Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Hard Wired in Virginia

Back in 1974, in the first summer of Sandhill's existence, I bought a copy of a paperback book by H.P. Richter entitled Wiring Simplified. I think it was either the 12th or 13th edition (the drawings looked like they were made in the 40s or 50s, establishing beyond doubt the durability of H.P.'s advice). It was on sale for $0.84 and it may have been the most productive investment I ever made. In the early days of our community, there was no end to what we didn't know how to do and we needed volunteers to master the skills we were reluctant to hire out. Electrical wiring was one of those and I was the designated volunteer.

Studying Richter's guidebook religiously, I learned the basics of house wiring, and oversaw the rewiring of our farm house that first fall. Thirty-four years later I've wired every building at Sandhill and helped out with wiring here and there wherever I've traveled. I know what colored wire nut will hold how many strands of solid copper 12-gauge wire, the ampacity of 0000-gauge aluminum entrance cable, and how far to place a switch box above the floor (48 inches).

Today I was helping my old friend and ex-partner, Ann Shrader, with some wiring as part of a major expansion to her house about six miles outside Floyd VA.

(Yesterday we trimmed garlic bulbs and canned tomatoes—once a homesteader, always a homesteader. It wasn't work; it was just hanging around with a dear friend. Today I did some recreational wiring.)

For all of that, it wasn't simple. In fact, reworking old wiring seldom is. First I ran a new outlet into a newly constructed wall, and that was a piece of cake. Everything was visible and there was no insulation to navigate around, or wall covering to block access. The hard part was of overhauling a double switch right inside her back door. The box was closed in drywall and packed with fiberglass. Yum.

There were two switches in the box and both needed work. One was to be replaced with a grounded outlet (because the ceiling fan the switch controlled was being moved to another room). The other was being upgraded from one-way to three-way, so that the back porch light could be controlled from either outside or inside.

Opening up the box was no problem. But then the fun began. I was expecting three lines into the box (an incoming hot from the source, a line to the ceiling fan, and third to the back door light). But there were five. The other two turned out to be spurs to different outlets, but it took me a while to sort it all out. The ceiling fan wire (which I wanted to remove all together) was stapled securely to the stud behind the drywall and I wound up cutting it out—not elegant, but effective.

I next had to run 14-3 into the old box and it took me an hour to snake the damn thing down 38 inches of wall, dense-packed with fiberglass. Grr. After removing a couple inches of drywall (I'll patch it on my next visit) I was finally able to fish the new cable into the box. Next I had to sardine all the wires into the proper alignment and close the box with a new cover plate. My fingers are still sore from all the torquing with wire nuts and a needle nose pliers.

Finally, I horsed the new cable through the old wall and got the outdoor switch wired in tandem with the indoor one. Ann scrounged some used wire straps and we got everything secured and closed up. Happily, when I flicked the breaker on everything worked, and I had just enough time for a celebratory beer before heading out for a birthday party at the neighbors.

Nothing like a nice leisurely day in the country, I always say. Tomorrow, for something completely different, I get to drive 870 miles home. I'm looking forward to that to (and so are my fingers).

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