Michigan Trip DIY Blitz

Part of my recent trip to Michigan to spend time with my parents resulted in a mini-blitz of small projects around their home. I absolutely loved the opportunity to help my folks and work on the house I grew up in. This isn't much of a step-by-step, how-to post, since I didn't shoot nearly enough pictures, but you might pick up some nuggets along the way.

As an old cottage, the home is a Frankenstein blend of decades and decades of expansions, renovations, and repairs done well before my parents bought the place in the mid 1970's. Like my own home, it's still full of surprises.

It was a challenge to use someone else's tools. I enjoyed the game of figuring out what to use from my Dad's collection, and where he stored it. He had everything I needed and if I asked, he' d send me to the right location, but I really enjoyed poking around in his workshop and using different tools than I am accustomed to. It was fun.

The mighty Craftsman 7.2 volt drill

This particular species surfaced just after the extinction of the dinosaurs. (Craftsman-icus Seven-point two volt-us)

I started the blitz with a florescent, four-tube light in the kitchen. My brother had already been by and replaced the lamps, but it still wasn't working. It turned out ballast needed to be replaced.

The wiring conditions were scary.Through the small metal mounting strip for a globe style fixture poked the hot and neutral wires, with no insulation.

The original wiring was so old that the insulation had simply disintegrated, leaving those two wires within a quarter inch of each other. In electrical terms, I call that "not good."

Knob and tube wiring madness

"Not good"

After my Dad and I grabbed a new ballast and a few supplies he didn't have in stock at the home center, I pulled the whole fixture down to clean up the wiring. I trimmed it back a little and wrapped the remaining insulation with electrical tape to prevent further decline before adding brand-new wire to extend it safely into the fixture.

Oh yeah, remember friends, before you play with electricity, be sure to visit...

Rather than unnecessarily work overhead, I replaced the ballast while the fixture was still on the ground. Yes, my folks do cook on that stove. I'd learned to fry potatoes and make omelettes on that ancient, gas powered beast as a teen.

1800's Detroit Jewel Stove

The old Detroit Jewel

I zapped the fixture back up onto the ceiling with fresh toggle bolts and wired it in again.

Next, I replaced the broken hanger wire on a mirror / coat rack that my little nephew had pulled down. He'd yanked on an apron a couple nights earlier and narrowly missed being cracked on the head. Luckily the mirror didn't break.

That was a super easy fix. Hung and done.

The light switches in the basement stairwell were next. My mom wanted them replaced with fresh white switches.

Unfortunately, the local handyman had cut the opening too big to mount the switches properly. The ears wouldn't reach the edge of the drywall for support.

I used these neat little outlet spacers. They slip behind the mounting yoke of a plug or switch so they can be supported properly against the box.

Ideal Outlet Spacers

You just cut off what you need and fold them, accordion style, snapping them together like Legos. They slip right around the 6/32 mounting screw.

Ideal Outlet Spacers

Decent wiring here at least.

With the switches in and working, I moved down the stairwell to replace a dark brown receptacle, halfway down. It was old school, with no grounding prong. If there was no grounding wire in the box, I'd have to install a GFCI to be legal. You cannot simply install a standard three prong outlet where there's nothing to attache that third prong to. 

It was the same messed up wiring I'd found in the kitchen. It was a mess. The conductors were entering from opposite sides of the box and they were seriously worn out. There was no grounding wire either. I think it's old knob and tube wiring

Rather than replacing the receptacle I removed it. I cleaned up the wiring, taped it up good with fresh wire nuts and sealed the box with a single-gang blank cover. With an outlet at the top and the bottom of the stairs, there's no point in having on halfway, plus an extension cord from there is just a trip hazard.

Continuing down to the basement, I worked on a wall where the paint keeps peeling off. Apparently there had been some sort of water softener discharge issue years ago that had leeched salty water against the outside wall and eventually caused the paint to peel. Subsequent paintings were unsuccessful.  

I took a wire brush to it and cleaned off everything I could, tasting saltiness in the dust, There was a slight sparkle in the block and grout, probably salt, not a good sign for success.

