Arc Fault Breakers

2012-03-06 by . 3 comments

Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter Breaker

Before we get into Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters (AFCI), let’s look at their uncle, the Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI). GFCIs first appeared in the NEC code in 1971, and then only for swimming pools (not spas) and exterior outlets. Today, bathrooms, kitchens, wet bars, garages, rooftops, spas and any place that water can be a problem must be protected by a GFCI according to code. Without getting into what a GFCI does, it basically can save your life. This has been proved over and over, and unfortunately also proved when GFCIs have been removed, tampered with, or failed.

Let’s start off with some questions:

What is an Arc Fault? An arc fault is when current goes through your wires and somehow takes an unintended course that produces a spark, or arc.

Why don’t my regular breakers protect me from arcs? Your breakers protect you, but what an AFCI does, that a regular breaker can’t, is detect a very low level arc. If not detected, that low level arc could quickly become a life threatening event – in your house!

Why do I need AFCIs and GFCIs? A GFCI protects you and others from fatal electric shocks when a ground fault happens, like if you try to make toast while taking a bath and drop the toaster. That would be a ground fault due to water. As explained above, an AFCI protects you and your valuables from a potential fire caused by a low level arc.

What causes arc faults? Worn or damaged wire; damaged plugs or receptacles; loose electrical connections; screws, nails or staples driven into wires; furniture pinching lamp or appliance cords; broken wire; frayed wires; and even wire chewed on by your pets. Probably anything your kids do when you’re not around. The NEC uses the term combination to describe fault protection. This covers both parallel arcs (two wires arcing together) and series arcs (arc caused by one wire arcing between two damaged areas)

Can I buy AFCI receptacles? Not at this time. Breakers will protect everything downstream from the breaker, but an AFCI receptacle would not protect the wire between the receptacle and the breaker.

Cause and Effects of Arc Faults

Cause and Effects of Arc Faults

Whether you need AFCIs or not depends on your local codes. Not all local codes have accepted AFCIs as code, and some might accept them but not otherwise be up to the current national code. The current NEC Code, 210.12 says All 120-volt, single phase, 15- and 20-ampere branch circuits supplying outlets installed in dwelling unit family rooms, dining rooms, living rooms, parlors, libraries, dens, bedrooms, sun-rooms, recreation rooms, closets, hallways, or similar rooms or areas shall be protected by a listed arc-fault circuit interrupter, combination-type, installed to provide protection of the branch circuit.”  Even if your local code does not call for it, you still can install AFCIs in your home. Of course, if local code requires AFCIs then they will have to be installed on new homes and remodels.

AFCIs keep improving, just like GFCIs. With these improvements, specifications change and an older AFCI might not pass on a new job, depending on when the permits were issued.  Just because a breaker says AFCI on it, that does not mean it will pass inspection. Your electrician will know which ones to use and your local code office will also have that information.


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Filed under Electrical, Safety

Tool Review: Ideal Lil’ Ripper Stripper™

2012-02-28 by . 2 comments

I recently picked up the Lil’ Ripper Stripper™ from Ideal Industries, at Home Depot for about $5.00.

Lil' Ripper Stripper

Not that I needed a new tool, especially another wire stripper; but for $5.00, how could I resist?

Really, I was just interested to see how useful it actually was.   I’m almost always skeptical of multi-tools, since they aim to replace tools designed specifically for a single task.  The Lil’ Ripper Stripper is no exception, so it really has to preform well to replace tools in my tool pouch.


  • Rips Romex® wire outer jacket cleanly and quickly.
  • Clips outer sheathing to remove excess Romex® wire jacket.
  • Strips inner conduit wires.
  • Looping holes loop wire for screw-on connections.
  • Twist-Assist™ tightens most popular sizes of winged twist-on wire connectors.
  • Injection molded elastomer grip provides a comfortable, slip resistant grip.
  • Strip length measuring scale allows for quick and easy measurements.
  • Conveniently fits in your pocket.

Since Ideal gave me a good feature list, lets tackle each one individually.

Ripping Romex® (NM wire)

The Lil’ Ripper Stripper, makes ripping non-metallic cable sheath simple and fast. If you look in one end of the tool, you’ll notice a small metal hook.

To rip the cable, simply place the hook under the cable sheathing, then slide the tool along the cable.  The Lil’ Ripper Stripper definitely earns this part of its name, this thing rips cable like a champ.  It slices through the sheath clean, fast, and without any concern of nicking the conductors.  Because of its shape and size, you can even easily rip the sheath from cables already installed in boxes.

