Category Archives: electrical

Whence come the roaches?

SkillLevel1Whenever we returned to the beach house after being gone for several days we would find a handful of mostly dead (in “The Princess Bride” sense) roaches scattered about. Where were they coming from? I caulked or foamed every crack I could find. Fortunately, my ever-loving wife, “Rochelle” (not her real name) was patient and cut me some slack because she knew I was really trying. (Not to be confused with the phrase, “He can be really trying,” which means something else entirely. I’m pretty sure I heard Rochie correctly but now I’m starting wonder if I was listening carefully.)

Plumbers and electricians like to drill holes. Lots of holes. The licensing test for plumbers has two questions:

  1. Can you glue PVC pipe?
  2. Can you drill a hole?

If yes, here is your license.

For electricians the questions are different:

  1. Can you strip Romex cable?
  2. Can you drill a hole?

Here’s your license.

Notice there isn’t a third question: Can you seal the hole? So although they are both good at drilling holes, the answer to that one is typically, “Not so much.”

Dryer vent in wall and floor needs to be sealed
Dryer vent in wall and floor needs to be sealed

In the pantry I found a dryer duct going into the floor that had enough space around it for a squirrel to get through along with a year’s supply of nuts so I foamed around that baby to slow down the varmint traffic. But still the roaches came.

I foamed the holes around the water pipes in the sink cabinets in the kitchen and all of the bathrooms. Still they came.

In the attic, I foamed the wiring holes that go into the tops of the walls. I caulked around the outside doors. It didn’t slow them down.

I pulled out the kitchen stove and foamed the openings in the floor underneath the stove. Same for the refrigerator. I squirted little puddles of roach bait poison in corners and by the doors. They are supposed to take the poison back to the nest so that the whole colony is wiped out. Maybe the roaches can’t read the instructions or they purposely flaunt them but that didn’t work either.

Major roach portal in cabinet floor
Major roach portal in cabinet floor

Then one day my ever-loving wife said she saw a roach on the countertop that scooted off and disappeared under the edge of the countertop. I looked up under there but couldn’t see where it had gone so I took out the top drawer to get a better look. (The drawer slides on each side have a little plastic lever that releases the drawer.) Nothing obvious so I figured it must have gone down behind the other drawers so I took them out too. Eureka! The answer was blindingly obvious.

The electrician had drilled a hole in the base of the cabinet to run a wire for the outlets. Oh, and I’m sure he sealed the hole. NOT! I was staring at a roach superhighway. The whole roach contingent could have crawled out of there side by side in parade formation. It was now clear that the little black dots in the drawers were roach rest areas when they needed to take a break from the highway.

Roach superhighway in cabinet bottom and through subfloor
Roach superhighway in cabinet bottom and through subfloor

Not only was there a hole in the bottom of the cabinet but there was another hole in the subfloor below it. Taking advantage of a more-or-less direct line to the roach hoard, I shot some poison down both holes.

Superhighway is now closed
Superhighway is now closed

Then I foamed the subfloor hole by sticking the Great Stuff gun down the cabinet hole. Did I mention it was a large hole? Then I foamed the hole in the cabinet bottom and replaced the drawers.

Result? No more roaches.

Sometimes I like to imagine the puzzled look on their stupid little faces when the survivors, if any, bump into all of that foam. What the …? It warms the cockles of my heart, if I have any, which I doubt because I tried to pay attention in school and I have no recollection of any mention of “cockles” when we were learning about hearts.


Ceiling fans and smartphones

(Featured photo by Fannie Mae.)SkillLevel3

When the air is too warm there is nothing like a breeze to make it cooler. But if there is no wind sometimes you have to make your own. My ever-loving wife, “Fannie Mae” (not her real name), is a ceiling fan fan, so it goes without saying I’ve had to install a number of them in our various homes. Since you can replace a ceiling light with a ceiling fan-light combo without running new wiring she thinks the more the merrier.

In the space of two months, I’ve repaired four ceiling fans at three different houses and none of them were ours. This last one was a bit of mystery. The fan worked but the light didn’t. After running through the easy tests (Is the wall switch on? Is the chain switch on? Are the bulbs burned out?), it was time to open up the housing and have a look at the wiring. Fortunately, most of the wiring for the light is in the shallow metal bowl hanging from the bottom of the fan and I didn’t need to take the whole fan down–just the glass globe, which is held on by a fancy nut at the bottom.

ceiling fan "bowl" cover
Ceiling fan “bowl” cover

Three screws hold the metal bowl. Two of them have open slots so that you can loosen the screws a little and turn the bowl a notch to take it off. The third screw has to be taken all the way out and placed in a secure (disclosed) location so that you can screw it back in when the time comes.

