another hole to my wall so he could do it easier. No thanks!
  • Furthermore, he wasn't 100% that's where the issues was. What if it was different once he started? Another hour or two?
  • Finally, this was something I wanted to learn how to do so I didn't need to call for help in the future.

So, off I went to fix the electrical.

The problem
Our back room is wired like a daisy chain. So one wall socket leads to the light fixture, which leads to another wall socket. The point of failure was where the wall socket went up the wall to the attic and over to the light fixture. The wire looked fine in the attic, which means it failed in the wall... right next to where a door had been added... A "non-original" item.

My guess is the cause of the mysterious failure is our treadmill. It's in this room, and when we run it tends to shake that part of the building. Being that it failed shortly after we started running on it for our half-marathon training, my guess is that we jiggled apart an already lose connection in the wall. 

The solution
Since the existing wiring is stapled in along the entire length it's impossible to pull it out. So the next best thing is to abandon it buy cutting off the two ends and installing a new wire parallel to it.

So, I headed up to the attic and drilled a new hole down to the wall. Then I used a new toy: a steel fish tape. I pushed that down the hole. Then I went back into the room and grabbed the tape out of the hole. I hooked the wire to the tape, went back into the attic and pulled the tape back up (along with the wire).

Cost at Home Depot: $10. Value to me: $100

The wire I used was strong enough to hold itself

Let's pause a talk about the attic for a little bit.

First, I put on a long-sleeve sweatshirt, safety glasses, and a mask.

Then I head up into a hole just barely big enough for me.

Then I enter into a HOT, dark, fluffy, short space.

I first had to find the fixtures, which was buried under all that fluff, which is insulation blown in. Oh yeah, and I did that while balancing on the beams so I didn't go through the drywall (aka. the ceiling).

This is the top of the light fixture. That white cord is the new wire.

It's hard to tell in this next picture, but roof is slanted, and the fixtures are near the end. Which means the spot where I actually pulled the tape through and re-strung the wire was not very tall. I literally only had enough room to crawl around on my belly. Swimming around in insulation, all covered up, got very, very hot.

So that's the attic. Now back to our story.

Once the wire was pulled through, I striped the plastic and hooked everything back up. With batted breath I turned the power back on and hoped for the best. Indeed, the light worked! I was 95% sure it would since I tested it earlier by temporarily connecting the wires in the room (thanks to Jessi's suggestion), but there's still that moment of doubt. :)

Here's a picture of the light fixture working, and a lamp plugged into the wall socket. A little clean-up, and the room was back to normal.

There's something very tricky about electricity. It reminds of my finance class in school. On the surface it seems pretty straightforward. Connect two wires and power flows. However, given how flexible electricity is, there are many creative ways to wire something up. There are also many safety precautions and principles you need to remember since electricity can be very dangerous. Combine these, and something that seems simple suddenly becomes very, very complicated.

So, being able to figure it out, along with working in the attic feels very manly. I'm also living off the high of completing my first summer project - which feels great!


  1. Dawn (Mom)10:27 AM

    I like your story telling and pictures.  So...growing up isn't so bad.  Congratulations and thanks, I'll enjoy lighting on my visit.

  2. Thanks. I'm glad you like it. You'll really like it when you see it. :)