In the late 1990s, my husband and I moved from Virginia to Eastern Washington. Once there, I began working as a freelance writer and editor, primarily for a company two time zones ahead of us. Thus, my workdays began early and ended around 3 or 4 p.m. Then, I would unwind by turning on a show called “Home Time” on the local PBS affiliate.
Every afternoon, I watched in awe as seemingly ordinary people (like me!) tackled basic home maintenance and repair activities. Basic carpentry, plumbing, electrical wiring, roof repair — all lost their mystery as the show’s hosts walked us through the steps needed to maintain a functioning home. I was totally into it, and began testing my newly learned skills at home.
Malfunctioning bathroom sink stopper? I’m on it. Done! Sagging cabinet door? Fixed in no time. My greatest achievement was succeeding in unclogging our kitchen sink on a Thanksgiving Day. Who wants to call (and pay for) a plumber on Thanksgiving? I did fail to take into account just how messy the job was going to be — I had to shower and completely change clothes afterwards — but I got the job done.
With electricity, however, my work was limited to changing out an ordinary switch plate and outlet covers with designer ones, so I never really got into the wires and switches behind the switch plate.
Fast forward a couple of years. A job transfer meant we moved from Eastern Washington back to Virginia. We moved into a lovely home that was about 10 years old and seemed to be in pretty good shape. There was very little need for me to exercise my supposedly strong repair skills — until the day the timer for the porch lights broke.
It was one of those simple timers that could easily be installed in place of a light switch, then programmed to turn lights on and off on a schedule. The lights could also be turned on and off by pushing the timer button in and out. After the timer broke, the porch lights could not be turned on or off at all. The switch was totally dead.
I can do this, I said to myself. I had watched the people on “Home Time” do minor electrical work all the time. My husband had a couple of engineering degrees, and even he was a little leery of messing with electricity. But not me!
First, I thought, I will have to turn off the electrical circuit. I went out to the circuit box in the garage and saw, with great disappointment, that whoever had installed it when the house was built had done a rather cursory job of labeling the various circuit breakers. The major ones, like furnace and kitchen stove, were all labeled. All the rest were simply labeled “lights.” Big help.
But, by methodically turning off each circuit and then checking back in the house to see what lights had been affected, I thought I located the right circuit. I switched it off, and now was ready to work.
I removed the switch plate cover, pulled out the broken timer device from the mess behind the cover, and rather quickly concluded that, even with all my “Home Time” watching experience, I really didn’t quite know what I was doing. OK, I thought, just take this step by step.
I carefully removed one wire from the broken timer and, despite the tight space involved, attached that wire to the same place on a new timer I had purchased earlier. Good, that’s done. Then I carefully removed the wire from the other side of the broken timer, and attached that wire to the same place on the new timer. Finally, I removed the third wire — the ground wire — from the broken timer and attached it to the new timer. Done! As I pushed the new timer back into place, I accidentally pushed the timer’s “on” button.
To my horror, the porch lights came on. I had not switched off the right circuit, and had been working on a live circuit! It’s a wonder I hadn’t been killed, or at least thrown completely across the foyer by an electrical shock. The only thing that had saved me was the step-by-step process I had used. No two wires were ever unattached at the same time.
One long-term consequence of this experience: As our gift to the people who might next occupy this home, we carefully relabeled each of the circuits in the circuit box, so that in the future no one would ever make the mistake I did.
The other long-term consequence? I now avoid having anything to do with electricity, even to the point of being reluctant to screw in a new light bulb.
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