Removing excess sheathing

To remove the excess sheathing, you slide the sheathing into the large notch, at the end of the tool, and pull.

This feature seemed like an afterthought, or maybe the cutting blade was relocated to accommodate another feature.  Either way, it’s not great at this.  The cutting blade is set back a bit too far, which makes getting the excess sheath deep enough to cut it a challenge.   Even the guy in the demo video had trouble with this feature, so it doesn’t seem to be user error on my part.

Stripping conductors

To strip the conductors, you simply slide the wire into the V notch at the end of the tool, give it a couple twists, then pull the insulation off.

It works relatively well, though it can easily nick the conductors if the wire is inserted too forcefully.   You’ll also notice a measuring scale on the face of the tool, which helps you determine how much insulation to remove.

Terminal loops

To create terminal loops in the wire, you insert the wire into one of two holes on the side of the tool, then give it a quarter turn.

This is a nice feature, and works very well.


To twist on wire caps, insert the cap into the end of the tool, insert the wires into the cap, then twist.  This is a handy feature if you’re working in gloves, and find it difficult to twist on little wire caps because of it.  The length and size of the tool give you a little extra grip, allowing you to twist on the wire caps without a problem.  It’s only designed to work with winged wire caps, so if you’re working with caps without wings, you’re out of luck.

Comfortable, slip resistant grip.

The tool is comfortable in your hand, and it does provide a slip resistant coating. However, the best part of the grip is the constant reminder that you shouldn’t be working on live circuits.

DO NOT USE ON LIVE CIRCUITS Not Insulated, misuse may result in injury or death

Conveniently fits in your pocket

Yes, it does fit in your pocket.  But guess what Ideal… I want it to hang from my tool belt! Is it too much to ask for a key chain loop, so I can hang it from a carabiner on my tool pouch? I guess then they’d have to charge $5.50 for the tool, and maybe that’s too steep for the average DIYer.

All in all, this is a fairly nice tool.  It would be a nice addition to any DIYers tool belt, er… pocket. It rips cable sheath really well, strips wires, makes terminal loops, and helps twist on wire caps.  It’s a useful, sturdy tool, but I’m not sure I’m ready to give up my wire strippers just yet.  For a DIYer looking for a useful inexpensive tool, this is a good solid choice.  The Idea Lil’ Ripper Stripper gets 3.5 Captain Constructions, out of 5.

3.5 Captain Constructions


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Fluorescents and Legislation, Part II

2012-02-21 by . 1 comments

The death of the Plain Jane fluorescent tube is in the cards. Lighting legislation signed into law in 2007 has been coming at us for 5 years. Fuel economy for vehicles, bio-fuels, lighting fixtures, lamps, appliances and building energy savings were all targeted, along with other items too numerous and way over my head. In 2010, manufacturers were no longer able to manufacture magnetic ballast. These were the coil and core ballast that weighed a ton.   

When suppliers started to run out, your only choice was electronic ballast. You know, if you’re old like me you can remember when those ballasts stuck their heads out in the 70’s, and after all the smoke from lawsuits and finger pointing cleared, they hid their ugly heads for 25 years. In 1995, when you took your 40 watt ballast to the hardware store, it had to replaced by a 34 watt. Now when you take your 34 watt ballast in, you get this little lightweight thing to put in your fixture. “How can I be getting my money’s worth? This thing is too light!”

In 2010, if you had to change your fluorescent fixture, you had to start using those skinny tubes. “Light-weight fixtures and skinny tubes,don’t take me for a fool!” Starting July 14, 2012, the manufacturers will stop making all the old fashioned T12 lamps. With a few exceptions, when you take that 8 foot tube in your garage to get it replaced, or that wimpy 34 watt 4 foot tube in to get a replacement, not only will you have to buy a new fixture, you will also have to take the evil old lamps back with you, because they are now hazardous waste. “These kids now-a-days don’t know nuttin!”

If you are one of the few that read the “Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007” you might make heads or tails of it. If you understood it, then English must be a second language. But the good news is: it’s working for the most part. It is costing us an arm and leg, but it’s working. Now when you and I have the simple job of changing light bulbs, it becomes a major DIY project. It is costing us. Now what do we get out of it? More power. Since it has security in the title, do we get to carry a gun? Heck No!

