BY TOM LAVIS
It makes a father feel good when a son asks him for advice.
My son, Mike, who lives in California, had some electrical wiring issues with his new house.
Knowing that I once rewired much of my own home without burning the place to the ground, he called me to pick my brain.
He explained that he was changing an overhead light in his dining room and relocating a switch. After completing the work, he discovered that there was no power going to the light.
Electricity by its very nature is dangerous and should not be taken lightly.
You may remember learning about Ben Franklin, who decided to tie a key to a kite’s string and fly the kite during a thunderstorm to prove his theory that lightning was actually electricity.
Prior to Franklin’s hair-raising experiment, people didn’t know what lightning was. They just knew it didn’t strike twice in the same place.
When the key was struck by a bolt of lightning, Franklin reacted the same way most electricians react when they get jolted – he dropped the kite, cursed as he clutched his tingling fingers and gave his hat a good kick, since it was knocked off his head during the shock.
Franklin never messed with electricity again, except for inventing insulated gloves and the lightning rod, but he did go on to have a successful career peddling stoves.
Mike said he feared he had crossed some wires during the electrical hookup.
“The breaker keeps kicking off,” he said.
It was difficult for me to picture the setup in my head, seeing how I live 2,700 miles away, let alone offer a recommendation.
Since Mike is new to his neighborhood, I suggested he asked one of the locals if there was anyone who knew anything about electricity before calling me back.
The only person he found was an old guy down the street who was known to his neighbors as Sparky.
Sparky wasn’t a licensed electrician, as Mike found out, but he was a retired prison guard who worked at San Quentin. Sparky worked in the cell block that housed the electric chair.
Sparky wasn’t much help. He had nothing to do with maintaining the chair; he was responsible for shaving prisoners’ heads prior to electrocution. Sparky is still a little bitter because his job was phased out when the prison switched to lethal injections.
So it was up to me to do some long-distance wiring.
My telephone rang again, and Mike asked me to log onto my computer. He had e-mailed me photos detailing his work.
I advised him to flip the circuit breaker to the off position and use a voltage tester to double-check the breaker.
“Make sure all the wires are tightly fastened,” I said. “Then flip on the breaker.”
I feared that he would tell me he heard a snap, crackle and pop. Those sounds may be great in cereal but not in wiring.
“It just kicked the breaker when I flipped it back on,” he said.
Mike sent another series of photos showing a sequence of outlets, insulated wires and a switch with a jumble of wires sticking out from it.
Luckily I was wearing my bifocals, another Franklin invention, because I saw what looked like a spot of bare wire where the wire’s insulation was worn off. That bare wire could have caused a short in the wiring, causing the breaker to trip. A little electrical tape and the problem was solved.
I suggested he consult an electrician just to be sure everything was OK.
I was pleased when he agreed. I thought he would tell me to go fly a kite.
BY TOM LAVIS
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