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Electrical Wiring Tips

When I think back on how I acquired most of my knowledge about electricity, I have to laugh. I did get some expert instruction from a wise older electrical engineer who happened to know many aspects of the National Electric Code by heart. He helped me re-wire the first house I owned. My brain was so receptive to getting this information that I absorbed everything he showed me. For example, once he showed me how to wire two 3 way switches that worked independently to power a stairwell light fixture, I instantly understood.

Getting Bitten

As I took on other jobs, I started to read books on the subject and do trial and error experiments. Back 25 years ago, I didn't have the respect I currently have for electricity. Luckily, I am still alive and my work has never caused a fire. But there have been some close calls!

I'll never forget one particular instance. If you wire an electrical panel, you quickly learn that the bare ground wires and the white neutral wires can be connected to the same bar inside the panel in certain instances. So I assumed that since you can always safely touch the bare ground wire with no fear of getting zotted that one could do the same with the white neutral wires.

One day, I was up on a step ladder with my head sticking through a suspended ceiling. I was involved in a remodeling project in a light commercial building. I needed to splice a cable into an existing circuit. To do so, I needed to connect my white neutral wire to several that were in the box. I removed the wire nut and for some reason grabbed onto them. The next thing I remember was lying flat on my back on the floor. I got shocked BIG TIME. Why? Simple! The circuit was in use and energized. The neutral wires are part of a live circuit and my body had simply become sort of an extra light bulb in the circuit. Actually, I had become a convenient path to ground.

Top Tips

Perhaps the biggest tip I can offer is to plan for plenty of circuits. The cost of a 40 circuit panel vs. a 30 circuit panel is peanuts. Two hundred fifty feet of 12 / 2 cable with ground is peanuts. Anticipate what the load for a circuit might be and if in doubt, simply add another circuit to a room addition or house. Heck, add two more!

Consider using 12/2 wire as your minimum wire size. I did that in my own home after years of frustration working at other people's homes. I could notice a voltage drop at some houses when I used my power tools. I quickly learned that I was at the end of a long stretch of 14 gauge wire. Fourteen gauge wire supports 15 amps or 1,800 watts. But 12 gauge wire is rated for 20 amps or 2,400 watts. That is a significant difference.

Plan for big tools in your garage or workshop. If you have a table saw, it should have its own circuit. Those motors can draw lots of juice on startup and when a thick board is being cut with a semi-dull blade!

Get the right tools. When working with residential electric, I use a linesman's pliers, a razor knife, a wire stripping tool and several different screwdrivers. I also have a needle nose pliers. The linesman's pliers are great for cutting cable and twisting wires together. The razor knife strips insulation from the cable and the wire stripping tool strips wire insulation in one stroke. The needle nose pliers is used to bend individual wires around outlet and switch terminal screws.

Install wiring after the plumbing and heating is done but before low voltage wiring is run. Never have wiring in the way before a plumber arrives. The heat from soldering torches has melted the insulation on many a cable or wire, trust me!

Adding wiring in older homes can be a challenge. It can be especially difficult to get wires from one floor to the next. Older homes that have cast iron drain lines sometimes offer a convenient pathway. It was not uncommon for the plumbers to create oversize holes in the floors and wall plates to accommodate their pipes as they traveled from the different floors to the roof.

On many occasions, I have been able to drop a string alongside the pipe. My best results happen when I tie a 16d common nail to the string and this acts as a weighted pointer to guide the string on its way down the chase. It helps tremendously if a person is below shining a flashlight up into the cavity. The little bit of light allows me to see the best route to follow. Once the string makes it to the basement or lower level you can pull a wire up or down through the space.

Installing the rough-in wiring for recessed light fixtures can give you a huge neck ache if you do it the way most people do. They nail up the rough-in fixture and stand on a ladder to attach the wires. The electrician I used on my jobs taught me a cool trick. Wire the fixture on the ground! Once it is complete, then lift the fixture up and nail it in place. All you have to do is figure out the length of the wire feeding the light. You can actually work backwards. Wire the light first then drop the wire to the switch or next fixture.

Wall outlet heights and locations are critical in my opinion. Many electricians choose to put boxes just 12 inches off the floor. I feel that is too low. I place mine 16 inches off the floor. What's more, I always pre-plan furniture locations. I want outlets immediately behind side tables next to couches. Why put an outlet behind a couch? I want outlets to be exactly where the fixtures or lamps will be so you don't see cords stretching to reach an outlet.

Outdoor holiday lighting outlets are very important. Plan for where you think outdoor lights will be used. Install numerous outlets that are controlled by an interior switch next to your front door and possibly a 3 way switch in your bedroom in case you forget to turn the lights out before you jump in bed!

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