Out of all the energy used in the US, 25% is used in homes and 19% is used in commercial buildings. It was estimated that energy use would spike 44% from 2005 to 2030. Seven years later it looks like that spike will only be 14%. If you do your math like our politicians, we will save 68%. But it’s 68% of nothing, and this time nothing is a good thing. You can look at it and say we saved 68%, or you can look at it and say we created 68%. It’s not from some new wind, sun, aluminum foil technology, it is a new technology. A technology called “Renewable Energy”.

Now, when you do your honey-dos, whether it’s caulking, insulating, installing blinds, or sitting under the shade of a tree you planted years ago, you know that you are pioneering new grounds.

On the numbers I used, I didn’t just grab the first numbers I found, I did try to check their sources. Probably the best source is EIA Annual Energy Outlook 2008.


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Filed under Electrical

Light Bulbs and Legislation

2012-02-07 by . 9 comments

Law HammerI’ve been in the electrical wholesale business for almost 30 years and every day I sell light bulbs.  For over 30 years lamps basically got better, offering more light output per watt on the newer lamps. But recently somebody started taking my light bulbs away.  What am I going to do?  What are all the old people going to use to read their papers?

Younger people tend to understand this, while other people tend to get upset that the government is getting involved in something as simple as light bulbs.  Most people don’t even know it’s happening.  So now I let out the secret.


Rated Lumen Ranges

Maximum Rate Wattage

Minimum Rate Lifetime

Effective Date

1490-2600 72 1,000 hrs 1/1/2012
1050-1489 53 1,000 hrs 1/1/2013
750-1049 43 1,000 hrs 1/1/2014
310-749 29 1,000 hrs 1/1/2014


What does this mean?  On January 1st 2012, 100 watt light bulbs went bye bye.  Well not really.  On  January 1st 2012 light bulb manufacturers could no longer make 100 watt A style lamps (table lamps) for sale in the US.  Then on  January 1st 2013, 75 watt A style lamps are no longer made.  January 1st 2014, 60 and 40 watt go the same way.  All these lamps are available until stock is depleted.

Now, why are they doing this?  After reading and reading and talking to factory reps and some energy specialists, it has to do with building power plants.  The more wattage and kilo-watts saved, the less power used.  DUH.  If energy is saved on a large scale, then enough energy would be saved to avoid building a power plant.  In this age of “not in my backyard”, the legal fees would probably be as high as the cost of building the plant.

Once all the incandescent bulbs are gone, you’ll have to choose between LED and CFL.

Which to use, LED or CFL

Which is better, Compact Fluorescents (CFLs) or LEDs?  I’m not the greenest person in the world and normally don’t go out of my way to be green, other than recycling trash.

Compact fluorescent

At one time legislation was going to cost you big time bucks if fluorescents, including CFLs, were broken.  It was considered a “hazardous spill” and you had to open your windows; if you cleaned it up yourself you would not be able to use a vacuum or broom, only a sticky tape to clean it up.  A professional team did this for a woman in Maine and after everything was done it cost her $3000.00 and insurance did not cover it.  Now, it’s still not a good idea to use a vacuum because of the mercury.

Now all fluorescents are required to be recycled.  Smaller recycle boxes can cost you as much as $1.50 a lamp to dispose.  Some waste companies offer to be open on certain days and be available for you to bring the lamps to them.  Today, with this legislation, nobody ever throws their light bulbs away (wink wink).

Light-emitting diode

LEDs are not cheap, but they are coming down in price.  Right now the biggest change in LEDs is the lumens per watt, or the amount of light coming out divided by the wattage used.  While the wattage on some lamps has not gone up, the light output has.  It was just 2 years ago when the LED manufacturers started making lamps equal to a 75R30 (65BR30), which is the most popular residential light at the moment.  Prices are starting to come down on older technology LEDs, and more and more stores are stocking them.  LEDs contain no mercury, making them easy to dispose of, and no special handling, other than throwing them in the recycle bin.  The energy saving is ridiculous!  I just changed out 7 – 50 watt MR16 lamps with 7 – 6.2 watt dimmable lamps.  That right there is a 87% energy savings, and it cuts out going up and down a ladder 56 times to change the lamps (7 lamps, 8 times).  In this case, CFLs were not an option.

Now the negative about LEDs.  When they first started becoming a reality in residential lighting they were advertised at 50,000 hours lamp life.  Lawsuits happened, causing the big names in LEDs to start advertising 25,000 to 30,000 hours, with some lamps still rated at 50,000 hours.  LEDs lose lumens over time, just like incandescent and CFLs, but LEDs lose more than 3 times that of a CFL:  29% to 9%.

