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It's a guy thing

Yesterday, I dealt with a long-standing affront to my masculinity: a dying light switch in my bathroom. I had never dealt with any electrical systems before, but a friend assured me it was extremely simple: just a matter of unconnecting and reconnecting two wires. So I forked over my hard-earned 69 cents, got out the powered screwdriver, and tackled it yesterday morning.

It went remarkably well, only taking less than ten minutes. I only ran into three complications:

First, the old switch had three attaching points, while the new one had only two -- and the wire was connected to one that didn't have a corresponding attachment point. I just hooked it up anyway, and it worked.

Second, I overtightened the screws on the face plate, and it cracked. I could easily replace it, and still might, but it's barely noticeable and I'm a guy, so I don't care too much.

Finally, I did have one brief zapping from the switch. I should have been safe -- I made sure the switches were both off -- but it got me anyway.

Anyway, I feel a hell of a lot better with that dealt with. Now if I can just get rid of that lingering smell of smoke in that bathroom...


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Comments (31)

The third wire might have b... (Below threshold)
Rodney Dill:

The third wire might have been the ground.

I thought about that, Rodne... (Below threshold)
Jay Tea:

I thought about that, Rodney, but it couldn't have been. It's a third-floor apartment -- I'm way above the ground.


Yes, it had to be the gro... (Below threshold)
mark m:

Yes, it had to be the ground. Are you sure there wasn't a small green screw down by the mounting tab of the switch??. I've never seen one without it. That's where the ground goes.

I hate to to say this but t... (Below threshold)

I hate to to say this but the third wire is important! Granted, it may be a ground (or in your case a second story ground), but it stil should be connected. It could also be another hot leg going to another switch - if you notice some other switch not working, that used to turn on a common light, then the third wire was needed...

Always turn of the main breaker panel switch (or pull the fuse) before working on a switch - keeps you from causing smoke!

However, your Mr. Repair job does go further to prove that "guys" don't need directions.

Good work!

ps: I never shut off the main - cause I know which wire not to touch! (Unless some guy before me switched them)

This girl knows what ground... (Below threshold)
Just Me:

This girl knows what ground wires are and how to turn off breakers, but then it is probably a guy thing to want to do the electric with the breaker still on.

But turning off the light switch doesn't turn off the juice coming to it-you can still get zapped.

So when are you going to hang a ceiling fan now that you've conquered lightswitches?

darwins chlorine for the ge... (Below threshold)

darwins chlorine for the gene pool...

go ahead and fiddle with electricity without a care in the world. The electrical fire forthcoming will facilitate the relocation of you and your neighbors to a better crib. That is unless you change the batteries in the smoke alarm.

Jay, you got lucky. Turnin... (Below threshold)

Jay, you got lucky. Turning the switch off only kills the juice until you make a connection yourself...then it's like turning the switch on only you are now the switch! If you got zapped at all it meant you were working on a live circuit and only sheer luck has us reading your post and not your obit.

Never, ever work on a circuit without shutting off the breaker. Ever. Period. Damn, I can't believe you didn't get killed buddy. An analogy would be like cleaning a gun--loaded--cocked---no safety---and thinking you are safe because you put the spare bullets back in the box. It went off and you only got winged...


Good work Jay.I'm ... (Below threshold)

Good work Jay.

I'm pretty much clueless when it comes to this sort of stuff, so I can sympathize with you and glory with you in your accomplishments.

I once had a friend of mine convert a part of my garage into a room for me. He put in all the wiring too. However, he didn't connect the telephone wire (Told him I wouldn't need it). Sure enough, I needed it.

He walked me through it. I had to take one end of the wire and wrap it around a screw and tighten the screw. Then I had to do the same to the other end. Then I asked, "What now?" and he said, "You're done."

I thought, no way! Somehow my voice is going to travel to this screw, hop onto this wire, jump onto another screw and into the telephone line?

Sure enough, it worked.

I still can't believe it.

I noticed that you wrote "b... (Below threshold)

I noticed that you wrote "both switches" - is there another switch that also controls that light? If so, then you have a 3-way switch and need the same (you bought a standard 2 way).

And whatever eveyone else said about turning off the power at the breaker.

Clancy, I meant both the ol... (Below threshold)
Jay Tea:

Clancy, I meant both the old, dying one and the new one. It's just a single switch light.

And I didn't see a ground wire. But this is a very old building, and might not even have a ground wire. The old switch had three connectors, but only two wires attached.

Finally, the smoke reference was a joke, anonymoose. It's working just fine.


"Both switches" and "three ... (Below threshold)

"Both switches" and "three contacts" suggests to me that Jay has a 3 way switch configuration. In this configuration, two switches control one light. This is a very common configuration for switches on both ends of a stairway or large room.

It also sounds like he replaced the switch with the incorrect part. It should have been a Single Pole Double Throw (SPDT) (3 contacts) switch instead of a Single Pole Single Throw (SPST) (2 contacts) switch. Now, I can pretty much guarantee that the switches do not operate as one would expect.

Look here for correct wiring:

Oh, OK, one switch. Neverm... (Below threshold)

Oh, OK, one switch. Nevermind.

Turn off the electricity be... (Below threshold)
Steve L.:

Turn off the electricity before working on awitches and outlets?????


Listen to these wimps compl... (Below threshold)

Listen to these wimps complain about one little puff of smoke. Heck, I had a neighbor like that once who was always yaking when I refilled a running lawnmower while smoking, or when snowboarding off the garage roof.

Nag, nag, nag.

For a higher level of excitement, I suggest a power auger for post holes, without calling Miss Digg first. This is certain to spice up your life and add adventure to an otherwise dreary day.

I realize that some of these things are not possible for the third floor dweller, but you can always try extensive under-the-car repair using only a bumper jack on a sight incline.

