Monday, January 22, 2007

The Long And Wiring Road

Warning is hereby given that throughout this posting I refer to the American standard term "ground" rather than the UK one, "earth". If you are British or from another country that uses the term "earth" you must be prepared to do some instantaneous translation. I live in America. The wiring this tale speaks of is American (though I doubt any American bonded electrician would lay claim to it) and so the terminology used is American.

Pictures of New Bog, its piping and wiring, may be found here. They will open in a new window.

I spent large portions of the weekend wiring New Bog.

Complicating matters was the fact that there are no grounds in the upstairs of Chateau Stevie. The wiring is so old that the Romex type cable has no bare conductor inside it. Clearly, if the wire doesn't have it, there is no need for it and so the mighty electricians who wired the house back around the time that the Atlatl was being developed didn't bother. In truth, I don't think "grounds" had been invented then. My theory is that the house originally ran on Mr Edison's nice DC but that awful Mr Tesla persuaded Ye Olde Long Ysland Lyght Companie to switch to nasty AC after the sheetrock was up. Either that or people were idiots back when the house was built.

Some years ago I recognised that Something Would Have To Be Done about this and bought several hundred feet of green wire on a spool in order to get started on the job. Then life happened and I never got to it. However, since code and I both hold that bathroom electrical sockets should have a ground-fault interruption device, and since those pesky laws of physics demand a working ground for optimal device functionality, I now faced The Time Of Fixing The Grounds, at least in New Bog.

A Ground-Fault Interrupt works by detecting current leakage to ground from either side ("live" or "neutral") of the power supply line. If more current flows from one line to ground than from the other, a small circuit breaker built into the device in question (in this case a socket) drops out and the power is cut. Useful if water gets sloshed over the socket.

First job was to fix that stupid cable from the overhead light to the light switch. If you remember, this is the cable that erupts from the ceiling and is stapled to the wall header in clear contravention of code, safe practice and bloody common sense (the one place where The Builders1 used a bloody staple I might add. they eschewed them everywhere one might expect them to be used). I would not be re-installing the 3/8ths sheetrock underlayer on this wall and so would have to at least make a show of doing the job properly.

I disconnected the cable and fed it into the ceiling, feeding through a bent wire coat-hanger at the same time. By this method I was able to fish the cable over the interior header on the west wall, into the west wall cavity. I then simply drilled a hole in the corner stud and fed the cable through it, and ran it back down to the metal switch box.

Which had no ground.

So I drilled a series of holes through the studs on the north wall (scene of so many fabulous archeological finds) and fed yards of green ground wire through them so I could connect the metal switch box with a metal junction box. Which also had no ground. While I was about it, seeing as I was passing within a few feet of the back of the bedroom switch box (metal, no ground), I would chain that in to the Great Ground Connection of Safety too.

None of these metal boxes had any provision for actually connecting this wire, or connecting the ground wires in them to the case for that matter, so I nipped down to Home Despot and picked up a package of little green grounding screws. These miracles of modern science can be screwed down either using a nut-spinner (a sort of small socket wrench) or a slotted screwdriver2. Of course, the metal boxes either had no holes or holes too small for these screws to fit. All might easily have been lost but for my ever-active tool acquisition powers.

Some time ago Sears had a sale and I picked up a small set of taps and dies for a song. These are devices used for cutting threads (taps cut threads in holes, dies cut them on spindles) and although they had taken a beating in Domestic Flood Xena and become quite nastily corroded, I had rescued them as best I could and now they would prove my amazing powers of getting stuff that is useful later rather than now to that Vile Harridan Mrs Stevie, who has (in the past) refered to such far-sighted policies as "buying junk".

With the aid of a magnifying glass I was able to locate a matching tap for the screws3 and with the aide of a 5/32 bit from my nice new drill set4 I soon had nicely threaded holes in all the boxes and installed the screws. I attached my Green Wire O'Grounding to external screws and the ground conductor (when there was one) to internal ones. Job not done, but well started. I reinstalled the light switch (with ground) and moved on. Once the grounding wire was run to the junction box in the east wall I could begin to fix the problems there.

