Safety First Electrical

Contracting, Consulting and Safety Education are the different ways I have personally cared for customers--over three decades.

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This document is not just for my customers, though, or even just for electrical customers.

Wise Customers (c) 2002, 2017 David E. Shapiro

Wise Customers

The contractors who will be working on your home are not the only people who need to bring skills to the table. You, as the homeowner or at any rate the customer, also have an important part to play in ensuring that the relationship goes smoothly and that you get what you want.

What I'm not talking about

You may have read, "Always get three estimates if you're putting a contract out for bids." (What makes three a magic number, by the way?) You may have read, "Always read your contracts carefully," or "Always have a lawyer review contracts before you sign them." You may have read, "Always hold back part of the payment." (Presumably this is after your lawyer has changed the wording in any contract that requires prompt payment in full--and gotten the contractor to initial the change.)

Different advice

The type of information I have for you is a whole different story. I'm interested in sharing ideas focused more on protecting yourself by learning to work smoothly with people of integrity rather than on holding your own by getting the better of unscrupulous sorts. I've been a contractor for decades (as well as a homeowner dealing with other contractors for a large part of that time). A lot that now is obvious to me might never occur to you.

1) Talk about what you see and hear.

I was quite happy dealing with Don, a wildlife biologist, as I evaluated and repaired his wiring. However, I had gone into the job feeling rather nervous. The reason for my unease was that Don told me he had two or three shorted switches. My problem with this is that what he meant is that the switches were misbehaving. "Shorting" has a particular technical meaning. When Don used it, I wondered if he thought he had diagnosed the problem and had decided exactly what I needed to do for him. Fortunately, this did not turn out to be the case. At worst, he was trying to impress me as knowledgeable, though I doubt even this. Probably he just was not sure how to explain his needs. He turned out to be a very pleasant, unassuming fellow.

When I arrived at his house, he cleared up the confusion created by his earlier statement, by offering descriptions that were more "clean." He explained: This toggle switch in the hall had sparked one time when he flipped it. This light in his office didn't always go on when he flipped the toggle switch controlling it, and it flickered sometimes when he touched the switch handle. The pull chain on this pantry light no longer pulled, and the light would not go on.

Once he told me his actual observations, I knew what I was dealing with. "My switches are shorted" didn't convey his observations. As it turned out, Don did not know what "shorted" means as a specialized "term of art." As a customer, you really don't need to talk the specialists' language in order to tell contractors the information necessary for them to understand what needs fixing. All you need to do is describe the symptoms that are troubling you, in plain English.

2) Give all the information you have. Don't be shy about offering data that you're not sure is relevant; let the expert you've called in be the judge.

Wendy's upstairs plumbing flooded, flooded badly enough to get into the floor and affect the ceiling below. She looked me up on the internet and called me to come out and evaluate the wiring in that ceiling, to determine whether there was any hazard. Based on what she told me, I got a clear idea of how I would test for any electrical leakage on the circuit feeding it. Then, later in our conversation, she mentioned almost as an afterthought that the light in that ceiling no longer would shut off. Wow. This revised my game plan considerably. In her case, I would have discovered the fact quickly enough when I showed up. In other cases, some seemingly minor datum--or its omission--has made a much bigger difference.

3) Do have information ready if you can, to save the tradesperson time.

If you are having anything electrical worked on--this includes some plumbing, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning equipment--try to find out ahead of time what circuit is involved.

It is a worker's responsibility to himself or herself to confirm that power is off after flicking the breaker or removing the fuse, but if you can say, "I believe it is Circuit 5" it can be helpful. You realize you're not positive what circuits control what outlets in your house? Take a few hours to identify and label them. If you want some guidance to help with the process, I published an article called "Hitting the Circuit" in The Washington Post Home Section on December 14, 1989, which still is accessible via your library (or, for a fee, from the Post's archives). Do note that legally-installed fuses and circuit breakers serving lights and normal receptacles are marked "15" or "20"; no higher. If lights or regular receptacles seem to be controlled by a circuit marked 40, 50, or even higher, the fuseholder or circuit breaker you use most likely is a MAIN that controls a whole number of 15s and 20s. If work is to be done on a light or ordinary receptacle, find the specific 15 or 20 feeding it. It may be in a subpanel.
I'm not saying that I never find a branch circuit serving lights and ordinary receptacles "protected" by a 30 amp or larger fuse. However, when I do, I've found a bad violation, a hazardous situation someone created out of ignorance or bloody-minded indifference.