LED's Vs CFL's

So which should I use?

If you need beam control, LED has different beam spreads available, like floods, narrow floods, and spots.  CFLs have none.  LED and CFL fit medium sockets, like table lamps, but while some LED manufacturers do make LEDs to fit in fluorescent sockets, the price for residential use is almost prohibitive.   If you have $3 you can buy a name brand CFL; if you have $25 you can buy some LEDs.  Imports in each kind are cheaper.  Just remember, whichever you choose, it is an investment, but there is most definitely a payback.  
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Filed under Electrical

Holding up the Shovel

2012-01-31 by . 2 comments

To our esteemed readers:

The blog team here at Home Improvement Stack Exchange has endeavored to keep the content flowing with at least one new entry a week. We want to keep you coming back for more and we want to share posts that are interesting and worth reading. Unfortunately, our small contributor pool means that we’re having a hard time getting an entry together each week. The blog can’t continue to publish worthwhile content weekly without new contributors.

We need your help! Keep the blog in mind as you gear up for your DIY projects. Take pictures of the work in progress and send them along. If you have old stories to share, new tools to review, or article ideas, please let us know. This is a community run blog, we want to share everyone’s experiences and build a site you want to be part of.  Please see this for more info on how to contribute.


We’re not closing up shop, there are interesting projects, tools, and ideas in the pipe.  Please bear with us as we attempt to unclog the line, and try to get posts flowing.


DIY.SE Blog Team

Filed under Uncategorized

Learning on the Job

2012-01-24 by . 2 comments

It’s come up in the chat a few times, why are all these programmers and sysadmins avid DIYers?  I think it’s partly a natural extension of the tinkering we do on the job and partly our comfort of dealing with huge mistakes that cost a lot of money.  Nearly everyone in this field has war stories of downtime on systems that can not go down or impossible bugs that ruin deployments.  Big bucks are on the line and you have to come through.  In comparison, the prospect of a few holes in the wall and a small flood in the bathroom aren’t that scary.

So in that vein, I’m happy to pick up a hammer and drill and set to work destroying improving my home.  And things don’t go quite right.  This is another feeling I associate with programming for a living:  beating my head against the wall trying to figure out why this simple thing isn’t working as designed.  That feeling of learning on the job.  And while I’m outwardly cussing at myself or others, I’m secretly enjoying myself.

I’ve spent most of my life surrounded by marvelously handy people.  My dad designed a switch that cut the volume on the stereo and TV speakers when you picked up the phone.  Our sliding glass door was remote controlled to let the dog out (this is in the 80s, people).  My grandpa owned his own family woodmaking business.  My brother is a bathroom remodeler.  Despite all this, I managed to absorb perhaps 5% of what they know.

After I reached a certain age, I suppose I started asking the right questions.  I actually paid attention and started trying to learn how to do certain things.  I learned more about construction techniques, and lo and behold, this stuff wasn’t as easy as they made it look.  They had to learn on the job.  The only difference is when they screwed up they usually had someone nearby to tell them it was wrong, how to make it right, and if it was too far gone and they should just start over.  This is clearly where we DIYers can get in over our heads.  So I’m glad there’s a resource like Home Improvement Stack Exchange to help me out!

There are a lot of small details in construction and finishing that add up.  That’s a good chunk of the reason why a DIY project always seems to take so long.  I learned a great deal more about framing and drywall while building a closet above my garage.  There was one corner in particular where the wall was already framed in by the roof  supports for the garage.  Not knowing any better, I reused that “wall” when framing and threw some drywall on top.  The drywall wasn’t quite flush, but certainly “close enough”.  Then I went to mud.  And mud.  And mud.  Three corners on a piece that wasn’t quite right?  Oy vey.  So I learned the hard way, it’s easier to fix it in framing than it is before drywall.  It’s easier to cut the drywall again than fix it with mud.  It’s easier to get the mud smooth than cover it with paint.  Each shortcut taken early just makes the overall project take longer – at least until you figure out which shortcuts you can use effectively.  On the other hand, now that I have that kind of hard-earned experience, I can cover up many of my mistakes hanging drywall.  Now I can focus on figuring out when to apply which experience, much like I do on the job.