Lots of switches have two s... (Below threshold)
Mac Lorry:

Lots of switches have two screws for the same terminal to accommodate continuing on with the hot and neutral wires without needing wire nuts. Putting two wires on the same screw does the same thing, but doesn't meet code in most locations. Newer switches often have screw terminals and push-in terminals where you just insert the stripped wire into a hole. Rather than putting two wires under one screw, this design expects one wire to use the screw and one to use the push-in terminal, when needed. In my location black (as in black death) is the hot wire, white is neutral, green or bare is ground, and red means call an electrician as you are in over your head.

As long as you know your house is wired correctly you can make a dull job fun by leaving the power on when changing switches and sockets. Just make sure your will is up to date and your life insurance is paid up.

I did the same thing a few... (Below threshold)

I did the same thing a few months ago. I had to call my brother the electrician in Wisconsin!

This girl knows what gro... (Below threshold)

This girl knows what ground wires are and how to turn off breakers, but then it is probably a guy thing to want to do the electric with the breaker still on.
If you turn the breaker off, the lights go out, then how the 'ell do you dee what you are doing? I am a guy, but I don't have x-ray vision.

I have a bad dimmer switch ... (Below threshold)

I have a bad dimmer switch that I bought the replacement for two weeks ago. Am waiting for the proper alignment of the moon and stars and the sighting of our neighborhood coyote before I begin. NEVER displease Zeus, the god of thunderbolts, right before you start a do-it-yourselfer.

Hmmm.Jay the only ... (Below threshold)


Jay the only advice I have for you is to never buy anything from a company named "ACME" if you're hunting a roadrunner.

Because if you're working on a live electrical circuit then you are definitely paralleling a certain toon coyote.

What you have is a three wa... (Below threshold)

What you have is a three way switch, in other words a circuit where two switches control one fixture ( a lamp, for example).
How not to get eletrocuted: always keep one hand in your pocket and never work with one knee on the ground (Ha).

Want to fix a switch go her... (Below threshold)

Want to fix a switch go here http://www.line-man.com/PG_E/Career_Moves_PG&E_GC_Line.html

There are several pictures of utility workers doing various jobs on high voltage transmission lines - some using a helocopter - some with the lines still energized at very high voltages.

I spent many years working for this utility, and had the opportunity to go out and actually barehand a live conductor still energized at 500,000 volts! Talk about a tingle!

Jay - turn off the damn breaker before changing a light switch!

You go, Jay! Do re-wiring ... (Below threshold)

You go, Jay! Do re-wiring with the breakers on! Feed the bears! Raft the waterfalls! That's what life is all about, taking chances!
Your local emergency room worker's union

My much-better-half always ... (Below threshold)

My much-better-half always encourages me to lick the contacts to see if the power is off or not.

For some reason, she tells me 'nevermind' when I ask the kids to do it for me....

If you turn the breaker ... (Below threshold)

If you turn the breaker off, the lights go out, then how the 'ell do you dee what you are doing? I am a guy, but I don't have x-ray vision.

I am also a guy, and I also don't have x-ray vision.

But I do have a flashlight.

If you turn the breaker ... (Below threshold)
Just Me:

If you turn the breaker off, the lights go out, then how the 'ell do you dee what you are doing? I am a guy, but I don't have x-ray vision.

Well you see, there are these things called flashlights. They even come in a style where you can set them down flat, and point the light right at the space you're working in.

I am sure you can find one at the local Lowe's or Home Depot (the toy store for men).

Man, this sounds familiar. ... (Below threshold)

Man, this sounds familiar. When I first moved in to my 50-year-old house four years ago I started replacing some old light switches with nifty X-10 remote switches. All of them were wired differently, and none of the switches or wiring arrangements looked quite like the diagrams in my do-it-yourself book said they would. Nothing dangerous, just very confusing. It was like debugging someone else's code, except with sparks instead of error messages. I did the simple ones and left the rest for when I was better educated on such things.

I have a friend with a degr... (Below threshold)

I have a friend with a degree in electronics who explainedd it all to me. Electrical and electronic gizmos work by trapping powerful smoke into small plastic parts or glass parts. The smoke is captured by specially trained Native American mystics. When you do something bad, the good smoke is repelled andgoes back to Heaven, then the gizmo stops working. I relax a ot more now that I know the truth.

An old house might be wired... (Below threshold)

An old house might be wired with BX, so the box for the switch would be grounded. Get a neon test light for a few bucks and learn how to use it. If I'm not 1000% sure I got the right breaker, I verify that the wire isn't live with the test light.

Geez Jay, I can't tell if t... (Below threshold)

Geez Jay, I can't tell if this is an arguement for INTELLIGENT DESIGN or an example of why Darwin was wrong. Wait a minute, I seem to remember you stating you weren't going to have kids. So that is why you were spared, losing you wouldn't affect the gene pool anyways. So energy was conserved and you live on. Science really does work!

obbanner has it about right... (Below threshold)
Tom M:

obbanner has it about right. If it's wired using BX cable, the casing is the ground, the connection is through the mounting screws through the metal box, to the casing, to earth. Never wire a plastic box, or in any way break the case to casing connection.

If it was a three-way (already debunked) it would have 4 wires (counting ground). Lead in, alternate 1 out/in, alternate 2 out/in I always have to look at the diagram closely, and often the line feed doesn't come in a convenient place. Try wiring a four-way.

Sorry, wiring is my teh geek.

Have a ground connected ina... (Below threshold)

Have a ground connected ina BATHROOM (you know: conductive WATER onthe floor, wet hands, and all), sounds like a "jolly good idea" (tm) to me.

Please try again.

Turn off the breaker, Connect the ground tot he box/switch.






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