Similarly, if water or gas is being worked on, know where the shutoff valves are located.

3) This leads to an even more important type of preparation: clear the way.

The National Electrical Code, which is adopted into law throughout the United States (as well as a number of other countries) requires that the space in front of your home electrical panel or panels, even a small subpanel, be kept clear, floor to ceiling, for a width of 30 inches and a depth of three feet. "Clear" means not only that you don't locate fixed equipment in that sacrosanct space; but no storage, either. This is to protect the lives of people working on the equipment.

Similarly, if equipment such as a light switch needs to be worked on, why expect the tradesperson to clear your belongings from in front of it, or, worse, to squeeze around them? For that matter, if you want to save me some time and yourself some money, if you're a really handy sort you can cut away any paint that is gluing that switch's cover plate to the wall, to save me from having to do so. If cable or pipe will need to be run across a room or two, and you leave fragile belongings in the way, workers will take some care not to injure your goods. However, it's your responsibility to take reasonable precautions.

This is a grey area. When I have taken time--billable time--to clear their goods out of my way, or to clean up after my work, some customers have expressed annoyance, others gratitude. If this hasn't been discussed, it's hard for a worker to predict customers' preferences, except by their behavior. If something left in harm's way gets knocked down and breaks, it really cannot be laid to the workers' responsibility--unless you are incapacitated. It's always a worker's right to walk away from a job that's been made unnecesarily dangerous.

It is even more important to keep pets and children out of harm's way. Also, if there are any other vulnerable people or possessions, warn your workers and do what you can to ensure protection. If someone is on electrically-operated life safety equipment, even monitors, they may not be able to deal with power outages. If you have a desktop computer operating, without an Uninterruptible Power Supply, you don't want a flipped or tripped breaker to cause its hard disk to crash. If water is going to be out of commission overnight, people may need to make other arrangements for toilets, for bathing, for cooking, or at least for drinking.

4) In a sense, workers are your guests, and so you should extent basic courtesy.
No one's expecting you to wine and dine them, but it is a reasonable expectation that you will offer them drinking water, to make toilets and handwashing--and drying--facilities available, and to at least provide suggestions for parking.

5) Keep assumptions about who will do what to a minimum.

Nowadays I'm pretty careful about the following possible conflict, so I tend to head it off over the phone. Even so, potential customers sometimes are pretty unhappy when I tell them my position: I work to Code, or even go beyond its requirements, and I obey local regulations. One implication of the latter is that when a permit is required to perform your work I indeed pull a permit, and then my work gets inspected by local authorities after I'm done. Sometimes customers do not expect this, and in fact do not want this and do not expect a contractor to insist on it.
Anything involving my running cable or conduit does require a permit in all the jurisdictions where I'm licensed.
I have to control wiring performed under my liccense. I've been on a job where the carpenter closed in my work, aunauthorized, before I arranged for the inspepctor to review it. I cannot accept this

Contrariwise, some customers know that this is the law in most places--even moving the gas line over to the other side of the kitchen to relocate the stove can mean the plumber has to pull a permit-- and simply assume the plumber will do so. They can be awfully surprised when the contractor neglects to bother with a permit, refuses, or tells them to apply for the permit covering his work themselves (which would be fraud).

The most outrageous examples of this that I have encountered, and I have heard these stories repeatedly, involve non-licensed contractors. Upgrading an electrical service involves communication between the government inspector and your utility. Therefore, there is no way that this work can be completed without passing inspection, and no way inspection can be scheduled without a valid permit. Nevertheless, many a brazen contractor has performed as much of an upgrade as he could, without a license or permit, and left the homeowner stuck, again and again.
Here's the worst part. A homeowner is considered legally liable for seeing to it that work is performed under appropriate permits. The local government, sadly, does not have the resources to keep practices such as this under control. The message is this: when there is the least doubt, call the local government offices and ask what is required, or you could be left holding the bag.

