Home & Garden Columns

About the House: The Magic of Good Electrical Wiring

By Matt Cantor
Thursday October 16, 2008 - 10:12:00 AM

It’s amazing to me how differently two professionals can do their jobs. This applies to price, efficiency, safety and our comfort in working with the varied commercial connections we all make in our lives. It’s true with medical professionals, auto mechanics and tax accountants and it never ceases to stun me when I encounter either end of the scale. At the low end (and we know how bad things can get there, right?) there are those behind the counter at stores who have such small mandates and cannot seem to manage to provide us with even the most modest bits of service. My personal pet peeve is the clerk who can’t get off the phone with her boyfriend to sell me a roll of floss.  

And then there is the person who manages to wow me by knowing their job really well (no matter how large or small), by being courteous and by fearlessly hurling themselves through burning hoops to get me what they believe I have coming to me. In the latter case, I often end this call by asking to talk to their supervisor and by making damned sure that the company knows just how high Suzy or Chad jumped and how much loyalty the company garnered from one satisfied customer. 

This week I had the opportunity to see what the bottom of one particular barrel looked like in the electrical trade. And how a different recent patron of said dark art stood both blameless and agnostic. 

I’m in the business of looking for red flags, since much of what may have formerly transpired will be beyond view. Like a physician, I must look at the outside of the patient for signs of illness without cutting into flesh. 

At one particular job, signs abounded that there was much wrong and before long, I was inside of sealed junction boxes just to be sure of exactly how bad it was. The sad news in this case was that major upgrades had been done so badly that virtually all these recent paid improvements would need to be scrapped and redone. It was pretty much all money down the drain. It was also scary because, had this person not been moving and having the house looked over, they might have lived in a set of circumstances that were really dangerous. This isn’t true of roofs or paint jobs but it can easily be true with wiring. 

But despite the salience of all these thoughts, they are not my objective.  

One very notable feature of the attack on this house was the fact that there were chunks of wall removed from many a room. Little ones below outlets, several higher up on walls and a general scattering of little and larger ones all around. These were access portals used by the electrician (a term I use here with the greatest largess) to pull wires through to the next point on their route to a finished junction (a lamp, a switch, an outlet). 

While the nascent recipient of these services might well not know that this was wholly unprofessional, I’ve had the good fortune to examine a lot of wiring in my time, both in progress and upon completion and it’s a rare day that one will see an electrician who cannot do most of this work with only a minimum of wall damage. This is not to say that electricians do not need to make holes in walls for the pulling of wires from time to time but it’s striking the degree to which a good one can do their work with few to none beyond the ones that get closed off with fixtures and cover plates.  

Every trade has tricks (you know the term so I won’t abuse you). Physicians now have laparoscopic methods for a range of organ remodelings and electricians aren’t so very different. Possessing flexible drill bits up to six feet long, they can drill up through walls directly to the single hole cut for the switch or sconce allowing even for hidden blocking in the wall. A common example of this is the Greenlee Diversa-bit. These come in this extravagent lengths but also have extensions to work their way across long ceilings. Along with these come “fish-tapes,” long spools of tempered flat steel terminanted with hook so that they can either meet one another in a hidden recess and pull one through to the other end of the cavity or so that they can grasp a bundle of wires and do the same. Now there are also fish poles (no joke, but it gets worse), fish sticks (told you) and various reels, blowers (again, no joke. These blow or suck plugs connected to wiring through long runs of conduit). So as you can see, the magician has a lot of tools with which to avoid any sign of her having been there. 

With clever planning and a good knowledge of how houses are framed, a clever electrician can wend their wires through the framing of walls, ceilings and floors with the stealth of the Mission Impossible team. This not only keeps clients happy, it makes the electrician’s job easier and faster. It does, however, require years to learn and usually at the knee of a master. The combination of learning the many complications of the electrical code (possibly the longest and densest part of the many building codes) as well as acquiring that really big bag of trick takes years, smarts and diligence. Many aspire and far fewer arrive at the highest level of this trade. 

Really good electricians seem almost compulsively neat and somewhat ritualistic in the way that they will “make-up” a junction box in preparation for installation of a “device” (an outlet, a lamp, a switch). These small details, along with the way in which a junction box is affixed or a panel set on a wall can make big differences over time in the safety of these systems. 

Though this day was a sad one (and cause for both concern and strong words), I do have days when I get to see the master’s work. But what’s funny is that I usually don’t see it at all unless I’m paying careful attention. If I don’t look inside the panels or inside the attic or crawlspace, I will often be completely unaware the new circuits have been cleverly snuck through these walls. 

Magic has fallen out of style, at least as compared to its heyday a hundred years ago. In those days of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, great magicians were the rock stars of the age. Names like Thurston, Chung Ling Soo (the faux Chinese guise of William E. Robinson) and Carter the Great (immortalized in the delightful and engaging read, Carter Beats the Devil, by Glen David Gold) were as common as our current magicians, Lucas, Spielberg and Cronenburg.  

But magic can also be found alive and kicking still in the seemingly mundane building trades and especially in the hands of the best electricians. 

One of the most disappointing opinions I am ever likely to hear is that one professional is worth about the same as another. This opinion is doubly damaging because not only does this individual miss out on greater treasure but every person who promotes and promulgates this thesis also participates in the slow deracination of the most highly skilled professions that we have and the nurturing of low standards and bad work. 

This is so wrong. One guy or gal may be easily worth twice the wage of another in either (or both) speed or guile. 

Perhaps it is no longer an age of magic, but, to some degree, that’s up to each of us. You may have magic hidden in your very walls. Do you believe in magic?