Tired of that pink-painted outlet in the bathroom? Had it with the $4 K-Mart overhead light the previous owners stuck you with? Craving some soft mood lighting in your dining space to replace the buzzing, flickering fluorescent lights? Scared of the dark shadows in the basement, cast by the lone 40-watt bulb? Sounds like it’s time for some electrical expertise!
There are certainly times when you should call upon a licensed electrician—if you’re upgrading your electric panel, rewiring a major portion of your home, or if you suspect that your wiring in general is really screwed up. Lots of amateurs with more enthusiasm than knowledge have performed a lot of scary, often dangerous, “fixes.” On the other hand, there are plenty of simple repairs and upgrades YOU can do with just a few basic tools, which will set you back roughly the cost of an hour or so of an electrician’s time. If you’re careful, safety-conscious (the amperage in most home electrical systems is enough to seriously injure or kill you, which may dampen your sense of accomplishment), and reasonably handy, you can update your tired old fixtures with something more “current.”
A short list of things you most likely CAN do:
• Replace a broken or ugly outlet or light switch
• Replace that $4 ceiling fixture
• Add lights or outlets in your basement or garage
• Enhance your entryway with stunning new designer lights
• Replace a regular outlet with a GFCI outlet
• Install a decorator switch or dimmer switch
A short list of things you SHOULDN’T do:
• Try to upgrade your electric service panel
• Attempt a major rewiring job
• Play with knob and tube wiring
• Try to install underwater lighting in your pool
• Mess with anything that’s sparking, glowing, sizzling, or otherwise scary
This is not meant to be a comprehensive list. Common sense must be your guide! (Did I mention serious injury or death…?) ‘Nuff said; let’s assemble a tool kit! With the following tools you should be able to do pretty much everything on the “CAN DO” list above, as well as tackle most other small to medium sized home electrical tasks.
A non-contact voltage detector, $10-$20
Getting zapped by a live wire or fixture hurts. Worst case, it can kill you. Assuming you’d like to prevent that from happening, you need a way to be sure the power is off where you’ll be working BEFORE you go poking around inside. The easiest way is with a non-contact tester, which lights up and beeps or chirps when it gets near live current, to let you know there’s still juice in them there wires.
Wire Stripper/Cutters, $22-ish
If you’re doing anything with electricity, it won’t be long before you need to strip a bit of insulation from a piece of wire, or cut it down to size to show it who’s the boss. A good pair of strippers makes life good (except, possibly, for Secret Service agents). With pre-sized stripping notches for the most common wire gauges (12, 14 and others), insulation can be easily stripped from individual conductors as well as the sheathing on the cable, and the sharp cutters slide through any commonly used wire. Many models include threaded holes for shearing 6-32 and 8-32 screws, which are frequently used in wiring devices. Marc really liked the Milwaukee 6 in 1 Combination Pliers which combine stripping, cutting and needle-nose action into one tool.
Set of Insulated Screwdrivers, $10
To get at most of the items you’ll be yearning to repair or replace, it will be necessary to remove cover plates, boxes, and screws on the device itself. A Phillips head and slotted-bit screwdriver set, with insulated handles and shafts, might save you from causing some inadvertent sparkage.
Electrical tape, $2
Electrical tape used to come in any color you wanted, as long as it was black. In these more enlightened times, it is available in a rainbow of colors to brighten up the innards of your electrical masterpieces. After making connections, wrap a little cocoon around your handiwork for added security. I usually wrap a piece around the edges of switches and receptacles to cover the screws, before installing them into the box, especially if the box is metal. (A note on the color palette: electricians may associate green tape with a ground wire, and white with neutral).
Assorted Wire Connectors, $2.50 for 25
Occasionally, in your quest for wiring splendor, you will need to join (splice) some wires together. Simply twisting them together and taping them up is not very secure, and violates code. The twist-on connectors are most commonly used, and a variety pack will enable you to bring together as many wires as you’re likely to encounter.
GFCI outlet tester and Improper Wiring Detector (whew!), $10
After ousting the antique outlet and installing something sleek and beautiful, it’s always a good idea to double-check the results of your feat of fashion. This simple device plugs into any outlet (despite its name, it can test both normal and GFCI outlets), and can diagnose a number of possible faulty wiring conditions (none of which were caused by YOU, naturally) such as reversed polarity or a missing ground, along with testing the proper functioning of a GFCI outlet.
All of these items are readily available from your nearest hardware or big box store, or you can find electrical tools on Amazon. For less than $70, you have the power to light up your surroundings for years to come. So get shopping, and get that &%^&$#@ ceiling fixture OUTTA there!