Safety First Electrical--contracting, consulting and safety education

114 Northway Rd., Greenbelt MD 20770

(301) 699-8833 (voice/ machine, 9am - 9pm).

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The Sweat Equity Handbook 1998 David Eli Shapiro

The Sweat Equity Handbook

copyright 1987, 1988, 1991, 1997, 2002, 2015 by David Eli Shapiro


  • "I want to save money without sacrificing safety."
  • "I want to understand how things work in my house."
  • "I'll get satisfaction out of being part of the process of creating my home."
  • "This seems like an ideal opportunity to learn."
  • "I don't think anybody working for a buck, even if he's employed by a contractor, will give the kind of care to a job as someone who's going to own and live in the house."
  • "I like working with my hands."

  • The statements I've listed above are some, only some, of the excellent reasons people choose to work with me on their wiring.
    Not everybody is going to be comfortable with my sweat equity arrangement:

  • "My home is my castle."
  • "Nobody's going to tell me what I can and cannot do, when I and my family are the only ones really affected."
  • "I know enough to do my own work."

  • Those three are some of the reasons people choose to take responsibility for their own wiring, perhaps calling on me occasionally for advice. When someone else remains in charge of how work is performed, I will not take responsibility for it. For instance, I've been called by people who say they've run their wiring, and just want me to bring it into the panel. I wouldn't dare take that chance with a house's wiring, and with the people who might use it.

    Introduction: sweat equity in context

    Before undertaking a sweat equity project with me, you need to carefully read through my Terms of Engagement. If you hire me in any role, you are agreeing to my way of working and my charges. (If they turn out not to be to your taste, you can pay me for time invested, and we'll go our separate ways, with any permit I've applied for withdrawn or transfered.) Sweat equity, supervision, is mentioned in my terms and on my billing form as one way I do business.

    To recapitulate very briefly, I have unusual credentials, enabling me to offer services that not every electrical contractor can or will provide. I have five ways of serving you:

    First, I can do a job in which I provide all the labor at my basic hourly rate of $95.00 (at the time I'm writing this--check my Terms of Engagement to make sure it's current), adjusted upward for variants such as exceptional scheduling (overtime, rush jobs, and holidays or weekends), environment (working under onerous conditions, such as hot, filthy or smelly spaces), and risk (taking over another's licensed work, correcting violations, or undertaking hazardous work). I take responsibility to apply for any permits required, and will install any system legally permissible, within reason.

    Second, I am willing to do the job using your materials, provided they meet Code for the intended applications. My labor charges are the same. I just won't warrantee those materials.

    The third service I offer is to consult informally regarding electrical work that you or others plan to do, are doing or have done. I can take no legal responsibility for that work, but will provide advice based on my best professional judgment. A higher rate is specified for this service. You are welcome to take notes, but my part during informal consultation is simply to examine and discuss.

    If you need formal consultation, where I provide a written report, present a seminar, or stand up and testify as to my findings, the premium is still higher. This comes to quite a bit less than an engineer's consultation, but considerably more than it costs just to have me in to look at your situation and show you and talk to you about what I find.

    The fourth and fifth ways I work involve sweat equity: you achieve savings through your labor, with me taking responsibility for the installation. I will discuss them now.

    Materials deserve further treatment, which I offer later on.

    What sweat equity is not.

    Where the concept is irrelevant

    While you are welcome to keep me company and to ask questions while I do any job, I don't consider this sweat equity. It does not cost you a nickel extra beyond what I would charge without you at hand, except insofar as I pause to explain what I'm doing and why. The concept of sweat equity also is irrelevant to most jobs involving less than a day's work. Rewiring a house, sure. Finishing a basement, quite possible. Replacing a single light switch? No savings.

    Boundary Issues

    There are some potential serious misunderstandings of what I mean by the term.

