Live Wire

There comes a time in every woman’s life where the true nature of her character is revealed because, at some point, she will have every right to tell a man, “I TOLD you so.” Whether one does or does not utter the words is deeply indicative of their character. I don’t know what it says about me that I did not slap John upside the head with these words earlier but am now going to tell the story of how I earned the right to the entire internet. Probably nothing good.

We’ve been busy little homeowners today. John has been doggedly working at the finish carpentry for our inset bookshelves and I have been playing with electricity. I know, this sounds like a terrible idea, and it probably is, but I figure as long as I stick with swapping in new fixtures for ones that were already there, I’m at least not making the wretchedly deep electrical problems of our antique house any worse. Probably.

I would also like the record to show that my track record, while short, isn’t bad. No electrical fires were started in the week between my wiring up two outlets and my dad checking my work. He only needed to fix the grounds, which was why he was looking at them in the first place because he was coming up anyway and had the tools and supplies in his truck. This morning, I successfully wired a three-way switch up on the first try (well, discounting the first try before I talked to my dad and discovered that the switch, which is not paired with any other live switches and is really old and therefore not what I’m used to looking at, was a three-way switch). And this success came in spite of the fact that the old switch was really old and set up differently. My point? Swapping out basic fixtures ain’t rocket science, especially when you have a direct line to a contractor with decades of experience who was raised by an electrician, and even I can make a competent job of it.

Things got trickier when I moved upstairs to swap out the light fixtures, not because of the circuit itself, but because two out of the three lights have wiring that is probably original to the mass market availability of electricity, or close to it. (Yes, we know it needs replacing. By a professional. It’s on “the list.”) This mean that they aren’t housed in modern junction boxes for which our mounting brackets were designed, which meant that it took two heads and a bit of Yankee ingenuity to figure out how to safely make the flush-mount lights mount flushly. I can handle simple replacement wiring, no problem, but making things look pretty is John’s department, so I turned the project over to him and went to do some touch-up painting elsewhere.

Half an hour and much suspicious drill noise later, John asked me to switch the breaker back on. The bedroom light, where he had been kajiggering, turned on nicely. Not so the office light, the third fixture we had swapped. Nor, as we discovered a few moments later, the kitchen, the bathroom, or the hall lights, all of which are on that same breaker. (Don’t ask me how that makes sense. Our house was built piecemeal by a series of extremely ingenious Yankees…nothing here makes sense.) I called my dad at this point to ask him why that might have happened.

“Homeowner electricians.”

I thanked him for this ever-so-helpful answer and John, baffled but undaunted, decided to try to diagnose the issue. He took down the new office fixture and asked me to flip the breaker. I was upstairs and looked at his wiring in doubt.

Me: “I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to join the hot and neutral like that.”

John: “That’s what happened when the light’s on. It makes a loop.”

Me: (moment of doubtful silence) “I don’t think that’s the way lights work. Aren’t there capacitors or resistors or something in there?”

John: (shrugs) “What’s the worst that could happen? It should just flip the breaker if it’s a problem, right?”

Those of you who know wiring are probably laughing your asses off right now, but I have more faith in my husband’s knowledge of the inner workings of the house than I do in my own instincts and half-remembered observances of my dad working. All the same, I didn’t want to be anywhere near those two wires when they went live, so I volunteered to flip the breaker. In the basement. Two floors away.

What I did NOT expect was sparks. Lots of them. Noisy and big and blue and eight inches from my face. I did not know until that moment that I am capable of jumping five feet backwards in a single leap. John came running at my startled shout, but by the time he made it all the way to the basement, I had determined that the circuit box was not going to set itself on fire and worked up the courage to flip the breaker, which had not, in fact, tripped itself.

And that is when I chose not to say “I TOLD you so.”

In good news: we just capped the ends of the office light (separately!) and left it without a fixture. Fortunately, that seems to have fixed whatever was shorting out the rest of the lights, so we are not stuck sitting mostly in the dark while we wait for a professional to bail us out of our ineptitude…

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