A while back, two Arkansas boys were heading out for some predawn frog gigging, when the fuse for their car headlights blew. There they were, stuck at the side of the road with no headlights and all the good frogs getting away.
But like all good country boys out before sunrise, they were packing guns and ammo. The driver, named Poole, had an idea: A .22 shell might just fit in that fuse holder. He fetched one from the ammo box, popped it in place up under the dash, and the headlights were resurrected. The frog hunters were back on the road.
As it turned out, Poole had treated the symptom, but not the underlying disease. The electrical fault that blew the first fuse worked on the .22 shell for a few minutes, but the heat got to be too much. The shell discharged, and the slug blew through Poole’s left testicle. Of course, this caused him to wreck the car. Poole suffered no further injury, but his gigging mate ended up with a busted clavicle.
When I heard about this, I thought two things. First, I wondered if this could have been Eight-Toe Timmy Poole, from back home in South Carolina; he was the only human I ever met who actually ran over his own foot with a lawnmower. If so, we’re going to have to add to his nickname.
My second thought was, This is a real good example of overfusing.
Time was, we educated people about overfusing. I’m just old enough to remember public-service announcements interrupting my Huckleberry Hound cartoons and telling people not to stick pennies in the fuse box because that could burn their house down.
These days, electrical education has backslid. Not long ago, Nashville Electric Service had billboards all over town. They showed a drawing of a receptacle with about a dozen extension cords plugged into it. The two-word caption, “Think Safety,” was inadequate, when you consider that the billboard was aimed at people who don’t know an overloaded circuit when they see one. How many people saw these billboards and thought, Aw man, I better hurry home and get all my cords consolidated, like on the picture.
A lot of people think that older electrical systems with fuses are inherently dangerous. Well, that’s not exactly right. Fuses are fine. It’s the people you’ve got to watch out for.
Let me start with the basics: Most household circuits are designed to handle a maximum 15- or 20-amp load. The idea is that if a person is foolish enough to plug a vacuum cleaner, a hair dryer, a coffeepot, and a Jimi Hendrix-size Marshall tube amp into one circuit, the fuse will blow before the wires get hot enough to set the house on fire.
If a 20-amp fuse blows, you’re supposed to replace it with another 20-amp fuse. Same for 30s, 40s, and so on. But this is America, and you can walk into a hardware store and buy any dang fuse you please. If there’s a voice in your head that says, The 20-amp fuse blew, so I’ll just put in a 30-amp fuse, nobody’s going to stop you from doing it. It’ll work just fine, as long as there’s nothing wrong with the wiring, and you don’t overload the circuit. But if something goes wrong, and the wires start to overheat, the fuse won’t blow. Next thing you know, you’re standing out in the front yard in your nightgown, crying and hoping the firemen can save the Chihuahua.
(Which, by the way, puts me to thinking: Do y’all really think a fireman’s going to run up to your burning house, see that sticker on the door that says, Please Save Our One/Two Cats/Dogs/Parakeets, and go charging in? Gosh, I hope not.)
I’ve inspected thousands of old houses, hundreds with fuse boxes. I’m here to tell you: Just about every fuse in Nashville is a 30-amp fuse. Once in a great while, we’ll see a 20. I can’t remember the last time I saw a 15. If you’ve got an old house with a fuse box, I say it would be a smart idea to have an electrician come over and make sure all your fuses are sized properly. This is a fairly easy job, and it shouldn’t cost a whole lot. Once you get everything straightened out, no more cheating with the fuse sizes, OK?
Visit Walter Jowers’ Web site at http://www.nashscene.com/~housesense/.