Friday, November 5, 2010

Electrical woes!

One of the outlets in our main bedroom has been hanging out from the wall for the past couple months. It was a real frustrating problem to fix, which required an order from Amazon, a trip to the home improvement store to get a replacement outlet, a call home, an hour of crawling around in the attic and a 35 minute conversation with the electrical guy back at the home improvement store.

One of the surprises with our house is how easily we trip the breakers. Renae discovered pretty quickly that while the microwave is in use we can't run any other kitchen appliance such as the panini grill, can opener, blender, etc. She also determined that it was best to vacuum with all the lights turned off!  Except, one day in late August, having all the lights off was not enough.

She had the vacuum plugged in to the outlet in the bedroom, but was using it in the hallway and the room across the hall.  The power to the vacuum went out, and the ceiling fan and light wouldn't come on, either. She yelled downstairs to me that the breaker had been tripped.  

When I went to the panel, none of the breakers seemed to have been tripped.  I tried flipping a few of them anyway, but the lights didn't come back on. The vacuum was tested in an outlet in another room, and it still worked.  Something was wrong with the circuit.  

I took the cover plate off the wall outlet and unscrewed the outlet from the box.  It looked okay, but I figured I wouldn't be able to tell if anything went wrong with it just from a visual inspection.  I noticed a lot of wires in the box not connected to the outlet, but didn't want to touch them in case they were still live.  

As I looked around the room I saw that the clock radio on the other side of the room was still working. This made sense to me, since I believed that the breaker had never been tripped. At this point, I knew I was going to need some more equipment.   

I ordered a Fluke non-contact voltage tester, and it arrived a couple days later. I discovered two things with the tester: first that the wires stuffed behind the non-working outlet were live (!) and second that I couldn't really discover much else.  I called home to ask Dad for advice.  I crawled around in the attic and tried tracing all the wiring in the bedroom from above. (More on the attic in a future post.) I replaced the outlet with a new one. (Doing that I discovered that the extra wires in the box were on a totally different circuit! They were both shut off at the box while I switched the outlet.) 

Nothing worked. I was about to give up. We had started asking around for recommendations for electricians to call when I decided to hunt down a replacement light switch.

I figured that if the only things not working were the outlet and the light, then I should try replacing the light switch since I had tried replacing the outlet and that hadn't worked.  We were going to the store for stuff anyway, so I thought I'd wander through the electrical department and hunt down a similar switch.  

I got to the lighting section and a friendly face in a red vest asked if I needed help finding something.  I told her that I wanted a switch to try to fix a problem.  The switch had a button for the light and four buttons for the ceiling fan. She took me to the aisle with all the switches and brought me to a switch that had a button. A button.  ONE BUTTON.  This was not the switch I wanted.  She asked if I could explain the problem I was trying to fix.  I did.  She asked if I could wait while she went and found someone else.  I did.  Someone else came and asked me to explain the problem.  I did.  That person asked if I could wait for Ken the electrical expert to finish helping another customer.  I did.  Ken came and asked if I could explain the problem.  I did.

After I explained the problem to Ken, he patiently explained to me that I needed to go to the circuit box and flip the switch that would reset the outlets in my bedroom.  I told him I didn't think that was the problem.  We talked some more and I asked if they had any switches with push buttons on them.  He hunted around the aisle and found me a few options, none of which looked anything like what I wanted.  I tried explaining that I wanted a switch with 5 buttons: one for the light and four for the fan.  He suggested that I need to know which breaker goes with every circuit in the house so that I could just flip the right breaker to make everything work.  I told him I was pretty sure every breaker was on correctly.

I was about to give up when I asked one last time if they had ANY switch that had buttons for the light and buttons for the fan and fan speeds.

From Drop Box

He asked if there was a remote control involved.  I said, maybe, but I wasn't sure.


Right by the ceiling fans was a shelf with the exact switch I had been describing to the three different people in the electrical department.  I took it and ran to the cash register.

Actually, before I ran Ken told me that he wasn't "...saying that they're poorly made, just that the manufacturer only guarantees them for a year, and that they're made in China..."  So, I guess the switch has that going for it.

It turns out that every room with a ceiling fan in our house uses this switch, and at least two of the rooms have remote controls for the light and fan.  The reason I'm guessing that the rooms all have this switch is that it simplifies the wiring.  There are only two wires to the switch to control the light and fan. The switch sends an RF signal to the light/fan via a control box which had to be replaced at the same time I replaced the switch itself. 

Twenty minutes after cracking the switch packaging open, I had a working light, ceiling fan and outlet.  I'm not saying it's easy to replace, I'm just saying it was easier to replace than to find at the home improvement store with three employees helping me out.

And I didn't even have to call the electrician.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Our own colors!

Having rented for the first 10 years of married life, Renae decided that it was time that we took the color palette of our home into our own hands for the first time ever. One Saturday in October, I arrived home from a weekend physics conference and she was waiting with a roller and a bucket of paint. 

The goal was to paint one wall each in the dining room and living room sections of our great room, leaving the original color on the other surfaces as an accent color.  Renae had taped most of the edges by the time I arrived.  I know it's doable to cut in without taping, but it really didn't take too long to tape everything off.  She started cutting in, and I followed behind with the roller.  

I was surprised how easy and fast it was to complete.  We were done in about an hour and a half, and then spent another half hour walking around hunting for spots needing a touch-up.  Cleanup was a breeze, since neither of us dripped anywhere other than the plastic sheet on the floor.

The color coordinates with our new furniture.  More on that later!  (That's a tease, baby...)