  • Sweat equity is not renting the use of my license to cover a job done by you or anyone else--this would be illegal.
  • It is not hiring me to supervise and take responsibility for other electricians: if I were comfortable supervising your crew, there still would be serious insurance issues.
  • Nor is it hiring me to review work performed legally by other electricians; this is a service I will provide, but it falls under the category of Consulting.
  • Sweat Equity certainly is not your being fully in charge of your own job; because my name is on the permit, I am responsible for how it is done.
  • If you want to take charge of the work, or if it was already completed--or seriously begun--by you or by anyone else, the person who was in charge is legally responsible; it would be fraud for me to pretend that I had been in charge. Most ethical electricians won't even look at continuing a job started by someone unlicensed; it's not worth the potential liability.
  • Working with me, you can learn a lot. Still, sweat equity is not doing all aspects of the job, or practicing at being your own electrician. It takes a long time to gain the skills and knowledge required to be a competent electrician, and on jobs for which I pull a permit I will not authorize work that could result in hazards down the road. Unless you put others at risk, I have no objection to your doing however much of your work--on your own legal responsiblity--as you want. However, I will not grant anyone the right to do so on my license. That's not sweat equity.

  • Finally, sweat equity does not mean using the cheapest materials available, installed in the "quick-and-dirty"-est possible way. When relying on a relatively inexperienced laborer whose work I don't know (you), I specify materials that are somewhat more rugged than the minimum requirement, even though when I am the sole installer I may be willing to use more vulnerable materials if you prefer them, in order to save yourself a few dollars.


    Sweat equity choices.

    There are two ways you can work with me. First, you (and adult family) can work alongside me somewhat as though you were a helpful labor subcontractor. Second, in some cases I can set things up so that you are able to do a carefully specified and strictly delimited part of the work between my visits. It will be work that I can review exhaustively and if necessary correct, when I am back. If we are working together this way, it is essential that you call or email whenever you have a question, or even when something seems peculiarly complicated.

    Your work.

    Mostly, what you will do is to drill holes, dig trenches if needed, and mount materials with hammer or screwdriver. You will use your own tools, normally.
    You need to call 811 before digging or trenching. Period.

  • Trenches need to be more than 12" deep; more than 18" or 24" is better, and often is required.

  • Holes through wooden studs and joists need to be drilled so as to not weaken them.
  • They must be as close to the center of the width as possible, at least 2" from either edge when possible. (1 1/4" is the minimum measurement from the outermost edge of each hole to each edge of the wood member).
  • In horizontal members such as joists, they should be closer to the ends than the middle of the spans. See the International Residential Code or the International Building Code for the latter requirement.
  • Drilling 3/4-1" holes work well for the cables used in most branch circuit wiring. Occasionally, it makes sense to bring two or three cables though one hole. In that case, 1 1/8 - 1 1/2" holes work better.
  • If a hole is angled, though, one part of it can end up too close to the edge of the stud or joist, weakening it. This also makes cables run through such holes vulnerable and illegal, unless protected by steel plates.
  • Larger holes are also needed for feeders, meaning cables that go to subpanels, and for cables going to large loads such as electric stoves.

  • [HINT Pulling cables safely through holes that are barely big enough takes me much longer than does using more generously drilled ones. It also increases the risk of damaging the cables, which must then be replaced. If your drill or bit requires you to drill at a sharp angle, try to bevel the edges of the hole by drilling from both sides, or by moving the bit around in the hole if you can do so safely. Try to keep holes lined up from stud to stud or joist to joist; this will greatly reduce pulling resistance.]

    Labeling circuits and identifying cables are other valuable, time-consuming parts of the job you can undertake, along with laying out where you want outlets and switches to go and possible paths to get there. I will explain the Code requirements regarding outlet and switch locations. Along with drilling, fishing "drag lines," cords that can be used for pulling actual cables, is something some customers certainly can do on their own to save money.

    Cleaning, patching and fetching are other types of labor you can supply to save money.

    Occasionally I will ask you to feed (untangle and push) cable or wire as I pull it. Under my supervision, you will not work near anything I know is energized (live), and you will not terminate or connect any cables or wires.