Problem one was that the junction box was dangling, hanging by the cables and not fixed to anything permanent or structural. This was easily remedied with a touch of Mr Drill and a screw. I didn't even have to take off the lid of the junction box, because the builders had taken the precaution of not fitting one.

The next problem was the fitting of screws for grounds. I had one pre-drilled and tapped hole inside, which would serve for the GFI socket ground connection, but nowhere for the connection of the run from the light switch or for the final run from the box to a suitable ground. Two more holes were made and tapped and wires connected. Green wire was run from the box frame to the cold water pipe, where it was secured with a thumbscrew-like bronze clamp specially made for the job. I would rather have run back to a wire ground of some sort, but there wasn't one in easy reach. I knew the cold water lines were properly grounded and would form an adequate path path to ground.

Next up was to reduce the number of wires The Builders thought was proper in each wire nut. American electrical junctions are formed not by screwing into brass blocks like older UK ones are, but by screwing the wires into a conical plastic cap. A metal insert bites into the wires and holds them securely in contact. UK readers will think it a bit odd, but it works very well. The size of wire nut varies with the number and thickness of wires involved. Local Code holds that three wires under a nut is the maximum you should attempt, and that if you need more you should use a small jumper called a pigtail and a second wire nut. Using this technique, one group of four becomes two interconnected groups of three wires (two cable and one pigtail connection each). This also made everything a little more roomy in the crowded junction box and reduced tension on the yonksold cables, and so can be judged A Good Thing. A new cable was run from the location I planned to install the GFI socket and wired in and a lid for the junction box found from the Box O' Electric Wonders and the job was done.

Then it was a simple matter of nailing up a new plastic switch box, wiring up the GFI socket and installing it in the switch box - albeit by the light of my lame head lamp and a flashlight since dusk was happening by now - and it was time to power up everything.

I plugged in my little test plug (it shows by means of three in-built neon lights whether the socket it is plugged into is wired properly, and if not, what exactly is wrong) and nipped downstairs to throw the circuit breaker. It didn't pop right back out again, which was a good start. I ran back upstairs breathing deeply, but there was none of the burning wire and wood smell that indicates a job gone badly awry, nor were there any cascades of sparks, bangs or any other naff-wiring phenomena. When I looked into New Bog, all I could see was the welcome sight of two orange neon lamps glowing to the world that All Was Well5 and that one could take one's ablutions in New Bog without fear of electrocution. Or one could if there were any of the hydraulic fittings and accessories normally associated with bathrooms actually installed in there, as Mrs Stevie pointed out.

I didn't let this minor detail detract from my victory over All Things Electric, nor were my manly howls of triumph quieted in the least.

  1. That mysterious people known only as "Genaro"
  2. It is a feature of household electrical work in the USA that one simply cannot perform all the tasks without the possibility of needing to swap screwdrivers while up a ladder with no hands free. Since the other screws on the more modern fixtures have the sort of screw that can be done up with either a phillips or a slotted screwdriver, I just used the older type from the get-go, secure in the knowledge that any time saved by this cunning strategem would be lost to some other stupid unforeseen difficulty.
  3. number 10, 32 threads per inch, or 10-32 for those that wish total accuracy and disclosure. The size of the tap, the size of the best drill to use and sundry other information is stamped into the body of each tap. This one, being somewhat less in diameter than a pencil, had very small type stamped into it
  4. While I was at Home Despot I took the opportunity to obtain a couple of spare batteries for my drill and a set of quick-change drill bits to replace the set knocked on the floor last week by The Stevieling and now missing some pieces. She neglected to tell me about it until the area had been trampled by herds of Water Buffalo and the pieces scattered. I was feeling guilty until I remembered that my Brother- and Sister-in-Law gave me a Home Despot gift card. I was so overcome with emotion at this rememberance, I added a bunch of Torx bits (for my new Leatherman tool) to the bag
  5. There are two orange lamps and a red one. You plug it in and a pattern of lamps appears. Two orange means everything is correctly wired up and there is a ground. One means everything is correctlty wired up but there is no ground. No lamps means no electricity. If you see a red light after doing some rewiring, you should seriously think of taking up a new hobby after you pull the circuit breakers. It means you wired everything up backwards

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