Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Home Improvement: The old switcheroo

My main project for this past weekend (aside from the usual trimming hedges, taking out the trash and collecting "protection" money from local businesses) was to change out the electrical switches and outlets in our new baby's room.

The switch was one of those old-school switches from the days when people believed the electricity demons were aroused by the loud clicking noise the switch made, thus turning the light on. It was loud, is what I'm sayin'. So I decided to replace it with a fashionable modern switch that wouldn't wake up the baby (and the neighbors and the North Koreans) with such a loud clicking noise.

As for the electrical outlets, they were the old two-prong outlets. I wanted to upgrade to three-prong outlets because three is better than two (just ask The D).

Anyway, as a public service I documented the procedure so that you, yes you, can do the same upgrade without hiring a licensed electrician which could easily cost double the value of your entire house.

First, the basic tools. For this project, you'll need a screwdriver, wire cutters, wire strippers, an electrical current tester (optional), a utility knife, and a Boulevard Unfiltered Wheat.

We'll start with the switch. The first thing you need to do -- and this is of minor importance -- is find the breaker switch that controls the electrical circuit for the room. It's probably in your basement (next to the pick axe and trunk full of spare rubber trousers) and hopefully it's labeled. Turn off the breaker before you begin. You'll know it's off if you flip the light switch and the light doesn't turn on.

Got it? Good. Now remove the screws holding the switch plate/cover onto the wall.
Use your screwdriver for this. I used a cordless electric power screwdriver (because why should I have to do all the work), but a manual one works just fine if you're into that kind of thing.

Now you can see the actual switch hardware attached to the switch box. You'll want to unscrew the two screws (at the top and bottom of the switch) that hold it in. Your goal is to remove the screws and pull the switch hardware from the box housing.

But here's a tip: If your house is old (like mine) chances are that part of the hardware has been painted to the wall. So before you pull the switch out of the box, be sure to cut the paint around the switch so that it doesn't tear a big strip of paint and drywall off your wall.

Okay. With the screws removed and the paint cut, pull the switch out of the box. It will be attached to the rest of the house with two (or more) insulated copper wires. Stretch these out and pull the whole assembly a few inches from the wall to give yourself room to work.

Now is a good time to test to make sure there's no current running through the circuit. There are a couple of ways to do this. One, lick your finger tips and touch any of the dark copper colored screws on the back of the switch. If they're "hot" -- if electrical current is running through them -- you'll get an exciting electric shock. Man, what a rush!

Fun as that is though, I prefer the second way. Use a tool especially designed to check for electrical current. Just touch the electrode to the back of the switch (or to the copper wires themselves) and an alarm sounds if the current is on.

If you did step one correctly and turned off the breaker switch, you should be fine to proceed.

With the switch housing pulled away from the wall, use your wire cutters to snip the white and black (and other, if you have it) wires from the old switch. Be sure to cut fairly close to the switch to leave yourself plenty of wire to work with in installing the new one.

Now you can discard the old switch. Good riddance! And if you haven't done it yet, now is a good time to take a nice long swig of Boulevard. If you've already done that step, good for you. Your already ahead of the game.

With the two (or more) wires exposed, the next step is to remove some of the insulation from the copper so that they can be connected to the new switch.

Use your wire strippers to remove about three eighths of an inch of insulation. If you're not sure how much that is, there's probably a gauge on the back of the new switch that shows how much insulation to strip.

So now, you should have (at least) two wires sticking out from the wall with a tip of gleaming copper at the end. One of these will be white and the other black. Believe it or not, the hard part is over! Congratulate yourself and take another pull off that Boulevard. You deserve it!

At last you're ready to install the sexy new switch. The good thing about new switches these days it that they have been redesigned so that you can almost literally just push them into the wall and they'll work.

So grab the new switch and check out the back. Look carefully and you'll see a couple of screws on either side, and some corresponding holes on the back.

As with much in life, those holes are the key making this project fun. It used to be that you had to shape the stripped copper into a little loop and tighten the side screws around them. No more my friend. We live in the future now. All you have to do is push the stripped copper wires into the holes (hehe) and you're pretty much done.

Take note of which hole is which, though. One of them will be labeled "white (blanco)" -- this is the hole that the white wire goes in (duh). If you put the black one into the white hole, you'll trip you breaker switch when you turn the power on. Also, you'll probably cause a rift in the space-time continuum (and believe me, you DO NOT want that in your kid's bedroom).
One other thing: If your house is newer, there might be an uninsulated copper wire as well. This is the ground wire and should be attached to the ground screw on the switch (usually greenish colored). There's no hole for this one, so you'll have to attach it old-school.

At this point, with the wires attached to the switch, I like to test my work before I go any further. So I polish off the last of the Boulevard and head down to the basement to flip the breaker on and grab another beer.

With the breaker on and beer in hand, head back up to the room and turn on the switch. If the light comes on and there are not sparks and your house doesn't catch fire, then congrats, it's wired correctly.

If not, don't sweat it. Probably the worst that will happen is the breaker switch will automatically cut the circuit and you'll have to start all over. If this happens, you might want to go easy on the beer, because this really isn't that complicated of a project.

Just to be safe, go turn the breaker off again before putting the switch back into the wall. Carefully jam all of the wires and switch housing into the switch box and line up screws on the switch with the screw holes on the switch box.

From here, it's just a matter of doing the first couple of steps in reverse. Screw the switch to the switch box. Now get the switch plate/cover and screw it to the switch. Don't forget to turn your breaker back on when you're finished.

It really is that easy.

For the electrical outlets, it's pretty much the same process but use an outlet instead of a switch. I'm not going to repeat all of the steps again, because I'm out of beer.

But good luck with your project. Let me know how it goes (or if you need me to call the fire department).

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  1. anyone can do it with the Boulevard.they should sell it under tools at home depot.

  2. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  3. Hey 3-O-C, howdy!
    Thank you for reading my humble bloggie. This is geaaaat.
    Now I know I have FOUR readers!
    2 are from Australia (The Friggin Loon & Celtic Queen)
    1 from Limerick, Ireland (Unstranger)
    and now....A KC resident.
    I am honored.
    My wife doesn't even read my blog.

    About the post, I have done my own residential wiring. I plumbed and wired my own laundry room. Also my last job was heavy on electricity. Wiring diagrams....yuck.

    My mediocre blog usually has more frequent posts, but as you see, sometimes "Meatspace" gets in the way of my incurable blog habit.

  4. If your going to take the time to upgrade your electrical outlets you might as well get the new fire-prevention outlets. They prevent any electrical fires and is something you do not have to worry about. I just installed them in my home and they were reasonably priced and well worth it. Here is the link if you are interested.

  5. It is useful to establish limits on how much time and money you're willing to invest before deciding a repair for switch.

    A great blog. Keep on posting.

  6. I have never read such a nice blog about adding an electrical outlet in the house. I was looking for some tips to fix an electrical outlet in my home since; I have changed the position of my computer and television as a part of home improvement by replacing furniture and ceiling. So that I can save some money, I will implement the tips given here. Anyway thanks for the info.

  7. I was wondering if this would fit in my temporary walls new york. I wanna try it when I got time.


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