    Whenever you work with me, you must take full responsibility for yourself in terms of personal energy and pacing, tool use, protective gear and anything else that might affect your safety. (You are also responsible for any damage you do to your own house.) Whenever something is unclear, it is important that you stop and ask me. There is no need for mindreading or guesswork. "Winging it" can be dangerous. It is generally worth your while to take notes as we discuss the job.

    [HINT Patching rules require that every gap wider than 1/8" be filled around electrical enclosures that are mounted flush with the wall or ceiling surface. Make sure power is off while applying wet materials around electrical boxes. When applying spackle or mortar, it is easy to get material in the boxes, on the conductors, or in screw holes. Avoid that, and if at worst you do spatter a bit--even paint--wipe it off immediately. Many boxes also require that space behind threaded holes be left clear; mortar behind them will have to be broken out in order to be able to thread screws all the way in. The best approach is to insert screws all the way into those holes before you patch, to maintain the clearance. Another thing to be careful about is bending boxes. Some have been distorted by a careless carpenter to the point that they no longer accommodate wiring devices. When I run into this, I have to redo the carpenters' work, in order to (with luck) straighten out the box. Other times, boxes have been broken by carpenters and required replacement.]

    There are three pieces of the job that you may be able to take on that call on quasi-electrical skill. The first is pulling metal-clad cable (MC) with full-thickness steel armor or armored cable ("BX") with full-thickness armor into place. Underground Feeder Cable ("UF") is a nonmetallic-sheathed cable that also is tough enough to withstand a moderate amount of stress. If you choose to have me show you how to pull cable on your own, I still will need to inspect the cable afterwards to make sure that it has not been distorted or otherwise damaged by your installation. On the other hand, normal non-metallic-sheathed cables (Romex" and "Service Cable") simply are too vulnerable, so if we use them, I will do the pulls myself. Bringing cables into boxes, and terminating conductors in splices or onto device terminals, are other procedures I very, very rarely delegate.

    A second task you may take on is to support cables. Against wood, this is usually done with staples. I can show you how an electrician's staple of the appropriate length and width for a particular cable is driven in just far enough to immobilize the cable against a moderate tug, but not so hard that the cable itself appreciably distorts. On surfaces other than wood, and with larger cables, cable straps are used, normally with screws and, if needed, anchors. Cables need to be supported within eight inches of any plain plastic box that takes a single switch or receptacle, and within 12 inches of all other boxes and fixtures. Subsequently, service cable must be supported every two feet, and most other cables every four-and-a-half feet. Distances are measured along the cable, not straight. All installations are to be done "in a neat and workmanlike manner," so additional supports beyond this minimum often are called for. I'll go over the precise requirements that concern the job in your home.

    [HINT If for whatever reason you need to remove a staple, ask me to do it, or make sure that I show you how. It is very easy to damage a cable if you pry with a hammer or screwdriver.]

    A third task you may take on is screwing cover plates in place, and sometimes also switches and receptacles. I will never have you do this while the circuit is energized.

    I'll show you how to do this carefully. I have seen installations damaged at this point, requiring expensive troubleshooting. Jamming conductors into crowded boxes can damage insulation, can pull conductors out of splices and off device terminals and even can break devices or boxes. Even after I've shown you how I do it, if you find you're having trouble, leave it till you can call me over. If you lose the screws that came with a box, cover plate or device, DO NOT replace them with sheet metal screws, drywall screws, or wood screws. I've got extras of the right ones.

    [HINT When screwing down switches, look for the "on" and "off" markings on single-pole switches, the ones that operate outlets (usually lighting outlets) that are not controlled by any other switches. The manufacturer's name on the metal yoke is not necessarily oriented correctly. "On" should be up. If you goof, the switch will read "nO." If you goof, I should catch this error. If I overlook it, the inspector should catch it. Other switches such as dimmers often have one end marked, "TOP."]


    On any sizeable job, involving the installation of ten or more electrical devices, the first thing you may need is a set of plans. You can prepare them, provided you understand the basic symbols used for electrical equipment. Sometimes, I am paid to sketch them. Other times, an architect, professional drafter, or general contractor will do so for you. The plans do not need to be professionally crisp, but must include everything an architect would show. I discuss plans and code requirements including switch, receptacle, and lighting layout, on my electrical design web page.


