This is the time of year to start thinking about those indoor projects you've been putting off... like replacing that old wall switch with a new dimmer, adding a ceiling fan in the bedroom or to install electrical outlets to upgrade and match your new dimmer switch! As a homeowner, you may be permitted to do these things, but in some states even simple jobs like these are not allowed. You should check with your local building department.
Fixing or upgrading broken outlets or switches and lights, however, may be different. if you own the home and are not intending to sell, lease, rent or exchange it, then you are the "general contractor" and may perform certain repairs and upgrades. If you don't own the home, then all electrical work must be performed by a "licensed, bonded and insured" electrician. Safety is the only issue.
To be prepared, you should first add a few tools to your toolbox. There are really only four tools you absolutely must have - a pair of wire cutter/strippers - for cutting, crimping, bending and stripping the rubber insulation, a pocket voltage detector - for ensuring the device is not "live", a neon tester for checking outlets and wires on electrical items and a GFCI tester - to test outlets in the bath and kitchen to see they are properly grounded and code compliant. All four can be purchased for less than $25 total. Google these four to see what's available and what they look like.
So, getting back to those switches and outlets. If you've never done any electrical work, you too must keep safety in mind. The work itself is pretty easy... if it weren't for the potentially deadly electrical current. So before you begin any electrical project you must first make sure that the electricity is no longer traveling to the item you'll be touching. As the homeowner, you should already know where the service panel (called the breaker box by some people) is and how to flip the individual breakers. If you don't know where your box is, put down the mouse and go find it!
It should be on the inside wall close to where the wires come in from your electric meter (follow the wires from the pole at the street to the house). Most service panels are grey in color (unless its been painted) and installed at eye level. Open the metal door and you'll find a dozen or more switches (breakers) that flip on and off horizontally (not vertically, like your wall switches) and a main breaker (usually at the top) which cuts the power to your entire house when switched off.
Glued to the inside of the door you just opened you'll find a paper listing areas that each of the breakers service - hand written and, hopefully, accurate. Spend a few minutes here. If an electrical something in your home ever shorts out or goes wrong, it may be critical that you know what to do! Using your pocket voltage detector or your neon tester, check the actual outlet you plan to work on, making sure its live. Go back to the service panel, find the breaker listed for that outlet (probably called "living room", "basement outlets" or whatever) and flip it off.
Go back to the outlet and check again. The light on the tool should NOT come on now. If it still activates, go back to the service panel and try another breaker until you have positively cut the power to that item. Of course, you can have your mate or a friend stand by the outlet checking while you stay at the service panel flipping. When they yell "Its Off!" make sure nobody flips it back on until you are finished working. If you're replacing your ceiling light with a fan, use that light to ensure that the correct breaker is on or off and follow the included instructions that came with the fixture.
Now you can safely take off the switch or outlet faceplate, unscrew the two slot screws on the outlet or switch and carefully pull the item toward you. Check it one more time before you touch any wires, though. The wires should be screwed on to your new switch or outlet EXACTLY as they were on the old one, and if you need to mark them before you take them off, do so... using tape and a sharpie. Some wires are attached by being pushed into small holes on the back of the item and released by pushing a small screwdriver into the small square hole beside the wire hole and pulling the wire.
Once you have your new device in hand and are sure you know where the wires go, carefully put it all back together and, before you screw on the faceplates, flip the breaker back on and check everything out. The outlets, switches and even the tools are fairly cheap and the process is pretty simple. If you're careful and pay attention to the details, you'll have everything back together and functioning in no time!
Durand Demlow is a designer, home remodeler and website developer. His knowledge and experience has allowed him to create a website focused on helping do-it-yourselfers and homeowners with free remodeling and decorating ideas. His website, RemodelQuickTips.com is an ever-changing resource of DIY concepts and advice.
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