If your house predates the Lyndon Johnson administration, chances are that your wiring is one generation out of date. Of course, old wiring is better than no wiring at all. After all, if none of the houses in this town had any wiring, every band would be a bluegrass bandan earthly preview of hell-torture if ever there was one.
It doesn’t matter if your house is equipped with a new-looking breaker box and all the outlets are those new three-hole types. That’s just the stuff on the ends of the wires. If your house is pre-Johnson, the wires themselves are probably the old two-wire stuff, which means your outlets, lights, switches, gizmos, and gadgets aren’t grounded.
So what? you say. The lights come on and the stereo works. So the wiring is OK, right?
Well, it’s OK in the same way that it was OK in the pre-Johnson days to use Mercurochrome on open wounds. When we wanted to prevent infection, we’d just dab a cocktail of two heavy-metal poisons directly into our bloodstream. We had bad-ass bacteria in those days, and we didn’t think twice about risking a little liver and brain damage in our efforts to wipe ’em out.
When I was a kid, I rode standing straight up on the front seat of my daddy’s Oldsmobile, eyeball-to-eyeball with an ax-sharp metal dash. Never got a scratch on me. But today, daughter Jess rides in the center rear seat of our quad-air-bag car, strapped in like a race-car driver. Our ideas about what constitutes acceptable risk have changed.
With modern wiring, every outlet, switch, and fixture has its own ground wire, which runs back to the main panel, where it’s hooked up nice and cozy to a water pipe and a rod or plate that goes deep into the earth. This ground wire can keep bad things from happening.
For instance, let’s say you’ve got an old metal chandelier and the wiring inside it is frayed. Let’s say that as you reach up to change a bulb, you vibrate the chandelier just enough to rub the last little bit of insulation off the hot wire, and the hot wire touches the metal case. Let’s say you then touch the metal case.
You’d be the ground, and you’d get shocked. Maybe just a tingle, or maybe a crackling blue flash that puts you into V-fib. The same kind of thing could happen when you touch the metal case on your washer, dryer, or toaster.
The risk is heightened by the fact that a whole lot of homeowners, handymen, and even licensed electricians remove old two-hole outlets and put modern three-holers in their place without upgrading the wiring. People, this is contrary to every electrical code I’ve ever read, and a high-magnitude dumb-ass move besides. Listen to me: Two-wire circuits need two-hole receptacles. (Yes, they still make them.) Only three-wire circuits should have three-hole receptacles. I’m amazed I have to explain this.
Now, I’m not saying that everybody with an older house ought to call an electrician and instruct him to rip out every inch of old wiring. Living in even the sparkiest old house is probably safer than driving here in Tennessee, where it’s legal to take to the roads in a car with a cracked windshield, bald tires, and no brakes (just as long as you’re not so full of liquor that your breath is actually flammable).
What I am saying is: Know what you’ve got. You can walk into any decent hardware store and buy a circuit tester for about 10 bucks. It will tell you if your outlets are grounded and whether the polarity is right.
Correct polarity is when the hot wire and neutral wire are hooked up to the proper lugs. Reversed polarity is when the wiring is backwards. When polarity is reversed, things will still work and appear to be OK. Based on this fact, there are plenty of bucketheadsincluding some electricianswho’ll tell you that reversed polarity is not a problem. They are wrong. Reversed polarity is dangerous. If you find it, get it fixed.
If you’re feeling extravagant, get a tester that’ll test ground-fault circuit interruptors (GFCIs). About half the GFCIs in Nashville are wired all wrong.
And for the record: If you find anything wrong, call a real electrician. No fixing electrical things yourself, OK?
Visit Walter Jowers’ Web site at http://www.nashscene.com/~housesense .