While I’ve long fancied myself as a master of home repair, the older I get the more I discover that I’m really not so smart as I thought. Take home electrics. A recent trip to Harbor Freight yielded a $3.50 circuit tester, which, when deployed in the outlets around the house, caused me some real introspection.

Long ago I learned that AC and DC are very different. DC is polarized, meaning one leg is positive and the other negative. Batteries are DC. And you have to keep this straight least what you hook up may run backwards, or not at all. 

Meantime, the outlets in our home are AC. Back in the day, when things were simple, your appliance plugs had two similar blades and it really didn’t matter how you plugged them in. But, it turns out that it’s no longer that simple. As more and more layers of safety started to be implemented, we now have outlets with that smiley face, and the plugs you put in them have one wide blade, another that’s narrower, and a kind of semicircular prong.

Seems that AC, too, is “polarized.” There is something called a hot (the narrow blade), something called common (the wide blade) and that prong is a ground. If you pull out a properly wired outlet from the wall, you’ll see that the black wire (hot) is connected to gold colored screws, the white (common) wire is connected to the silver terminals and a green, or bare copper, wire (ground) is connected to the green terminal. 

The demise of my self-assurance about all of this really started when we ditched our cable TV and put up an antenna to get the abundant digital broadcasts. There was one local station we could never get. 

Eventually I traced it to the kitchen lighting. Every time the kitchen lights would be turned on, George Stephanopoulos would disappear. I corresponded with the engineer of that station and he had no answers. Finally, I ascribed it to the first-generation LED “bulbs” we’d installed. I was about to replace all of them when I bought this circuit tester.

When I plugged it into the kitchen outlet associated with the switch for those lights, which I’d installed myself, it showed me there was an error. Apparently back before I learned the mantra “black to gold, white to silver,” I’d switched the connections. 

Now, you can go along for years in this condition, but it’s a bad idea, because the dangerous “hot” current is now on the wrong side of your light or appliance switch. Amazingly, when I corrected this situation, Channel 27 started to come in loud and clear.

This got me going around the house, finding a number of other instances of electrical malpractice that I’d been living with. Which, in turn, led me to stumble onto this incredible guy on YouTube who lectures, both humorously and endlessly, on both the general stupidity of US standards for home electrical wiring and, in particular, about some of the things you, too, should probably be aware of.

Start out by watching this video , which has to do with the dumbness of circuit breakers and the even dumber design of some of the things that we plug into our outlets.

While entertaining, this guy does go on and on. But I can assure you, at my old age I‘m still amazed at how much I don’t know. And what he’s illuminated for me, that you also may not know, may save your life.

© 2022 David B Bucher

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