Electrical work: an antique profession.

I am pretty handy. I can do plumbing, light carpentry, lay carpet glue-based tiles, repair walls and then paint them, put up crown molding with mitre joints and do just about anything around the house that needs fixing. I can also do electrical work.

I understand electricity, wire gauge, amperage, breaker sizes, GFI and how to choose the right size of wire nut. Having said all of that, I really don't like doing electrical work. As a computer professional, I feel a little hypocritical by doing this work myself instead of hiring someone to do it, but in reality, the way I plan/do my jobs, I could never get a realistic up-front bid. Plus... if I can do it myself, I do it. (I do make an exception for yard work, though.)

Today I was in my detached garage which is probably 40-50 years old. I needed to hook up a quartz light that I had mounted above the driveway about 10 years ago, plus I needed to run an outlet for my old refrigerator that we moved into the garage, so that I didn't have to plug it into extension cords which is not a really safe way to power an appliance of that size.

I went to Lowes today and picked up 50' of 12/2 BX cable (this is the wire that is enclosed inside of a metal sheath so that it can be mounted outside of the wall and stay protected.) I also picked up a square metal box, two outlets and an outlet cover. Pretty simple stuff.

I came back and got to work. I shut the power off to the garage, drilled a few holes in the header above the junction box and dropped my wire down the hole. Next, I cut the metal sheathing from the end of the BX to expose the wires, then I pushed and prodded until I got the wires into the junction box and secured them down with a screwdriver.

Now, I had to unreel the cable up to the peak of the garage, over the rollup door and then back down. Each 16 inches or so I had to nail a wire staple over the wire to hold it to the joist. I am happy to announce that I did not smash any of my fingers. Any of you who have had to nail wire staples know what I mean, especially if you are holding the wire up, the staple in position and hammering it in whilst you are on a ladder with your hands way above your head in a dark spot. (This is the kind of work usually done on HGTV during the commercial break.)

I finally got the cable to the destination on the wall. Now, I had to use a screwdriver and hammer out a 1/2" knockout plug from the steel box so that I could install a little, awkward device called a cable connector. This thing has an oddly shaped nut that holds the connector in the hole and it is tightened in a strange kabuki dance type manuver where you try to hold the connector steady and you use a screwdriver to turn the nut. You can also use pliers, but either way works and either way is frustrating.

Next we thread the wire through this connector after we peel back the metal sheathing from this end of the BX, trying to not draw blood on the sharp edges and also trying not to pierce the insulation around the 12 ga wires.

The next 20 minutes was dedicated to securing the two duplex outlets to the box cover and wiring them in parallel in such a manner that the screws that connect the feed wires to the outlets are not obscured. (Yes, in a previous wiring attempt, I found that I had not connected both outlets together properly before mounting them on the cover. Fortunately, I remembered it this time.)

When I got all of the wires on and the outlets mounted, I had to hook this whole assembly into the square box. There is only about 4 inches of wire available from the BX feed and I had to hook up the ground wire first. I had to wrap two 12 ga wires around a little screw and tighten it down. Then I connected the white and black wires to the proper terminals on the outlets (made a bit easier because I purchased outlets that have back-mounted wires that do not require looping the wires around a screw terminal except for the ground wires.)

For those of you who have never done electrical work, 12 ga wire is pretty stiff. It is hard to bend in small radiuses (radii?) and it is hard to stuff the slack into the tight confines of the electrical box. I have done work with 10 gauge wire and that is even more challenging. Your fingers get sore from futzing around with the bends and the stripping and twisting of wire nuts.

As I walked back into the house to turn on the breaker and do a 'smoke test', it occurred to me that with few subtle differences, what I just did for the past three hours was the same thing Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse did after they invented modern electrical circuitry around the turn of the last century.

Sure, the back-mount outlets are nice and the plastic insulation is a lot nicer than the old style paper and tar-cloth insulation, but after over a hundred years, don't you think they could come up with a better way to do wiring? The house I live in was built about 55 years ago. Except for possibly having a breaker panel instead of a fuse box, nothing that came with this house when is any different from what you will see walking down the electrical aisle at Home Depot.

In 1956 radios had tubes, cars weighed two tons and there were only about 12 to 15 wires under the hood, hospitals and medicine was almost primitive, and computers... well, we all know what has happened with computers.

But, check out electrical work. We are still using the same type wires, same plier-like tools, still screwing down terminals with slotted screws, still prying out knockout plug from electrical boxes (or at least wrestling with those awkward tabs in the plastic boxes), still running too few outlets in a room so that you need power strips and extension cords in almost every outlet.

You would think that someone would have created a standardized, modular electrical outlet system where you could run your cable into a slotted hole, clamp down a lever and push in a special jack. Done! You can see some of this type of thing in modular office furniture, but the fit and finish leaves something to be desired and no one has moved this technology to building construction.

I am sure that the inventor of this new system would try to make a killing off of the invention until the patent ran out, and slowing down adoption because of the high price, but there is really no compelling reason for this to be. If all of the major manufacturers got together and worked with the National Electrical Code, a new system could be designed in a year or two. Think of the number of hours that could be saved on every single job.

Can you tell me that electricians actually like doing this kind of work, or is it some quasi-purgatory that an apprentice and journeyman electrician must pass through as a right of passage to becoming a master electrician because everyone before them did it that way? I don't get it.

In my 30 years of working with computers, we have gone from discrete memory chips and circuit boards with sockets for every integrated circuit to high density motherboards with everything but the processor already installed. Memory is on easy to pop in modules. Hard drives are plug and play compared to external controllers, dual cables and hand-entering bad sector tables prior to low level formatting the old MFM drives. Operating systems come with most drivers or the OEMs will include a 2CD that preloads all the drivers you need. Patching used to involve loading and rebooting after each one. Now you can run Windows Update and get over 100 patches installed at once before you reboot.

Meanwhile, my grandfather would feel comfortable fixing any wiring problem I might have in my home electrical system using his own tools.

C'mon guys, you electrical manufacturers can do better. Reinvest some of the profit you have made off of 50 years of producing the exact same product. You should all be embarrassed.


Anonymous said…
You never heard of cbus? Is it the fault of the sparkies that you have an outdated wiring system? Would you like a quote to convert your entire house to a newer, more efficient, scalable and more flexible system?
The Asterisk said…
If, by cbus, you are referring to C-Bus as described here then that is totally different from what I am whining about in my post. I am talking about the actual wires that when touched can cause smoke to emit from one's ears. 120v can get your attention pretty fast if touched. I am sure 240v makes an even bigger impression. Not concerned with the low voltage wiring that any networking doofus can connect.
Really a great post.........
Anonymous said…
I am going to make the assumption that you are a "jack of all, master of none". There has been plenty of advances in electrical standards that have provoked several changes in residential wiring over the years. Take for instance, grounding type receptacles, or even recessed lighting. If you think that you are going to need more receptacles in a particular area of a home that you are building, then you should just consult your builder, I am almost positive he would be able to oblige. As you meander through life, let me leave you with a phrase my father has always uttered to me since childhood "if it ain't broke, don't fix it"

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