    Buying them

    I will specify the materials needed to do the job you require. There are five ways you can obtain them. First, I will sell them all to you, at list price or higher, as needed. In that case, you will only pay for what is actually used on the job (unless you ask me to purchase some special item, and then it turns out you don't want or need it). Such materials carry my guarantee, as well as the manufacturers'. This is theoretically your most expensive option. (In every other case, I do not guarantee materials, nor will I buy back any that are not needed.)

    Second, I can use whatever you happen to have on hand that is suitable. In this and the following case, you should recognize that if materials are usable but less than optimal, the cost of installing them may be greater than that of using the most-appropriate parts.

    Third, you may purchase materials yourself, in which case you probably will pay very close to what I would pay. I am quite willing to give you a shopping list. A frequently-encountered danger is that supply-house personnel make unauthorized substitutions, because of ignorance, cupidity, or lack of specified items. Read the labels, and read your invoice before paying. Still, you may not recognize substitutions, or may be unable to evaluate them. That could waste your money and both your time and mine.

    Fourth, I am willing to purchase materials for you, charging you for my time plus whatever I am charged for the goods. I will take pains to ensure that they are correct, although I do not warranty them or take responsibility for hidden defects. I will order a quantity that should suffice for the job, but there may have to be multiple supply runs, and you may have materials left over.

    The fifth option is related, and may be the most prudent, if not the most efficient: you may hire me to go to the supply house with you. This way, while I do not guarantee the goods, I can at least pick out the hardware. In addition, you can choose items such as lighting fixtures from stock on display, rather than trying to buy them yourself without my counsel on hand. You need to think about fixtures fairly early, because they affect wiring and circuiting choices. I discuss this on my Electrical Design web page.

    Hardware Preferences

    I am a great believer in metal equipment, at least indoors in dry locations. Not only does it offer better electrical protection in many cases than does most plastic, it is less subject to harm in the hands of the installer. For that reason, the basic wiring cable I most commonly specify for sweat equity jobs is full thickness steel-armored cable ("BX"), Type ACHH. The basic outlet and device box I specify is the 1900 box with bx clamps and a front flange. This box allows installation of either one or two devices. You need not initially know what thickness wall or what finish you will be using. Because of its roominess (21 cubic inches available, less clamp space), we can install it with a minimum of concern about volume requirements. You will mount it by hammering at least two nails or screwing two screws through its supporting flange into a stud or joist. For lights, a "deep 8B," which is a 4" octagon 2 1/8" deep with suitable clamps and mounting means, may be a reasonable alternative. For very heavy lights and for any paddle fan, a special fan-support box is required by Code. Generally, I will lay out for you exactly where to mount boxes and where to drill holes for cables.


    Is this sweat equity plan all rather too much? Don't despair. Remember, if my way of doing things strikes you as too stringent you can go it alone, and just call me in as little or as much for consulting as you wish -- I just won't cover your work with my license. Or you can have me do all the work, without involving you for anything but aesthetic decisions. Or, finally, you can do the work yourself, or have someone cheap do it, and just call on me for a rescue if something goes wrong. For a fair price, I'm prepared to salvage messes. When I can do so safely.

    The Appendix that follows gives an example of how we might work together on a job.

    Appendix : HEAVY UPS


    The heavy up, or service change, is a major job that is often undertaken at the beginning of wiring upgrades. It does not in itself improve conditions unless your electrical panel is damaged or worn out, but it does make room for new circuits, and if you had fuses, except in vary rare circumstances it adds the convenience of circuit breakers. In the course of the heavy-up, some existing problems may be rectified; however, doing so is not intrinsic to the heavy-up. A subpanel often can offer some of the same benefits as a heavy-up at a lower cost. (We can discuss this option.)

    There are very limited sweat equity possibilities inherent in the job. Nevertheless, because it is a very common need in older houses, I offer it as an example of the possibilities of sweat equity.

    Your parts of the job.

    The following is a description of what may be possible for you to do; whether, where, and how much are matters we need to discuss on each job.