DIY usually forces you to improvise.  If you had unlimited time and budget, you might not even do the work yourself.  DIYers tend to put some pretty unreasonable constraints on a project, ones that a professional would never agree to.  Reusing roller covers, resuing old fasteners, barely having enough material to finish the job, using the wrong tool for the job because it’s handy – all things I’ve found myself doing that I would never agree to if I was being paid to do the job.  These improvisations are really at the heart of what makes DIY fun and frustrating, and most importantly, creates funny stories.

So while I was doing this closet, I did the carpet myself too.  I got the carpet for free (DIY alert!) which meant I couldn’t get those lovely cheap install prices.  First time doing a carpet job myself – I rented a stretcher and kicker and got to work.  And it went pretty well – until:

Pro tip:  Always make sure the stretcher is in the middle of the stud!

My experience led me to the easy fix: cut it square, toenail in a 2×4, and slap up a new piece of drywall. Look ma, I’m improvising!

Later I was doing the trim – and remember that funky corner?  Well my trim wasn’t going to fit as-is, so I traced the wall and whipped out the jig saw:

Whoa!  Step away from the jigsaw!


Turned out pretty well though


What sorts of “fun” things have you learned while doing DIY?  Share in the comments!


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Filed under Uncategorized

Tool Review: Ideal In-Sure™ Push-In Wire Connectors

2012-01-17 by . 16 comments

A while ago I asked if push-in connectors were up to code.  After determining they were, I checked the local Home Depot for these things every time I went. Then one day, bam! There they are.  I grabbed an assorted 10 pack for ~$2.00, and ran home, filled with the type of excitement only a child feels on Christmas morning when he first lays eyes upon the bounty left by old Saint Nick.  Admittedly, I was probably more excited than any grown man should ever be over this sort of thing.

Some may not know what Ideal In-Sure™ Push-In Wire Connectors are used for.  Ideal In-Sure™ Push-In Wire Connectors, are devices used for joining two or more wires and insulating those connections.  They can be used as an alternative to traditional twist-on wire caps (wire nuts), and require no twisting motion to create a solid connection. When using push-in connectors, the ends of the wires to be joined are stripped  and pushed into the connectors. With traditional wire caps, the wires would have to be twisted together (mechanically joined) before twisting on the insulating wire cap.

Unlike twist-on wire connectors, it’s easy to remember how many wires can be connected with a single push-in wire connector.  If you have a 2-port connector, you can connect any combination of 2 #18 AWG to #12 AWG wires. Using twist-on connectors, you’ll likely have to memorize or reference a combination chart.

In-Sure™ Push-In Wire Connectors come in 7 varieties, so selecting the appropriate connector is easy.


2-port push-in connector

Wire Size Chart

Acceptable Wire Sizes


3-port push-in connector

Wire Size Chart

Acceptable Wire Sizes

3-Port Large

3-port large wire push-in connector

Acceptable Wire Size Chart

Acceptable Wire Sizes


4-port push-in connector

Wire Size Chart

Acceptable Wire Sizes


5-port push-in connector

Acceptable Wire Size Chart

Acceptable Wire Sizes


6-port push-in connector

Acceptable Wire Size Chart

Acceptable Wire Sizes


8-port push-in connector

Acceptable Wire Size Chart

Acceptable Wire Sizes


  • No-twist connection reduces repetitive motion fatigue
  • Low insertion force for fast and easy connections
  • Compact size makes installation easy
  • Clear shell gives visual verification of connection
  • UL Listed to 486C and CSA Certified to C22.2 #188
  • UL 467 Listed for grounding and bonding applications
  • 600V maximum building wire, 1000V maximum signs and lighting fixtures
  • Shell rated at 105 C (221 F)

Most old school electricians hate push connectors, due mostly to the crappy design of the first generation stab connectors on the back of receptacles.  I, however, am more open minded, and will try anything that might make a job easier.

Once I got these things home, I did the only thing any reasonable and sane DIYer would do: I took one apart to see how they worked.

disassembled connector (top)

As you can see, they’re made up of three parts. The bushing (red), the contacts (metallic), and the insulating cover (clear).

disassembled connector (side)

From the side, you can clearly see how the wires are held in place. And let me tell you, they are held in place really well.  I yanked, tugged, pried, and pulled to try and get the wires to come out.  So under normal circumstances, you shouldn’t have to worry about a wire slipping out.  I did, however, find a way to remove the wires surprisingly easily. If you twist the wire back and forth while pulling,  the wires will come right out. Doing so does damage the wire quite badly (you may be able to see the damage if you look closely at the above images), so it would have to be trimmed back and re-stripped before inserting it into a new connector. According to Ideal,  twisting the wire to release it is a feature, not a bug.

