Wise Customers

Safety First Electrical Contracting, Consulting and Safety Education

The name gives you the nub of what I offer: the many different ways one highly regarded master electrician has personally cared for customers--over three decades.

3419 forty-first avenue, Colmar Manor, MD 20722

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

safety {at} davidelishapiro {dot} com>

email The main electrical web page


Wise Customers (c) 2002 David E. Shapiro

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 tenant, also have an important part to play in ensuring that the relationship goes smoothly and that you get what you want.

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.)

The type of information I have for you is a whole different story. I'm interested in sharing information that's 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 clearly and simply.

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 was that he sounded as though didn't know what he was saying but wanted to tell me he knew 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" was not an observation, but an attempt on his part at electricians' language. It sounded as though he had made a diagnosis, an incorrect one in these cases. Don clearly did not know what "shorted" means. As a customer, you really don't need to talk the specialists' language in order to tell your 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 quite revised my game plan. 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 "Label Your Lines" in The Washington Post many years ago, which still should be accessible in your library'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 normal branch circuit "protected" by a 30 amp or larger fuse. However, when I do, I've found a violation, a hazardous situation created out of ignorance.

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 Mexico, Panama, Venezuela, Colombia, the Cayman Islands, . . . ) requires that the space in front of your home electrical panel or panels, including in front of 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 not locating permanent equipment in that sacrosanct space, but no storage, too. 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, if you did not bother to clear the way, it is only reasonable for them to assume you prefer to gamble that your stuff is not worth the time and trouble that would be needed to clear them out of the way.

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. Therefore, if something left in harm's way gets knocked down and breaks, it really cannot be laid to the workers' responsibility--unless you are feeble. Then it's another story...

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 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 reasonable to offer them drinking water, to make toilets and washing--and drying--facilities available, and to at least provide suggestions as to parking.

5) Try to keep assumptions 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--and pretty much anything involving running cable or conduit does require a permit in all the jurisdictions where I'm licensed--I indeed pull a permit, and 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.

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 means 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 entail 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 liable, under the law, 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 nice person who came over and did the estimate is the person who will do the work.
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.
The skilled tradespersons will take responsibility for patching and restoration after doing the part that requires their 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 desires, than hoping 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.
Many garbage disposals, for example, specify the circuiting permitted to feed them.
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. Many customers get caught by this restriction.
Fixtures that specify a maximum of 60 watt incandescent lamps are unsafe with larger light bulbs.
Recessed fixtures that specify maximum 150 watt parabolic reflector lamps are unsafe with other types of light bulbs.
Some recessed fixtures specify maximum 150 watt parabolic reflector lamps or maximum 60 watt "A"-shaped (standard pear-shaped)incandescent lamps. Careless readers of their instructions have assumed incorrectly that these are safe with 150 watt "A"-shaped (standard pear-shaped)lamps.

7) Be prepared for some restoration work after they 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 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.
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.
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Go to my base web page for my electrical business, with links to my Electrical design page, my Sweat Equity page, and more.