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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Handy around the house?

Our contractor is finishing some house renovations for us, and I have a few points to offer about electrical work.

Replacing under-counter lighting with LED fixtures is a great idea. We did, and we're very happy with the outcome. But watch out for the life rating, in hours, of the new fixtures. LEDs don't last forever; their output of light slowly diminishes over time. If you leave the under-counter fixtures on all the time, you may prematurely use up the bright life in them — and because they are LED fixtures not individual bulbs, you'll have to replace the entire fixture when it gets dim. Remember, a projected life of 20,000 hours (for example) isn't much; one year is 8,760 hours if the fixture is always on.

Standard 115-volt receptacles are now available with built-in USB ports for recharging mobile phones and tablets. How convenient! No more "wall warts" unless you travel.

If you live in a home from the 1980s, it probably has GFCI protection for receptacles in the bath, garage, and outdoors but not in the kitchen. I believe any outlet within reach of a water pipe or a heavy metal appliance like an oven should be GFCI-protected. Spend the extra money.

Low-voltage AC lighting is not a good mix with low-voltage LED bulbs. Although specs of the bulbs might say that they work with both AC and DC, you may be disappointed by the amount of flicker when they are powered with AC. The flicker arises from the inexpensive electronics circuit commonly used in a light fixture to convert 115V AC to low-voltage AC. The halogen bulbs that I used previously in these low-voltage fixtures were immune to flicker, but the LED bulbs are not. The good news: I found some halogen bulbs on the Internet that are not pressurized, so they do not require shields. They are much easier to change when they burn out, although they are just as inefficient as the old halogens.

Electric outlets wear out, particularly in hallways and kitchens where plugs are constantly inserted and removed. If you have a receptacle that will not hold a plug tightly in both sockets, replace it! Receptacles that do not grip plugs tightly are fire hazards.

If you do choose to do this work yourself, I urge you to take safety precautions that are analogous to defensive driving.

  • Buy a simple receptable tester. Before you do any work on a receptacle, make sure that it is properly wired. If the tester finds a fault in the receptacle before you begin work, get an electrician to check it out. The tester will also be useful in the next step, which is...
  • Find the circuit breaker for the receptacle in question and turn it off. Professionals will often work on circuits that are energized, but you shouldn't. Yes, it's inconvenient to identify the correct breaker and turn it off; Murphy's Law says that the ceiling or wall light you need to illuminate the receptacle is on the same circuit as the receptacle itself. But have you ever made contact with 115 volts? I have. It's not an experience to be repeated, trust me. Remember, use the tester to verify that you turned off the correct breaker.
  • In a 115-volt receptacle there is black wire a/k/a death wire, white wire, and either green or bare wire. (That's what the colors are supposed to be; electricians sometimes get creative.) Take a photo or make a drawing before you disconnect anything. You must reassemble the wires in the correct places.
  • Speak with every family member to be certain that they know you're working on an electrical circuit. Otherwise there is a slight chance that they will wonder why the lights went out somewhere else in the house and inadvertently turn on the very circuit breaker that you intentionally turned off. I've actually seen this happen in an industrial setting! It was a 480-volt, three-phase, 1000-ampere circuit breaker the size of a refrigerator. To this day I think it miraculous that no one was injured and that the building in question didn't burn.
  • When you finish a repair and are ready to turn the circuit back on, get a friend or family member to observe the new receptacle while you flip the circuit breaker. This is especially smart in a large house. If you botched the repair, the circuit breaker should trip immediately. Truth is, circuit breakers themselves sometimes don't work properly. If there's a short circuit and the breaker doesn't pop, a fire could result. Hearing a scream of "Turn it off!" from a family member lets you throw the breaker immediately. If the distance inside the house is too far for a voice to be heard, use two cellphones as a house intercom. (Two cellphones also make it easier to identify the correct circuit breaker to begin with.) And when the receptacle is reenergized, verify your work with the receptacle tester.
  • Remove jewelry from your hands and fingers when working around electricity — even if you believe the electricity is off. This includes cars. You don't want anything to make accidental contact with an energized wire and contend for a Darwin Award. A wedding ring will do violence to your finger under the wrong circumstances.