The wall had been sealed / primed at some point. It didn't stick though. Rather than repeat the same thing, we decided to experiment with a flexible rubber coating. I've seen similar stuff on TV turn a screen door into a watertight boat, surely it would stick to this salty wall,.. right?

I put the stuff on initially in a thin coat and let it dry. After that, I blasted it on fairly thick. It ran a little bit, but nothing too noticeable for a basement wall,

Arrr,... take that ye' salty wall.

                           - AZ Pirate Guy

The fumes were staggering in that enclosed space, so I had to open up some windows and set up a box fan to exhaust that foulness outside. I closed the upstairs doors to keep the nastiness away from my Dad's lungs.  

It looked great!

The next morning, it was already peeling slightly. This one is a fail.

The last big project was a falling run of duct work, in the basement ceiling. I think the run had been stretched out a bit, back when they'd had the kitchen remodeled about  20 years ago. It finally started to drop in recent years.

My brother Jim and I pushed it back together and wired it up again. We wrapped the loose joints with foil faced tape and ran a few new screws into place. 

On one end it was actually hanging from a wire twisted around a drain pipe. We lifted it up with a fresh new piece of hanger wire, screwed into the framing. 

The ole drain-pipe hanging trick eh?

It was fun working alongside Jim and his legendary sideburns again.

There were plenty of other little things that got tackled before the trip was over. A tripped breaker that knocked out a kitchen receptacle got reset, the water softener was reloaded with salt, and the snow blower was put away, just a handful of little things 3,000 miles of continental United States normally prevents me from helping my parents with. 

Jim and I ran into town to pick up some supplies for one last project...

Tube-steak heaven.

That's right, honest to God, authentic, Detroit-style coney dogs. 





That's how it's done.

DIY Lamp Repair - A Fixing Stuff Adventure

The switch on our living room lamp broke, leaving my favorite quiet spot too dark. Being the handy guy about town that I am, I thought I'd take a stab at repairing it rather than search for a new lamp. How hard could it be? As it turns out, it was technically very easy, but physically, this particular lamp was a bit tricky.

Lamps are simple creatures. Generally, they're a series of raceways that the electrical cord goes through to reach the socket for the light bulb. There's hollow tubes, threaded nipples, nuts, washers, lock washers, and screws, but that socket is where all the real action is. The rest is just decoration and structure.

To start, it's an easy operation to unscrew the finial that holds the shade in place. 

This floral shade is way to pretty for my workshop.
With the shade removed, guest of honor was immediately revealed, the socket. This is where the light bulb threads in and receives its life-giving electro-juice. Speaking of light bulb juice, it goes without saying, I hope, that this project should be done, with the lamp unplugged.  

Our switch knob was mysteriously broken off. Those of you with children have undoubtedly heard many times before, "I don't know..." (what happened to it). 

The next series of events was simply a dis-assembly process. First, I took out the little set screw that keeps the socket from unscrewing from the nipple. I use an insulated screwdriver, which not necessary here, but it's my favorite one, a nice comfortable Klein. Unlike the beautiful new one Jeff at Home Repair Tutor used on his florescent light repair last week, mine looks like it's served in front-line combat. I'm jealous.

Removing the set screw.
This socket unscrewed in the middle. Some versions simply need to be popped open to expose the electrical connections.

There was no slack in the wire. I couldn't pull the socket from its housing to get at the screws, so I chucked the whole lamp up on the workbench and fed the cord up from the base, into the vertical, hollow pole. 

Many floor lamps are simple, stick-straight units, but this one has an articulated arm. The power cord is fed through very narrow tubes with tight bends. I had to unscrew each section to get as close to the joint as possible, to feed the cord. Channel Lock pliers did the trick nicely.

Once the retaining nut is off, whole sections come apart easily. Little caps pop off to allow access to the joints. I took the liberty of promptly dropping this one and crushing it under my boot, like an oaf.

Once the joints were open, it was a "simple" matter of man-handling the cord up towards the socket, feeding it and pulling slowly, taking care not to damage the cord. Damaging the insulation is referred to, in technical, electrical terms as, "BAD".  A bare copper conductor, without the protection of the rubbery cord coating, touching the metal parts of the lamp would cause a direct short, hopefully tripping a breaker, instead of much worse. 

