Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Lights up...lights down

It's always something when you own a home. I just didn't expect a light show in my living room.

For several months now, the living room lamps have been flickering. For no reason, the brightness will go dooooown, and then uuuuuup, taking several seconds to do each excursion. The pendant light in the kitchen was doing it too. Then, the overhead light in the den tried the maneuver. That isn't good. That's all I knew about it.

Electricity scares the whiz out of me. I once installed a mercury vapor light outside of my house on a pole, and the whole time I was up on the ladder I was begging my husband - "Just tell me the power is shut off again. Are you SURE?" That's kind of embarrassing for a retired engineer to admit, but hey, I was a mechanical engineer. I took electrical circuits classes in college, but having knowledge about something doesn't preclude having irrational fears about it!

So when the lights started doing that, I wanted to go to the professionals. I knew that my neighbor had just had some electrical problems right after the power company had gone through the neighborhood cutting vines off power poles and clearing vegetation near the wires. Her lights had been going on and off, too, and other strange things happening (a circuit breaker and a wall oven computer control damaged). There had been some sort of damage done to the connections on the pole where her service was taken off, and the power company had to do repairs - she didn't understand exactly what. Meanwhile, of course, they wouldn't accept responsibility for any of the electrical stuff and she had to buy a new oven and ask her son to replace the bad breaker.

The first thing I did was call the power company to check the line coming into the house. My husband (the electrical engineer) had said that a weak neutral on the transformer would cause voltage fluctuations that would make the lights dim. So, remarkably quickly, the power company people showed up. They tested the voltage and current coming into my house on their side and on my side of the meter. Not a problem was found. So, gulp, it was in my hands.

This was an excuse to do something that had never been done in the forty years my house has existed - map the circuits in the breaker box. Of course, I approached it like a retired engineer - I drew up a schematic of the house, locating every outlet and wired fixture and identifying them by a numbering scheme. Then, I made sure a lamp or something I could monitor was plugged into every single outlet in the house, turned them on, and then turned on every hardwired light fixture. My house looked like Las Vegas.

I warned my husband that his computer should probably be shut off, and then out to the garage I went. Then, for almost two hours, I did the following:

1. Turn off a breaker.
2. Wander the house, noting which outlets/lights/appliances were now shut off.
3. Annotate my schematic to show which of the above were attached to that breaker.
4. Turn on the breaker.

Repeat - 16 times. Blessedly, someone had the forethought to label the 220 volt circuits to the heat pump, the water heater, dryer, oven etc. So I only had to worry about the 110 volt lighting section. That was enough.

When I reached the third from last breaker (which controlled the living room lights) and turned it back on, I heard a sizzling sound coming from it, like someone was frying a pan of bacon. Oops. Think I found the problem. So I finished the last two quickly and told my husband about it. His response was to turn it off immediately. The contacts in the breaker were arcing - definitely not a good thing. We'd have to replace it. It's a simple job; there was only one problem. The service into my house does not have a main disconnect.

I kind of stood there with my mouth hanging open when I realized that. Heck, the electrical panel in my older former house that had fuses instead of breakers, for heaven's sake, had a main disconnect. What crazy electrical code was this place built to? So anyone who worked on the box would have to do it with the power live, or call the utility company to turn off the service and then reinstate it. My husband said he could replace the breaker anyway. Heck no, I said. So I ran an extension cord from the den to power the TV and a table lamp that night while I considered options. A quick canvass of my neighbor and friends revealed that no one had hired an electrician and had any recommendations.

The next day, husband said he was going to fix the breaker. It was ridiculous, he said, to pay $200 for such a simple job. But, I retorted, I wasn't emotionally attached to the electrician - he was expendable. Husband convinced me it would be OK. So, I gathered up my courage (and rubber gloves and a rubber door mat for him to stand on!) and thus outfitted, and hopefully insulated, he went into the garage and swapped out the breaker, me standing there the whole time holding my breath with one hand near the wooden handle of the broom, which I was going to use to pull him away from the panel when the sparks started flying. Of course, he did it without any problems at all (he's a professional!).

So now the issue is fixed and my lights don't look like the marquee of the Tivoli Theater. What a relief.


Suzan said...

Hey! Electricity is scary! My ex-husband wanted to put a ceiling fan in our bedroom to replace the overhead light. Before he did that, he asked if the power was off and I told him that I had turned it off at the breaker. He said "No, turn off all the power to the house" so I did. I came back with the update and he then (smiling) said "Now call Virginia Power and ask them to shut down the block!" My new house has 2 breaker boxes and neither on is labeled with anything except the 220 lines. Apparently they are used boxes since the labels that are on indicate rooms that I do not have. I have been putting off the nightmare of labeling but I guess it is a good idea!

paula, the quilter said...

We had to replace our breaker box when we installed the AC so the labeling was done then. Electricity scares me spitless.