When fully inserted into the connectors, the wires make a solid connection. So there should be no worry of  resistive heating or arcing with these connectors.

Now I was satisfied the wires were not going to fall out, and I wasn’t going to burn down the house due to a bad connection. I decided to see how much time these things could save me in a typical situation.  I wanted to see how long it would take to wire up a simple luminaire, first with traditional twist-on wire caps, then with push-in wire connectors.

The Setup

Simple Test Setup

As you can see, I set up a typical scenario that electricians have seen many times.  I have a feeder (from breaker), a feeder to the next fixture, and a couple pig-tails to connect the lamp holder.

Twist-on wire caps

     The Procedure

  • Strip wires.
  • Twist wires together.
  • Trim wires.
  • Install wire cap.
  • Repeat for each group of wires.

     The Result


Twist-on wire cap result

Push-in Wire Connectors

     The Procedure

  • Strip wires.
  • Insert into wire cap.

     The Result


Push-in Wire Cap Result

For each luminaire I could save over a minute, using push-in wire connectors. That could be quite a time saver, if I was installing 10-20 lights.

The only fault I could find is that the wires can easily be twisted out of the connector.  I don’t think this is a major issue; since the wiring would likely not see that much motion, but it is a small issue that hopefully Ideal can work out. They do cost more than the run of the mill twist-on wire cap, but the installation time savings could easily render that moot. All in all, I’d say these are a pretty slick product.  I give Ideal In-Sure™ Push-In Wire Connectors 4 Captain Constructions out of 5.

4 Captain Constructions


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Filed under Tool Review, Tools

Poles and Throws

2012-01-10 by . 2 comments

No, we’re not talking Caber Toss here (I don’t have the legs for a skirt… err kilt… call it what you will, it’s still not a good idea to wear it while you’re working around the house).

We’re talking about switches! Specifically those found in your home, used to turn on and off lights and other devices.

First let’s start by defining a switch.  A switch is a device for making and breaking the connection in an electric circuit. A switch can have one or many poles and one or many throws. All switches look about the same on the outside; a lever or button that is flipped or pushed, but internally the number of poles and throws determine how the switch is used.

In a switch, a Pole is the number of circuits that can be controlled by a switch. It might be easier to think of this as the number of inputs. Throws are the number of positions the switch can take. Throws can be thought of as the number of outputs (sort of).

Single Pole Single Throw (SPST)

A single pole single throw switch has one input, and one output. It is used to turn a circuit on, or off. “But wait…” you might be thinking “It turns the circuit on and off, isn’t that a double throw?“. You’re sort of right, I guess I didn’t explain throws so well. It’s not about the physical positions a switch can be in: up or down, it’s about the number of contacts in the switch. Maybe it’s easier to explain with a picture.

As you can see, there is one pole contact and one throw contact. With a SPST switch, turning on and off the light is easy.

Now that we’ve got the concept down, let’s take a look at some other types of switches. Keep in mind that you can have switches with as many poles and throws as you need, but we’re only going to focus on those typically found in residential wiring.

Single Pole Double Throw (SPDT)

A single pole double throw may also be known as a 3-way (2-way in Europe) switch. They are used to control a single device (light, string of lights, etc) from multiple locations.  With this kind of switch, you can turn the light on at the bottom of the stairs.  Then you can walk up the stairs and turn the light off at the top of the stairs. To do this, you’ll need two SPDT switches. One switch at the top and one at the bottom of the stairs. Internally they look like this:

As you can see, the single circuit can be switched between one of two contacts. In the US, these two contacts will be connected using wires called Travelers. These wires connect the contacts of one SPDT switch to the contacts of another SPDT switch (typically).

So how does this turn the lights on and off? Well let’s finish the drawing.

The power from the circuit is connected to one of the switch’s pole contacts, and the light is connected to the other switch’s pole contact. When both switches are in a similar position, electricity flows in the first switch, through one of the traveler wires to the other switch, and finally to the light.

What if I want to control a light from more than two locations?” you might ask. Well, that’s where the next switch comes in.

Double Pole Double Throw (DPDT)

Double pole double throw, also known as 4-way or intermediate switches, allow you to connect as many switches as you’d like into the circuit. Internally they look like this:

To control the light, we’ll add them into the circuit on the travelers between our SPDT switches.

Now the current will flow into the first SPDT switch, out along one of the travelers to the DPDT switch, along one of the other travelers to the second SPDT switch, then finally to the light.

