I cheated death again last week. I managed to successfully add onto an existing 20-amp GFI circuit from my pool’s 30-amp sub panel. (I really don’t know if I used all those electrical terms correctly, but it sounded cool, didn’t it?)
I managed to install two new outlets and two ceiling fan boxes under our backyard patio cover - wired them and everything - and they actually work! And as of today, the patio cover has not exploded into a fireball, so that’s a big win. (I didn’t bother to get a permit, so don’t tell anyone. Also, if you see a big fireball in my backyard, just ignore it, please.)
I learned three things in my triumph over electricity this past week:
1) If I didn’t love being an author so much, I could probably go equally as broke being a slow and unknowledgeable electrician.
2) Using a screwdriver and pliers near a stucco wall shreds your knuckles faster than jamming your hand into a Cuisinart.
3) Blood doesn’t come off stucco very easily, and if you try to do it wrong, you just add more blood.
My knuckles are still a little too swollen to type effectively. (I have typed this entire thing with my elbows and my nose. It has taken six hours.) So instead, I am revisiting a column from a few years ago about a slightly less successful electrical project.
I think every once in a while, a man has to cheat death in order to feel truly alive. Either that, or because of our male DNA, we just keep doing really stupid things, surviving them somehow, then telling ourselves that every once in a while, a man has to cheat death in order to feel truly alive.
Since I gave up professional snowmobile motocross, I tend to mainly cheat death these days with home repair. It’s a win-win, really, because not only do I get to feel truly alive, but occasionally I accidentally fix something. This last time was not one of those times.
Our air conditioner quit working last week. That was a very unfortunate situation, since our house is currently sitting on the surface of the sun. It was 104 degrees the day it died. That is not cool. Fortunately - for her anyway - my wife was leaving with the kids the next day for a week-long excursion without me. That meant I would be left to sweat profusely by myself until the air conditioner guy could come out. “No problem,” I thought, as I dialed up the repair man, “I can make it a day or two.”
“Sorry, sir, but we’re scheduled out past a week at this point. We can be there next Wednesday.”
“Uhh… Can you repeat that? I had sweat inside my ear and I thought I just heard you say next Wednesday.”
It turns out that air conditioner problems are a pretty common occurrence here on the sun, and I had heard him correctly. I reluctantly scheduled my convenient four-hour window of time, and hung up the phone. As I wiped my face sweat from the phone’s front screen, I vowed to try and fix it myself in the meantime. I was mildly concerned that I might accidentally dehydrate until I remembered that beer is full of water. No problem there, but I really just wanted to be cool, and I could always cancel the appointment. Besides, I hadn’t cheated death in a while.
Through some very high-level troubleshooting at the circuit breaker panel on the side of my house, I had noticed that the breaker was tripping when the air conditioner tried to come on. I also noticed that the breaker would trip even when I had the A/C turned off. I obviously had a bad circuit breaker! I can fix that! I think…
I know what I’m doing with electricity in the same way that a teenager knows how to drive a car. I am familiar with the main concept, but I am severely lacking in skill and comprehension on some of the finer points.
What I do know is that electricity is amazing. Take a refrigerator for example. Electricity runs the compressor that makes the refrigerator cold, in turn, making your beer cold. Electricity also runs the little light bulb inside the refrigerator, making it possible to find the cold beer, even in the dark. Light bulbs are hot. Electricity is responsible for both cold and hot in the same machine, all resulting in the ability to find and drink a cold beer, any time of the day or night. Simply amazing!
I also know a little about the units involved in describing electrical circuits. Many people are confused by the relationship between Amps and Volts, and many others simply don’t know what they are at all. It’s really quite simple, actually.
Amps are the measurement of electricity’s ability to kill you, in units of consecutive missed heartbeats. Getting shocked by a 3-amp circuit will probably be survivable, but a 30-amp circuit will do you in. You simply cannot survive missing thirty consecutive heartbeats.
Voltage is the measure of how far the electricity will throw you while the amps are killing you. Volts are measured in inches per death. For instance, a 480-volt circuit will throw you 480 inches, or 40 feet, while the amps are turning you into a baked potato.
The circuit for my A/C unit has a 40-amp breaker. Forty consecutive heartbeats are too many to miss. I think it is also 220 volts, which means if I screwed up, my body would be found a little over eighteen feet away from the panel. That would put me squarely in the middle of my neighbor’s driveway.
Speaking of my neighbor, I was a little conflicted there. My family had left, so I was all alone. I wanted someone to know that I was about to attempt to cheat death, on the off chance that I had only missed ten or so heartbeats and was only blown five or six feet from the panel and clinging to life. On the other hand, our neighbor is old and I didn’t want to scare her. I decided someone was bound to drive by and see me smoking on the driveway, so I didn’t bother her.
I removed my wedding ring. I’m not a hundred percent sure why this is necessary, but I just know that professional electricians don’t wear them. I think it’s so when your wife is collecting your personal belongings after you die, she doesn't have to try and pull it off your charred ring finger.
I then watched a few YouTube videos on how to change a breaker, and instantly became an expert. I got my screwdriver and approached the electrical panel, mostly almost confident. I carefully unscrewed the panel cover and carefully removed it, very carefully. I was sweaty.
There, behind the circuit breakers, I could now see the “bus bar,” which is a Latin for “metal strip of death.” It is a large copper plate that all the circuit breakers clip onto, and it is brimming with kill-you-instantly electricity. I was fairly sure that I could disable the bus bar by switching the large main circuit breaker off. I could see another copper plate coming from under another protective cover that looked like it was going to the main breaker, but I wanted to be sure.
I carefully unscrewed the other cover and carefully removed it, very carefully. There behind the panel, I was face-to-face with all of the electricity for the entire neighborhood, coming in from the street on two wires as thick as Costco polish sausages. This was not on any of the videos.
I should not have removed this cover.
Sure enough, they were attached to the plate running to the main breaker, so I was almost confident that shutting the main breaker off would kill the bus bar, but I knew for a fact there was no way to shut off the power to the two giant cables of doom that I had just uncovered.
I was now sweating and moving like the guy diffusing the bomb in the action film. If I accidentally touched the metal cover or my screwdriver to either of these humongous wires, I would receive enough Amps and Volts to miss a month’s worth of heartbeats and weld my body to the stop sign at the end of the street. Despite the gallons of sweat and nervous hand tremors, I managed to replace the cover and screw it down without incident.
Crisis averted. Death cheated, yet again.
I switched off the main, removed the old 40-amp breaker, and took it to Lowe’s to find a new one. They had an exact match, and new one in hand, I drove back to my house confident and even a little proud. Today, I know everything there is to know about electricity. Today I am an electrical super-genius. Today I am Tony Stark from Iron Man.
I slapped that new breaker in, buttoned up the panel cover, and flipped the main back on. Confidently, I flipped the new 40-amp breaker on… only to have it trip right back off.
Hmm… Electrical super-genius Tony Stark did not seem to fix anything here. In fact, all I seemed to have accomplished was spending eleven dollars on a breaker I didn’t need and getting to reset all the clocks inside an 85-degree house. Not awesome.
After spending the majority of the rest of the week in my car with the A/C running, I’m now in the middle of my convenient four-hour window, waiting for the real electrician to arrive and actually fix something. I don’t think I’ll tell him this story.
Oh, well. At least I cheated death. I feel truly alive!
See you soon,
Copyright © 2017 Marc Schmatjen
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