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Those uh-oh moments

By Mike McClintock, Special to Tribune Newspapers

8:57 AM EST, December 6, 2013

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Every do-it-yourselfer has limits, shining on one job, struggling with another. For some, climbing a ladder to clean the gutters is fine, but a few steps farther onto the roof to fix shingles is too far. No one do-or-don't guideline fits all. But there is a common denominator: the "uh-oh" factor. Fire up the chain saw for that 15-foot sapling, no problem. But at some point — 30 feet, 60 feet — you start wondering how and where it might fall. Those doubts are your common sense telling you this may not be a DIY job after all.

That doesn't mean you can't read up, watch how-to videos and expand your DIY envelope in stages. But some repairs and improvements have hidden challenges and dangers — like these that trigger uh-oh moments and can stump even experienced DIYers.

Roofing. Asphalt-based shingles are not hard to measure, cut, fit and nail. The problem for do-it-yourselfers is their location — especially when the roof is too high or the pitch is too steep to feel safe. In good weather and wearing nonslip sneaks, most DIYers feel OK one story off the ground but not two or more. Many feel fine when the roof is walkable but not when they need scaffolding or an OSHA-approved body harness with a safety rope tie-down. Those are for contractors, not DIYers. For most of us, the comfort limit is a pitch no greater than 5-in-12, which is a 23-degree angle. The overriding rule: Whatever the height and pitch, if you're not comfortable there, don't go there.

Pneumatic tools. Most are an unfamiliar step up for do-it-yourselfers, particularly nailers that pack an explosive punch at the pull of a trigger. Pros use them because they're fast. But pneumatic nailers can be a challenge for do-it-yourselfers. For instance, guns have two ways of firing: Sequential nailing and contact nailing. You want the sequential operation. In this two-stage mode you have to depress the nose piece against the work and then pull the trigger. If you don't follow the sequence the gun won't fire. Pros often use the contact mode, also called bump nailing, to save time. Avoid it, because depressing the nose piece once you've pulled the trigger — even by accident as you carry the tool — will fire a nail.

Three-way switches. These controls are one reason electrical work is the least popular DIY job. The wiring is easy to get wrong because two switches control one light from two locations, for instance, at the head and foot of the stairs, or at opposite ends of a large room with two ways in and out. The tricky part: the switch may seem to de dead — not turning a lamp on or off — while there is still power in the box. It comes from a traveler, normally a red-colored wire that carries electricity back and forth between the switches. Worse yet, there are several possible wiring layouts because the light may be located before, after or between the two switches.

Gas connections. Plumbing gas isn't more difficult than plumbing water. But the risks are night and day. With a water pipe leak you might get a dribble. With a gas pipe leak you might get an explosion. There are safeguards. One is skunky-smelling mercaptan, added to gas so if there is a leak you'll be alerted by the odor. Another is soap and water. If you suspect a leak, brush a solution of dishwashing detergent over the joint, and if it bubbles, shut off the supply and call your gas utility and a plumber.