Plug work leads to dead end

March 02, 2002|By Rob Kasper

AS FORREST Gump the handyman might say, life is like repairing an extension cord. It is easy to end up on the wrong end of things.

That happened to me recently. I devoted tons of mental energy, hours of frustrating labor and $2.69 to replacing the plug, or male end, of an extension cord.

Growing up with three brothers and as the father of two boys, whenever there is trouble I suspect a male. In this instance, however, I later learned that the problem resided at the receptacle - or female - end of the cord.

Instead of sympathy, family members reacted with scorn to the news that I had been barking up the wrong cord. "Why," they asked, "don't you just buy a new one?"

What I should have said was: "Because I have tools, and time and a compelling urge to mend what is broken."

What I really said was, "Because Mickey, the guy at the hardware store, talked me into it."

The truth is, I showed up at the hardware store with every intention of buying a new cord. But the store was sold out of the type - 25-foot, 16-gauge, bright orange - that I wanted. Like a lot of hardware store clerks , Mickey is an enabler to home-repair types like me. He knew that deep inside me I had this need to "fix the old" rather than "buy the new," and he tapped it.

He pointed me toward the replacement plugs, advised me on what type I would need to correctly hook up with a 16-gauge cord, then gave me a choice of colors to pick from. Once I saw that round replacement plug gleaming in basic black, I was a goner.

When I got home, I retreated to my basement workshop with the plug and old cord and gave myself a pep talk. "You can do this," I told myself. "You have done it before."

Maybe. But as I read the instructions on the back of the package, I realized that while I had, in previous years, replaced plugs, they had been plugs connected to lesser cords. There is a hierarchy of electrical cords, measured in the "gauge" of the wire. It is confusing because, like golf scores, the lower the number, the better the quality. Diameter and length also matter. Generally speaking, being short and fat is considered desirable and being long and skinny isn't. In other words, it is the exact opposite of life.

My previous plug work had been conducted down toward the bottom of the hierarchy, snapping replacement plugs on skinny lamp cords. This was a bigger job, one that was going to require stripping insulation off the cord, separating the wires, wrapping them around set screws, and then neatly battening down all the hatches.

Moreover, it was going to require mastering "the underwriter's knot": a geometric configuration that the two wires in the cord had to assume to prevent the cord from pulling free of the plug.

As I sat in the basement staring at the illustration showing the intricacies of the "underwriter's knot," I had a sinking sensation in my stomach. It was the same uncomfortable feeling I experienced decades ago, back in high school geometry class when I stared at rhomboids and trapezoids, anxiously trying to figure out what was going where. Just like in geometry class, I made several frustrating false starts on the underwriter's knot. Eventually I got it right.

It also took me a few grooming sessions with the bare wires before they curled clockwise around the setscrews. Snapping the plastic cover back over the plug innards was not easy, but it was less work than prying it off.

Once everything was in place, I glowed with a sense of accomplishment. That glow quickly faded when the bulb of the light I had attached to the newly repaired extension cord failed to brighten.

I turned off the power, pried open the plug and saw that one of my "secure" wires had come loose. I reattached it and, during subsequent trial runs, the lightbulb burned brightly.

The next day, however, the cord refused to power up any device attached to it.

After wasting two days working on the wrong end of a still-broken cord, some folks might be inclined to cough up the $8 to buy a new one. But the way I see it, for a mere $2.09, I can replace the other end, restore power to the extension cord, repair my wounded pride and still finish about $4 ahead of the game.

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