Monday, January 31, 2005

Red Wire, White Wire, Little Fire, Big Fire

I am not an electrician.

My kitchen lighting fixture has been a problem in recent months. It's a ceiling fixture consisting of two incandescent bulbs covered by a (rather delightful) glass cover; frankly, it's a pretty standard overhead light for a boring white kitchen. But seeing as my adjacent living room has no overhead lighting fixture of its own, I like to use the kitchen light to supplement the one floor lamp in the living room.

A few months ago, I was changing a bulb in the kitchen when I noticed that the screw-in device that holds the glass cover in place was perilously shaky. Furthermore, no amount of turning on the nut below would sufficiently tighten the cover in its place. Fearful that leaving it "good enough" would result in a shattered glass globe -- and with my luck, it would do so while I was right underneath it -- I opted to leave the glass cover off of the fixture completely. Charming, I know, but definitely less dangerous.

I finally made it to Home Depot a few weeks ago and picked up a replacement fixture for the ceiling. I had to pick a slightly different style, partly because I wanted a change and partly because they didn't have the same model I was trying to replace. Having scanned the instructions on how to install the device while still at the store, I was confident that it wasn't that difficult to do this myself. My diminuitive height aside, I figured the actual act of wiring and installing the device -- especially since I was replacing a working fixture, not running the cable to create a whole new project -- wouldn't be all too difficult.

Of course, I was wrong.

I knew there would be a problem when I couldn't even successfully remove the existing light fixture without putting myself in peril. Having only found two accessible screws -- which I thereby assumed were the points of contact with the ceiling -- I removed them, expecting to be able to gently remove the light fixture afterward.

No such luck. Having removed the screws, the fixture stayed put. I tried gently to nudge it down, but it appears to have been stuck in place from years of ceiling-hanging. Unwilling to take hammer to the unit, I left it the way it was, unsure of what to do next.

Eventually the laws of gravity made my next move for me; the light fixture fell from the ceiling. Thankfully, it was not as bad as it sounds, for the wires were still connected, and prevented the fixture from crashing to the floor. The wrinkle, however, is that this occurred some three hours after I undid the screws.

This was contrary to my master plan; I had, after all, started the project in the afternoon so I could benefit from the natural light making its way through my windows. By now the sun had well nigh set; save for some residual glows over the tops of my neighbor's houses, I had no natural light to work by. Grudgingly, I moved my floor lamp across the room; it would now have to serve double duty.

The old light fixture only had two wires coming out of it, a black and a white. As such, the color coding scheme was easy: black to black, white to white. Hell, I could have done that. But, of course, nothing is ever easy for me.

The new light fixture had three wires sticking out of it: a black, a white, and a naked copper wire. Great. I fished around the ceiling hole and found a third wire there, too: a red one. Okay, I thought to myself, how does this work? Black to black, white to white, red to copper?

Not wanting to be an idiot about it, I consulted the instructions, which, unfortunately, provided no assistance. Black to black, it told me, white to white, and... green to copper. What? Suddenly all too many options were running through my head. There is no green wire anywhere. Is green the same as red? Or is the whole thing so messed up now I need to consult a professional? Should I be scared? It's a fucking light fixture fer cryinoutloud!

Eventually I thought common sense would dictate what goes where. Note to self: in the world of electrical engineering, Dennis! does not possess would could otherwise be called "common sense." But I connected black to black -- slighting zapping myself in the process -- white to white, and copper to red. Mildly satisfied, I ensured that the light switch was set to off, and I screwed a bulb in.

It glowed.

I looked again at the light switch: Off.

The bulb was still glowing.


In a fit of utter stupidity, I tried switching the light switch to "on." I figured if I did that, then turned it back off again, perhaps the light would start obeying the switch. Yeah, that's what goes on in my head.

I flipped the switch and promptly heard an all-too-familiar and freaky buzz followed by a light *snap*. I had blown a fuse. In the bathroom as well as in the kitchen.

After a full-on fight with my circuit breaker (which for some reason would not turn back on, with me panicking about the state of my frozen meats), I got the circuit working again. The lights, however, remained a no-go.

Now I'm calling around to home improvement stores to ask them which wires go where. Because if this apartment catches fire, I'll be very unhappy. Luckily, I also purchased a fire extinguisher when I bought the light fixture at the Home Depot. It's meant for kitchen fires, but hey, a fire's a fire.

Did I mention I also bought a new light fixture for my bathroom too?


Jon said...

I'm no use in the electrical area either- can you call your landlord? It's probably not as big a deal as you may think, but I don't want you to get electricuted!

p.p. said...

That's funny. Um... I'm no eletrician either, but have you tried to google this bad boy? G'luck!

Melissa said...

Okay I am dying to know. What happened, did you get it fixed?

Steve said...

So you're saying you're not Mr. Fix-It? You should've called me, as I'm, for some reason, butch like that. How'd it all turn out?

Dennis! said...

Hey all --

Jon: No landlord to call! It's a condo... I'm kinda stuck with DIY, CAP, or NAA (do-it-yourself, call-a-professional, or not-at-all)!

Peter: Hmmm... perhaps googling is a decent options....

As for a status update: My kitchen remains dark. My floor lamp has been moved to a position where it can illuminate both the kitchen and the living room (neither adequately), so watching tv and using my computer can cause some substantial eye strain.

No one was available from Home Depot -- or any of the thre other home improvement stores I tried -- to answer my questions yesterday, so I'm trying again today. Grrrr.

Anonymous said...

I'm dumb - and I've blown up the A/C unit trying to install a digital thermostat - but isn't the copper wire a grounding wire? Can't it just be connected to a piece of metal in the fixture that is IN the ceiling to provide a "ground" for the new fixture? Just wondering... just stumbled on the blog - love it.

--Chef Dean