Wall outlet goes in with shocking ease


CAN YOU TEACH an old home repair guy a new trick? Eventually.

That is the conclusion I reached after I hooked up my first electric outlet using the poke-the-wires-in-the-back method.

These receptacles have been in hardware stores for several years. Slots in their backs allow you to snap the wires in place rather than tightening the wires with screws. It has taken me a while to try them out.

Home-repair psychologists could probably point out several reasons for my reluctance to try something new.

One would be the condition known as scaredy-cat-a-nosis. In layman's terms, this means I fear if I mess with the wiring I might fry like a strip of bacon.

Another reason could be that accepting change is difficult. If you have been curling the black wires clockwise around the brass screw for years, why try sticking the black wire into the slot on the back of a receptacle? If the old way worked, why change?

And a third reason would be my deep and widespread lack of understanding about the intricacies of electricity. Once I get beyond the wall plate, I behave like a driver who takes the same route to work each day. I stay on the beaten path. I look at how the old fixture was wired. When putting in the new fixture, I try to follow exactly the old wiring pattern. Any deviations, I believe, only lead to trouble.

I happily avoided innovation until one day I was forced to try it. It happened when I started to plug an extension cord into a seldom-used wall receptacle, or as I call it, an outlet. The outlet felt hot to my touch. I may not understand the interactions of an electric charge, but I knew a hot outlet was a bad outlet.

Sure enough, when I turned off the power supply to the outlet and removed its cover plate, I saw wires were curling around one another in dangerous and provocative ways.

Moreover, large sections of these wires were naked, or at least partially clothed. I knew that according to a code of proper behavior, they should have been covered up with insulation or electrician's tape. One of these bare wires was touching the inside of the metal outlet box, generating the heat.

Rather than allowing these bare wires to intertwine, I needed to keep them apart. I needed to put them, so to speak, in separate rooms.

After studying the cramped quarters of the outlet box, I surmised that the best way to keep the wires away from one another was to change the way they were hooked up to the receptacle. It was too crowded in the outlet box for all those long, curling wires. So rather than using the old-fashioned method of attaching them to the sides of the receptacle with screws, I needed to try the modern approach of sticking shortened wires into the slots in the back of the receptacle.

This was something new for me, and I worked slowly. First, I drew a diagram showing the way the old receptacle was wired. I noted which wires had been attached to the brass screws, and which had been been attached to the silver screws. Loose wires tend to all look alike to me. This is especially true in an old house like mine where the wires are not different colors. Instead of the trendy shades of white and black and green found in the wires of newer houses, the wires in this outlet box were all an ancient shade of black.

Next I shortened the wires, eliminating the excess bare parts. By the time I had finished trimming the wires, I had chopped off the once-curly ends and now had straight pieces of wire. In hairdressing terms, the wires had gone from a Shirley Temple, curly look, to a punk, straight-as-an-arrow look. I snapped the wires into the back of the receptacle and gave them a slight tug to make sure they were secure. To test my work I plugged a lamp into the receptacle, then turned the power on.

The lamp worked. The wires didn't rub. The outlet didn't heat up. I avoided becoming a strip of burned bacon.

I had learned a new trick.

Pub Date: 2/01/97

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