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Living in a Fire Trap (or, Adventures of Owning a House Previously Occupied by Bad Do-It-Yourselfers)

Tuesday, April 5, 2011, 12:13 EDT Leave a comment Go to comments

There’s good news and bad news on the new house front.

The good news is that I’m settling in nicely and continue to get a lot accomplished. Lately, my tasks have involved spackling and other preparation for painting. I have also repaired a few odds and ends as I’ve gone along. For example, the towel bar mounted on the tile wall in my bathroom was loose and jiggled every time I touched it, so I took it off and tightened the mount. Just like that, no more jiggle. Other items of a non-critical nature on my to-do list include screen doors that aren’t installed properly, baseboard molding not affixed with the correct nails, door knobs not fastened tightly enough, and other things I can take care of whenever I have a little time and/or money.

The bad news is that I have also uncovered some items that aren’t quite as benign. The worst so far was found yesterday by the Den Father (DF), who went to my house with a list of items he had offered to fix, including a ceiling fan/light fixture on which the lights work but the fan doesn’t.

Unfortunately, the fan still doesn’t work and I still don’t know why because DF discovered that the entire fixture is wired incorrectly. When you turn off the switch, the light goes off, but the fixture is still hot. I am told that this is because the switch is connected to the neutral wire instead of the hot wire, so even though the switch opens the circuit (thus turning off the light), the hot wire still has electricity flowing to the fixture when the switch is off. If you are thinking that such a situation sound unsafe, you win.

By way of a little recent history, I knew based on the home inspection last August that somebody had done stupid things with electrical wiring throughout the house, such as installing outlets with open ground and/or reverse polarity. I could accept those goofs and others like them that are usually not dangerous and are easy fo fix, if that was as far as it went. But anyone who doesn’t know enough to connect the hot wire to the switch has no business doing anything electrical beyond changing a light bulb.

Think of home improvement knowledge as a continuum, from “completely ignorant” to “qualified expert.” Those who are completely ignorant usually aren’t dangerous because it would never occur to them to try to do something themselves. Instead, they just call the experts. Qualified experts usually aren’t dangerous because they have adequate training, experiencing, and licensing to do things right. Between those two extremes fall the rest of us.

Now think of that middle group on another continuum, from “good sense” to “bad sense.” Those of us with good sense know our limitations; i.e. we’re smart enough to know what we don’t know and defer to someone who knows more. But the people with bad sense… well, when the issue is electricity, big problems arise.

Let’s look at it graphically, shall we?

Do-It-Yourself Danger Grid

Sensible people know their limits. They are sharp enough to say, “Hey, this project is a bit above my knowledge and/or skill level; I’d better call a professional.” Those lacking good sense, however, not only don’t know their limits, they don’t even realize they have limits. They say, “Hey, that light fixture has a screw, I can use a screwdriver, ergo I can fix that light fixture.” To them “hot” is salsa, “neutral” is Switzerland, and “ground” is what you hit when you’re too drunk to stand up. They are the people who used to live in my house.

My challenge is to find and correct all their mistakes before someone (e.g. ME) gets hurt. But if fate intervenes and I meet an untimely demise in an electrical accident, you’ll know who to sue.

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