Using DPDT switches, we can control a device from as many locations as we want (within reason). All we have to do is add another DPDT switch, like so:

Understanding switches will help you whether you need to control a single light from one place or a group of lights from multiple locations.   Anything you can imagine can be done, if you choose the right switch for the job.  And please, no kilts while you’re working. It’s just dangerous.

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Filed under Electrical

Beginner Faucet Fixin’

2012-01-03 by . 0 comments

A good starter DIY project is fixing or replacing a faucet.  It looks overwhelming at the start, but the fix is usually straightforward: just replace the parts that look broken.

To determine if this is a good DIY project, determine the relative importance of the sink, how much you value your time and knuckles, and if you can shut the water off at the sink.

In my case, my kitchen faucet had been dripping for awhile and was driving me crazy.  I have a shutoff under the sink and all my available free time is dedicated to playing dinosaurs or trains.  We have a bathroom sink nearby if things go horribly wrong and a local plumber who’s set me right before.  So I’m ready to take this on.

Once you’ve decided to do a fix, determine the manufacturer of your faucet.  All the big brands have excellent websites for finding parts and diagrams.  One of the best kept secrets is the stellar phone support.  They really can answer questions like:  “What is this plastic doohickey that slides over the rubber thingy and is held on with a screw?”  My experience has been that they’re knowledgeable, patient, and give clear advice and instructions.

I actually cheated for this project and previously determined that the cartridge on my Moen faucet was the culprit, but a couple of my plastic connector pieces looked a little rough too.  Easiest just to replace “the guts” of the faucet.

Thanks to the magic of the internet, I obtained a Moen 100440 Replacement Handle Hardware Kit and Moen 1200 cartridge a few days later.  Once I had a few spare hours I was ready to take this on.

Here’s what you receive in the kit, with the new cartridge underneath.

First turn off the water and make sure it’s off.  That’s a lousy surprise while your hands are full.

Disassembling my faucet is pretty straight forward.  There’s a red/blue logo “button” in the front of the handle that covers a hex screw.  Removing that allows you to remove the chrome handle.  Then there’s a phillips screw in the top holding the “handle adapter” down.  After that’s out, just start pulling and unscrewing parts, using an adjustable wrench as needed.  I try to lay my parts out in the order removed, so I have a prayer of putting them back together properly.

As you can see a number of connector parts between the “handle adapter” and cartridge that are stuck together.  This is probably from my previous attempts to “fix” the leak by tightening things down just a bit more. Now I just remove the brass clip in front and actually pull the cartridge out.  The clip comes out with pliers, no problem.  The cartridge is actually trickier.  Sometimes you can loosen the cartridge with pliers, but with this one and just about every other faucet I’ve seen, you need the white plastic tool that comes with the new cartridge to remove the old one.  Put it on there and twist it a few times back and forth and the cartridge can now be pulled out with pliers.

Here’s an old icky plastic cartridge and my new brass one.  I doubt it makes a real difference, but it was maybe a dollar difference in price to get the brass one, so I did.

After that, push the new cartridge in, and reverse the dissasembly steps.  It’s always a little difficult to get the next part lined up, but it’s manageable.  If you’re like me, test the faucet before it’s fully assembled.  I always reverse the hot and cold and need to rotate the stem 180 degrees.

That’s all there is to it.  If you can assemble children’s toys, you can handle replacing faucet parts.


profile for Steve Jackson at Home Improvement, Q&A for contractors and serious DIYers

Filed under Repair

Secrets of the Tape Measure

2011-12-27 by . 16 comments

We’ve all seen it, and hopefully everyone has used one, but there are a few tricks up the sleeve of your ordinary tape measure. And since they usually don’t come with an instruction manual, here are a few pointers that I’ve picked up over the years.

Disclaimer: I’m American, so for all the normal people with metric tape measures, this will be of limited use.

Size Matters

To start, when you buy a tape measure, wider is better. Cheap tape measures will be narrow and will lose their shape after a few feet or so when extended. If you do a lot of measuring on your own, or need to be able to reach the ceiling without a ladder, then get at least a 1″ wide, if not a 1 1/4″ wide tape measure.

Don’t Trust the End

The end of the tape measure will have a metal hook to grab onto a board or butt into a wall. These ends can get bent over time, and it’s easy to fix that by using a pair of pliers. They are designed to be adjusted, but should you break off the tip, it’s probably time to get a new tape measure. This time, get the extra wide model. To avoid having to recalibrate all the time, don’t allow your tape measure to retract at full speed and smack the hook against the case. I’m in the habit of stopping the end against my finger instead of the case itself, which is a good incentive to slow down before you take your finger off.