A little of the old push 'n pull technique
With enough slack to pull the socket itself out, you can see there is a silver screw and a brass one, just like a a wall outlet. The important thing to watch here is identifying which wire goes where. You can't tell what color the they are. You can mark one with tape as you pull it off or, even better, look very closely at the two wires that make up the cable. In this case, the neutral (grounded conductor - normally a white wire) has ridges on the outer jacket, while the hot (ungrounded conductor - normally a black wire) is smooth. Remember this for later.

Like Ruffles, it  has ridges.
I still needed more slack to install a new socket. It wasn't easy at all. There was no space in those transitions and I had trouble getting the cord to budge. So, I used a trick a salty old electrician shared with me years ago. Normally, electricians use a special lubricant when pulling wire through conduit. In a pinch, he showed me they can use dish soap. I was in a pinch, so...

Yes, it's "green apple" scent.
I fought the cord, bit by bit through the fixture, leaving slack at each elbow. The slippery soap helped, and kept me from damaging the wire.  

With enough slack pulled and more than enough parts strewn haphazardly across my workbench, it was time to quest out into the open world for the replacement parts. I headed out to my friendly neighborhood hardware store with the old socket in my pocket and dreams that their popcorn machine would be in action. Surely they'd have something in stock I could use (besides a bag of free popcorn).

I faced the electrical lighting section at the hardware store. They had EVERYTHING! There's parts for all kinds of stuff that I never paid attention to. Heck, you can build your own lamp with the stuff they have here. 
Note to self: future project - find a shapely, plastic woman's leg and make my own, fragile Christmas Story lamp to display in our front window. The wife will love it!

Of the various sockets, I chose a replacement 3-way rather than a standard on/off only switch. This allows the use of a bulb with three filaments for different lighting levels. This works nicely with a  30/70/100 watt light bulb. It's something you can retrofit onto an existing on/off fixture for a nice upgrade. They were actually the same price.

Returning home, sadly without any popcorn, I cracked the new socket open like an egg. It was a snap-together unit, rather than threaded like the old one.

The base then screws onto the nipple from the lamp and gets held in place again by the set screw. Its easy to peel the two wires apart by hand, since I finally had plenty of slack to work with. 

 Here's a close up of those ridges on the neutral wire. Take a look at a lamp cords in your house. They'll probably have these and you've never noticed it. I think it's a secret communication method left to us by Ben Franklin. The string hanging down from his kite with a key probably had ridges just like this. That dude was smart.

Believe it or not, I've never had a manicure my whole life. Honest!
Remember to use the correct wire on the its corresponding termination screw - with the neutral landing on the silver screw. This is important. If you reverse the wires, the lamp will work just fine, but there's a safety hazard. The threaded shell for the lamp becomes the hot, electrified portion and the contact tab deep in the socket becomes the grounded neutral. This places the dangerous, "hot" way too close to accidental contact should anyone ever change a lamp with the switch on (and who hasn't done that?). Considering the lamp itself is metal, that's a recipe for pain, or worse.

I stripped the insulation back a half inch using wire strippers, twisted the strands together, and wrapped it around the screw clockwise. As the screw is tightened, it pulls the strands tighter rather than pushing back a rat's nest of frizzy copper. I wanted a good connection with no loose copper strands to sticking their electrified noses where they didn't belong.

After that, it was just a matter of reassembling everything I had taken apart, in reverse order. It's probably best to lay the pieces in order on your workbench rather than fling them randomly about like I did, resulting in a pissed-off Easter egg hunt. I fed the cable backwards through all the elbows until there was just enough to fit into the socket enclosure. All the various nipples threaded back in with their retaining nuts tightened.

I gently threaded the lamp in. Finally, the moment of truth, my friends.. (click) ...

Blinded by the light, revved up like a deuce, another runner in the night!!
                                                                             - Manfred Mann's Earth Band
Now comes the victory parade. An adoring family gets to see witness this monumental feat of home repair triumph as it is transported, first to downtown New York for a ticker-tape parade, then to its home, by a comfy chair. Full disclosure: It's cold in New York and surprisingly inconvenient from Phoenix. I skipped that step.

There's nothing better than a nice book under the warm glow of a reading lamp...