Following your nose to the source of electrical problems


December 19, 1992|By ROB KASPER

Once there was light. Then there was darkness, followed by the smell of something burning.

It seemed like an appropriate time to turn off the electricity and try to fix the darkened fixture on the kitchen wall.

Experience has taught me that when doing minor electrical repair work, it is wise to flip the circuit breaker off, and to chant a reassuring phrase. Something like "Don't burn the house down."

The smelly kitchen fixture was a sconce, a wall light designed to look like a candle.

It had been installed some years ago by men who knew what they were doing, electricians. Using electricians takes all the fun out of home wiring.

Besides, it was Saturday, and the chances of finding an electrician willing to give up a weekend so he could fix one little light were slim. It was an ideal opportunity for an attempted home repair.

In the sconce's brighter days, turning the switch at its base was a snap. Now turning the switch was difficult, and the light bulbs flickered in the sconce's two sockets.

The first parts to be checked were the light bulbs. The fixture was designed to accommodate cutesy light bulbs. These were clear, looked like big Christmas tree bulbs and were no more than 30 watts. These puny light bulbs provided what the interior designers liked to call "background lighting." That meant dim.

A few years ago some high-powered, 60-watt bulbs had mistakenly been slipped into the sconce. For one brief shining moment, the lights burned brightly. Then the circuit breaker tripped, and the kitchen was plunged into darkness.

The hope was that the current lighting problem was caused by a reappearance of some of these burly, big-wattage bulbs.

But close examination of the small print at the base of the bulbs showed that the bulbs had the recommended wimpy wattage.

The next step was the examination of the sockets. The hope here was to find some object -- a piece of metal, a speck of dirt, an alien life form -- that had somehow blocked the smooth flow of electricity. The sockets were submitted to a thorough flashlight-assisted inspection that found no sign of trouble.

That meant it was time for the removal of the fixture from the wall, followed by an extended session of peering at the wires.

Taking the fixture off the wall was a big step. It was equivalent to announcing your wedding engagement. Both signaled serious intent.

When the fixture came down, wires were exposed. Home repair books I consulted recommended taking a Polaroid photograph of such wiring. The books said that when it came time to put the wiring back in the wall, the photo could serve as a guide.

The books also spoke about multicolored wires, white ones, black ones, green ones. The wires in my house, which might have been installed in Edison's day, were all one color, black.

Moreover, instead of the neat patterns shown in the home-repair book diagrams, these wires seem to follow the loop-de-loop motif.

Rather than taking a photograph, I drew a sketch tracing the route of the black wires. The sketch looked like a roller coaster ride, but when faced with the labyrinth of wires, it was a source of some comfort.

None of the wires was frayed. But one switch wire was loose. And when I started sniffing the fixture, a procedure none of the home repair books mentioned, I found that the switch had an odor problem. It gave off an awful burned aroma. It was the stink that first drew my attention to the fixture.

With the kitchen still in darkness, I ran to the hardware store and bought a new, single pole switch for the light. It wasn't an exact replica. The old switch worked by turning it from left to right. To work the new switch, you pushed it. But the new switch was the right size and it was odor-free.

I hurried back to the house. The old switch went out. The new switch went in. The fixture went back on the wall.

When the circuit breaker was snapped on, the bulbs glowed. Nothing flickered. Nothing smelled.

It was a great moment in home repair.

Since then, whenever I walk past the light, I pause and smell the sconce.

Just in case.

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