Exposed electrical wires

I blogged about this a long time ago – back in my old blogspot days – but I’m feeling like sharing today.

Whenever my wife Vicki got angry with me for something, she always tossed this little dig at me:

“The reason we bought this house was that I thought I married a handyman who could fix or repair anything!”

I heard that a lot.  And for my efforts, I did try to get things fixed around the house whenever possible – simple things that a guy like me could handle.

It was one of those repairs that actually kept our house from burning to the ground.


In March of 2009, my wife visited my daughter Cassaundra in Seattle for a week, while I stayed home to work on some things with the Premier Basketball League.  Our house in Pine Hills was about 90 years old – I did some research on it, it was one of the first houses built on our street, when Albany expanded its neighborhoods along the Western Tunpike in the 1920’s.

Now granted, I wasn’t a master electrician, but I figured a few “How-To” videos on YouTube and a couple of “How To 1-2-3” books from Home Depot, and I had a shot.  And the big project I wanted to take care of was the light switches.

First thing that needed fixing was a faulty light switch that powered the lights in the back hallway. The light switch at the top of the stairs wouldn’t flip completely to the ON position, so the light could not be controlled upstairs (i.e., if it was on, I couldn’t turn it off).

Trip to Home Depot. I purchased a Leviton 3-Way Lighted (15A-120V) light switch, along with some black electrical tape, a slotted screwdriver, some needle-nosed pliers and a white face plate. After turning off the circuit breaker to that part of the house, I unscrewed the fugly face plate, and pulled the burned-out switch out of its housing. There were three wires that needed to be connected to this unit – I disconnected the wires from the old, burned-out switch and connected the wires to the new switch. I wrapped the unit in black electrical tape, and screwed it back into the wall housing. I added the new bone-white face plate, turned on the circuit, and …


Not only did the switch work without any trouble, but it also is an “illuminated” switch in that the toggle switch itself lights up in the dark. So if the lights are out and you need to see what you’re doing, you can at least see the switch and turn on the power.

Okay, now I’m feeling bold.

Back to Home Depot I go.  If I can replace this light switch, let’s see what happens when I try to replace some other light switches in the house.  And just for the sake of fun, I purchased an overhead lighting fixture as well.

See, in our hallway the light fixture was a simple frosted glass bowl, which was just small enough so that most lightbulbs – including any compact florescent bulbs – were too long for the space.  Again, I turned off the circuit breakers, and disassembled the overhead light from the wall.

And I got the shock of my life.

No, not THAT kind of shock – remember, I did say that the circuit breakers were turned off.

I did discover, however, that the wiring in the ceiling fixture had become old and brittle; the rubbery casing that sheathed the copper wire crumbled to the floor, leaving some very exposed and dangerous wires in its wake.

So what did I do?

At that point in time, I had three options.  I could have:

(A) put everything back together and told Vicki never to turn the light on at any time.

(B) Stumbled forward with trying to rewire the light fixture, and pray that our insurance coverage would still pay in case I get electrocuted.

(C) wrapped the wire with the handyman’s secret weapon.  Yep.  Duct tape.

And in the end, I chose Option (D).

And Option (D) was to acknowledge that I did not know enough to handle a big project like this, and it’s time to call in a professional.

The electrician showed up about an hour later, and immediately chastised me for doing my own electrical work (“Do you know we have to study electric wiring for five years before we can even be certified?”), and then he looked at the ceiling, with the exposed wires – and immediately changed his tone. “It’s a good thing you saw this,” he said, “because in old houses like this, we come across a lot of deteriorating wire – especially if the light source, like a ceiling light, is too close to the ceiling itself, the heat actually causes the wire casing to harden up and break.”

Since the circuit for the ceiling light would only affect a couple of bedroom lights, and not an important appliance like the refrigerator, we agreed to have him come back Monday, rather than have him work Saturday hours (and me having to pay Saturday rates).

Monday morning, right on time, another repairman showed up. He was already briefed on the situation, he went up to the attic, replaced the wiring and the ceiling light housing, then he installed the light fixture.  Two compact-florescent lights later, I turned on the circuit breaker, and the hallway lit up.

With light from the bulbs – not that “other” kind of lighting.

Honestly, while I wasn’t thrilled for getting chastised about doing my own work around the house, I am glad that when a situation arose that was outside of my comfort zone, I was able to make the right choice and call in a professional.

Which is why I can blog about it today – in person – and not from beyond the grave.