Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Hard Truth About Hardware

Most of my nemeses can be found in any hardware store.
They lurk on the plumbing supplies aisle. There are also quite a few challengers on the electrical aisle. I have grudgingly accepted a cease fire from the nail bins, but the hardware store is not Brent-friendly.
Case in point—today I sought to change out a lighting fixture in our kitchen. Being moderately tech-savvy, and unapologetically cheap, I elected to light the new fixture with LED bulbs that will last beyond my life expectancy. I figured while I was at it, I’d install a dimmer switch on the fixture circuit. What could possibly go wrong?

I have a healthy respect for electricity. The first thing I did was turn off the power to that part of the house. I asked my wife to tell me when the light went off, as I headed for the garage. “It’s still on,” she said, as I approached the garage door.
Everyone’s a comedian.

Once I got the power off, I took down the existing fixture and noticed the brace in the ceiling to which it was anchored would not fit the hardware on the replacement fixture. Of course not. So off to the hardware store I headed, like a sheep to slaughter.

On my first trip to the store, I located a helpful associate in the electrical aisle and told him what I was going to do. He asked some very technical questions, like “is this light also controlled by another switch elsewhere?” (It is.) “Are you going to run LED bulbs in the fixture?” Another brilliantly insightful query. I felt confident as I returned home with $65 worth of hardware, a dimmer switch, and a box of high tech lightbulbs for my project.

With the able assistance of my Bride, for whom this entire ordeal was being borne, we got the new fixture installed with minimum trouble and use of colorful adjectives. I disconnected the old light switch, taking careful note of which colored wires were going where.

Instructional English grammar is a lost art form, especially in developing countries where inexpensive electrical parts—like dimmer switches, for instance—are manufactured. I was, therefore, not surprised when my first attempt at wiring the switch failed.
Not spectacularly so—there were no sparks or smoke.
It. Just. Didn’t. Work.

There are three wires plus a ground lead to be connected to this switch. That leaves 16-potential wiring combinations. Nine possible solutions, if you figure you’re pretty sure where the ground wire goes. After the first two wiring attempts ended in failure, I removed the wires, took a snapshot of the wiring box with my smartphone, and headed back to the hardware store. Not happily.

Chris, the helpful hardware man, looked at my wiring snapshot, looked at the switch, and unfurled the instructions for his own forensic analysis. We came up with two possible combinations involving the placement of one red wire, two black wires, and the copper ground. I returned home, cautiously optimistic. His solution matched neither of the wiring scenarios I’d tried before.

The next wiring combination I tried—Chris’s first suggestion--also failed. I was getting desperate. I forgot to turn off the power at the breaker, and the live wire reminded me of my mistake as I began to disconnect the wires (insert colorful euphemism here). On a hunch, I swapped the two black leads—the “traveler” and the black half of a twisted pair. 

Success! Sort of.

The light fixture sprang to life…the dimmer dimmed. But the second switch on the circuit had to be “on” in order for the dimmer switch to operate. Tough. The cover plate went back on the wall, and I rejoiced that I’d only had to make TWO trips to the hardware store to complete this chore.
For me, that’s a record.

1 comment:

Tom said...

About that little reminder that you forgot to shut off the power again. I've had a few of those but after watch countless safety videos at work I've become a little more cautious. Those videos and the realization that I only have so many years left. The last time I did electrical work I just flipped the main and told those at home to pretent they were camping until I finished. A side benefit of that is you suddenly have willing helpers.