Here are some other common, but often false, assumptions.

  • The work will be scheduled "soon," and we both mean the same thing by this.
  • The work will proceed continuously once started.
  • The fixtures will be mounted in what I see as the clearly logical place.
  • The fixtures will match my color scheme.
  • Parts of what I have now that are still functional will be reused, rather than the installer charging me for new.
  • Or, contrariwise, after the work is done everything will be shiny and new and warranteed.
  • All the trash that is generated by the work will be removed, though we haven't discussed it.
  • The skilled tradespersons will take responsibility for patching and restoration after doing the part that requires their specialized expertise.
  • There is no right or wrong with regard to any of these assumptions. However, you are much better off discussing your preferences with regard to such items, and the costs of fulfilling your preferences. It's not judicious to simply hope they will turn out the way you wish, or the way that you imagine you would do things if you were in the installers' shoes.

    6)Read the information that is available to you.

  • If your homeowner's association has restrictions on the work you can have done, read them before hiring tradespersons.
  • If you buy fixtures to be installed, read their specifications so you can describe them to the tradespersons. I've been asked to permanently install a ceilng fan that said it was only suitable for use ten feet up, and my customer's ceilinng was less than an eight-feet high.
  • Many garbage disposals and other appliances, for example, specify the size of the circuit permitted to feed them.
  • Many an appliance specifies that it needs a dedicated circuit, one serving no other loads.
    Many light fixtures specify that they are only for ceiling installation, or only dry locations, or only wall mounting, or only mounting on a surface box or contrariwise, on a box that is flush with the surface; or only for mounting on rectangular boxes--or, contrariwise, only on round boxes.
  • Most modern light fixtures are not suitable for connection to pre-1985 wiring; they say, "Use with wiring rated for 90 degrees C." Many customers get caught by this restriction.
  • Dimmers for incandescent lamps are unsuitable for most LEDs.
  • Some very bright LEDs cannot be dimmed by replacing the wall switch with a dimmer, but require special control wires.
  • Some LED-rated dimmers are poorly compatible with some LEDs, so they hum, or whine, or flicker or don't dim very far when fed through those dimmers. (One can look up compatibility.)
  • Recessed fixtures that specify parabolic reflector lamps may be unsafe with other types of light bulbs.
  • Some LED light bulbs--just light bulbs--specify that they are only for use in open fixtures. Installing one in an enclosed fixture could cause a fire.
  • 7) Be prepared for some restoration work after the workers are gone.

  • If someone's had any power off, you may need to reset clocks and timers.
  • If dust has been generated, you may need to clean. My baseline assumption is that customers do not consider it cost-effective to have clean-up tasks performed at an electrician's rates.
  • If furniture's been moved, you may need to move it back.
  • If your plumbing pipes have been modified, you may want to run the water--sometimes for a long time--to clear out any flavor or odor stemming from the new work, or rust loosened from old piping.
  • If circuits have been added to your electrical panel, they should have been labeled, accurately and precisely. Nevertheless, you should check, because there is a chance your circuiting has been shifted around and the directory needs to be updated.
  • 8) Be available at least for communication, if not actually hovering around.
    Many's the time I've had to guess as to what my customers wanted, because they were not there and I couldn't get hold of them. My personal inclination is to be conservative, not presuming that they will want to undertake extra expense or mess, even when it would be beneficial. I tend, and I emphasize the word tend, to perform the least additional, unauthorized work that will enable me to leave things reasonably safe. It is not unusual for me to guess wrong with this assumption.

    9) In closing, try to keep in mind what's reasonable for the pereson you're bringing in, as well as for yourself.
    I've had a would-be customer call me and ask me to come out and give him a price on fixing his non-functioning outlets. This was someone who truly believed that you could get three contractors to offer free bids on anything. I do more than enough pro bono work for legitimate charities to give away my time and expertise in such circumstances. Contrariwise, I've had two customers complain to me about contractors who left them high and dry. "Well, I'll be back to finish next week," the electricians would promise, and then neither show up nor call. After this happened a couple of times, it was absolutely legitimate and appropriate for these customers to notify contractor and county that they were terminating the contracts.
    -END-

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