I am always shocked, shocked I say, how many wires are hidden in that bowl. (Speaking of being shocked, I made sure the wall switch was turned off before I started poking around. My momma didn’t raise no fool.) One pair of wires was for the fan direction switch (up for winter, down for summer). Continue reading Ceiling fans and smartphones

An offer you can’t re-fuse

Skill levelskill2

At a friend’s house, the kitchen lights go out when she turns on the carrot juice blender. Being a loyal reader of Gary’s Fix, you say, “Not to worry. I read the ‘How to shut off the power‘ article and I’ll fix it.”

You grab a flashlight and head down into the nether regions in search of the electric panel. But when you open the cover it isn’t what you expected. Many older homes have a fuse box instead of a circuit breaker panel for protecting the electrical circuits. A fuse box looks like this.

The fuse box has a fuse for each electrical circuit in the house.
The fuse box has a fuse for each electrical circuit in the house.

The fuses are the blue or orange cylinders that are screwed into the sockets in the fuse box as if they were mini light bulbs.

Protect the wires

The purpose of a fuse is to protect the wires in the walls of the house so that they don’t get too hot and start a fire. Fuses are not there to protect the blender!

A fuse has a thin piece of metal that all of the electrical current for the circuit must flow through. Too much current will melt that piece of metal and break the circuit. Continue reading An offer you can’t re-fuse

How to shut off the power

Anytime you are working with electricity you need to shut off the power to the circuit feeding the outlet or fixture. Never work on a “hot” circuit.

Find the panel

Electric panel
Inside the electric panel are two columns of circuit breakers.

Grab a flashlight and find the electric panel, which is typically in the basement or a back room, and open the panel by sliding the latch on the right side and opening the cover like a door. Inside you will see switches for breaking the circuits, which are cleverly named “circuit breakers.”

Breaker, breaker, good buddy

All circuit breakers are on. The top 15-amp breaker is an AFCI, which can be tested by pushing the blue button.
All circuit breakers are on. The top 15-amp breaker is an AFCI, which can be tested by pushing the blue button.

Each circuit breaker is rectangular and has a switch with a number on it that you can flip back and forth to turn the circuit on and off.

There will be two columns of circuit breakers in each electric panel. When the switch is pointed to the center of the panel the power is on. When the switch is pointed toward the outside of the panel the power is off to that circuit.

Looking at the photo, we know all four circuits are on because the breakers are in the right column and the switches are pointed left.

Top 15-amp breaker is off because it is switched to the outside of the box. The other breakers are still on.
Top 15-amp breaker is off because it is switched to the outside of the box. The other breakers are still on.

In the next photo, the switch of the top breaker is pointed to the right (the outside), which means the circuit is turned off.

Getting tripped up

There is a third possibility for the switch position. If it is in the middle (pointing straight at you), the breaker has “tripped,” which means that it detected a large current in the circuit. Usually this means a short circuit, i.e. the electricity can flow directly from the hot wire to the neutral wire without encountering any resistance like a light bulb or a toaster.

If there is nothing to resist the flow of current the wires will catch on fire and might burn down the house, which to my way of thinking is suboptimal. This is one of the main reasons for circuit breakers. They break the circuit if the wires could overheat.

The numbers on the switches indicate how much current (in amps) the circuit breaker will allow through before tripping.  The top breaker in the photo is labelled “15,” which means it will allow up to 15 amps of current to flow through the circuit. Above that it will shut off the electricity by tripping.

The middle two breakers in the photos are “20,” i.e. 20 amps.

When a 12 is better than a 14

The wires in your walls are typically either 14 gauge or 12 gauge. In this case, 14 is smaller than 12. A 14 ga. wire must be paired with a 15-amp (or less) circuit breaker. A 12 ga. wire must be paired with a 20-amp (or less) circuit breaker.

Let’s say you have a 15-amp circuit breaker that keeps tripping. Should you replace it with a 20-amp breaker? NEVER. Remember that the purpose of a circuit breaker is to protect the wires in the walls–not whatever is plugged in. If you replace a 15-amp breaker with a 20-amp you can overload those 14 ga. wires and start a fire. You need to find the short or unplug some appliances from that circuit to reduce the amount of electricity going through those wires.