You can bend this to calibrate

Burn an Inch

If you are transferring measurements between people using different tape measures for precision work, and you haven’t had time to calibrate each of the tapes, you should burn an inch, or more. This is also useful when you need to measure something that you can’t hook the tape measure onto. To burn an inch, you just line up one end on the 1″ mark (or 10″ or 1′ depending on your preference) and then measure the span from that point. Then be sure to subtract the extra from your measurement or be consistent and burn the same amount everywhere.

The Hook is Supposed to be Loose

I’ve seen many people that want to fix a bad tape measure because the end of it is loose. Well, it’s like that for a reason. When you butt the end of the tape against a wall for an inside measurement, that hook is compressing by the width of the hook itself. Or, conversely, when you hook it onto something for an outside measurement, it’s expanding by the width of the hook. So don’t get fancy and try to fix it, since then your tape would only work for one kind of measurement, at best.

Tab extended

Tab compressed

What’s Up with the Studs and Diamonds

Ok ladies, get your minds out of the jewelry store. A lot of tape measures will have marks for measuring studs at 16″ and joists at 19.2″. Studs are typically spaced 16″ OC (that’s “on center” or from the center of one stud to the center of the next stud, not the gap between the studs). Note that the second stud in the wall is installed 16″ from the end of the wall, not from the center of the first stud. Also note that you may have additional studs at other points, like the opposite end of the wall, doors and windows, and where other walls intersect.

Studs are 16" OC

Lesser known than the studs is the 19.2″ joist measurement. Like studs, they are spaced with OC measurements. The reason for this odd 19.2″ measurement is similar to the reason for the 16″ stud measurement; it divides evenly into an 8′ span, which is typical for American building materials. A 4’x8′ piece of plywood or OSB will span 6 joists, and a 4’x8′ piece of drywall will span 7 studs (or 4 studs if you’re hanging vertically). If the math looks funny to you, make sure you remembered to count the first stud/joist at the 0″ mark.


Joists are 19.2" OC (see the black diamond)

Half, Quarter, Oh Just Switch to Metric

Ok, I won’t get into why Americans don’t just switch to metric, it really would make things easier. But until we do, all those lines between the inch mark are measuring fractions of an inch. That longest line in the middle, that’s a half inch. The next longest line, between the half mark and the ends of the inch are the 1/4″ and 3/4″ marks. Between the 1/4″ and 1/2″ mark, the next longest would be the 3/8″ mark, since the 2/8″ is 1/4″ and the 4/8″ is 1/2″. And while we are imperial measurements, I tend to give out all my measurements in inches and fractions, but some people read off feet. Most measuring tapes will have the inches within a foot marked in red.

Marking Your Measurements

When you make a measurement, and especially when you mark it, make sure the side of the tape is flat against the surface where you mark it. The tape is naturally cupped out from the surface, so just give it a twist to get one edge flag against the surface. Unless you’re using a square, I’d suggest marking your measurement on a board with a V point since you can be sure that this point is correct. Without the second line and the point, someone could use the wrong end of your mark and cut the wrong length. Also, since carpenter pencils are not designed for accuracy, my rule is “If I mark it, I cut it” since I’m the one that knows where in the mark is the spot that needs to be cut. Some people can be accurate with their pencil marks and will draw their line to have the line itself cut off. See this answer for more details on how to mark your measurement for accurate cuts.

Reading Upside Down

When possible, try to keep your tape measure right side up. When that’s not possible, realize that the 59″ you just measured may have actually been 65″, so double check. This goes double when you are adding on fractions of an inch, if you’re upside down, maybe you should be subtracting them?

Accurate Inside Measurements

When you are measuring between two inside corners, you can’t get the tape all the way into the corner for a good measurement. Many people will bend the tape into the corner as tight as they can and then guess what’s left. The easier way is to take two inside measurements. On one side, measure out a few inches and make a mark. Then measure from your mark to the other side and add the two measurements together.

Measure 6" from the right side and make a mark (yes, the tape is upside down)

And then measure from the left side to your mark

So the result is adding 6″ to 7 9/16″ which would be 13 9/16″ wide.

That’s All I Got

Do you have your own tape measure tips? Leave a comment below.

profile for BMitch at Home Improvement, Q&A for contractors and serious DIYers

Filed under Tools