After you have corrected the problem, turn the switch on the circuit breaker from the middle position to the off position and then to the on position. If it trips again you’ll have to keep looking for a bad appliance that might have shorted out.

Labels are good

The circuit breakers are listed on the inside of the panel door. Match the numbers with the stamped numbers next to the circuit breakers themselves.
The circuit breakers are listed on the inside of the panel door. Match the numbers with the stamped numbers next to the circuit breakers themselves.

A labelled panel door is very helpful when you want to work on a particular circuit. For example, you might be replacing a bad (or dated) light fixture or a broken outlet in the dining room.

You want to turn off the power to the circuit that feeds the outlets or fixtures you are working on. The labels will give you a good idea which breaker you need to turn off. But NEVER TRUST THEM. Always have something plugged into that circuit that makes a noise or shines a light so that you can see if the breaker really shuts off that circuit.

Some of the labels might be a little cryptic. “AH” means air handler, “WH” means water heater, etc.
outlet symbolA circle with two vertical lines through it is the symbol for outlet. So “LR” followed by that symbol would mean “living room outlets.”

Here’s another thing you have to watch out for. Sometimes more than one circuit will go into the same outlet box or light switch box! I hate it when they do that. Make sure all of the circuits are off.

Fast break

Main breaker

The large breaker at the top is the main shut off for the whole panel. And, if this is the only panel or the main panel for the house, shutting off that breaker will shut off electricity to the whole house.

If you need to shut off the power quickly and not spend time figuring out which circuit breaker controls the affected area, just flip the main breaker off.





Goosey LED reading light

Skill level skill3

My ever-loving wife, “Maggie” (not her real name), has been complaining recently that it is too dark to read in bed and that is why she just goes to sleep when she crawls in. Well, maybe. I gave her the benefit of the doubt on this one and ordered a Bruck Ledra Resort LED gooseneck reading light that you mount in the wall above the bed. It has the on-off switch at the business end of the gooseneck so I figured Maggie could be half-asleep and still turn it off. I felt this was an important feature.

Bruck Ledra Resort LED reading light
(Click to see on

This type of light mounts in a utility box in the wall just like a regular light switch or outlet. So I had to cut a hole in the wall, run some wire from there inside the wall and splice it to an existing outlet. This can be challenging but I had a plan. I could get to the back side of the wall that the bed is against by simply going in the little attic behind the wall. I would cut the square hole for utility box from the bedroom side and then go in the attic to feed the wire through holes in the studs to an outlet. Easy-peasy. Continue reading Goosey LED reading light

How to install a utility box

Skill level skill2

A utility box holds a light switch or an outlet and the wires connecting it.

Utility box with a duplex outlet

When you are putting a new box in an “old” wall you buy a box that says “Old Work.” These boxes have swinging flaps on two corners that hold the box tight to the drywall. “New Work” boxes have nails that you drive into a stud and you put up the drywall after all of the utility boxes have been installed.

This is an “Old Work” box.

Trace the box (excluding the tabs) on the wall.

Keep the box somewhere between the studs and at least an inch below or above any wood running horizontally between the studs so that the swinging flaps have room to pivot.

Make several shallow passes on each line with a utility knife to score straight lines in the drywall. It is better to go straight than to go fast or deep.

Keep scoring the drywall until you’ve cut the rectangle all the way through. If it is an outside wall you should be seeing the insulation.

The finished hole should be neat.The visible letters on the insulation are part of longer words. Really.
The box should fit snugly in the hole.

Strip off about 8″ of the outer jacket of the wire. Then strip off about 5/8″ of the insulation of the white wire and the black wire. Push the wires in through the slots before fastening the box to the wall.

With the outer jacket removed, the wires are inserted through slots in the back of the box before the box is shoved into the wall and fastened.

Now use a Phillips screwdriver to press the corner screws in and make sure that they turn the flaps easily. When you turn the screw to the right the flap should turn vertical. Turn the screws back to the left to put them down flush and then slide the box into the wall.

Hold the box to the wall nice and snug and use the screwdriver to push one of the screws all the way in before you start tightening the screw.  If the screw isn’t pushed in first the flap won’t be able to rotate behind the drywall. Stop turning the screw when you feel the flap holding the box to the drywall. Those tabs are easy to strip so don’t overdo it.

Do the same for the other screw.

Now you can attach the wires to the switch or outlet, fold the wires back into the box, and screw the switch or outlet to the box. Screw on the cover plate and you are done.