Hum tells him he'll soon have a ballast


ONE OF THE advantages of living in a house for a long time is that when something breaks, it usually is a repeat performance. The mystery of "what is that terrible noise?" is gone.

Over the years, for instance, I have learned that a "chirp" coming from the refrigerator freezer means the fan motor has gone kaput. I now know that a growl from underneath the kitchen sink means the garbage disposal is gummed up, probably with potato peels, and that the problem can be remedied with a wrench that fits into the disposal's belly.

And, recently, when a fluorescent light in our kitchen started humming, the melody sounded familiar. It sounded like "Been There, Fixed That" to me. A few years ago, another light in the kitchen had played the same tune -- a very loud, very annoying hum. Back then I discovered that when a fluorescent light starts humming loudly, it is a cry for help, and for a new ballast.

I know a ballast looks like a metal matchbox. I know it sits inside some fluorescent light fixtures. I have no idea what it does. But I know the ballast-repair routine.

First, there is the plunge-the-kitchen-into- darkness scene. This scene begins when I flip the circuit breaker that supplies electricity to the troubled light as well as to most of the lights in the kitchen.

This is followed by clanging, banging and fulminating as I unscrew the faulty light fixture from underneath the upper kitchen cabinets.

Next comes the Humpty- Dumpty terror scene. This occurs when I see the tangle of wires dangling from the freed fixture and think, "If I take this thing apart, am I ever gonna be able to put it back together again?"

Then comes the frenzied scribbling. In an effort to convince myself I can put the thing back together, I make a crude illustration on a sheet of paper of the wiring scheme. I use different-colored ink for different-colored wires -- black ink for the black wires, yellow for the white wires, green ink for green wire. I also note the location and color of the caps, the screw-on devices that hold wires together.

This time around I added a new wrinkle to the drama. I took a snapshot, a Polaroid, of the proper arrangement of the wires. The photo wouldn't win any prizes, but it, along with my wiring diagram, gave me the courage to take the next step, disconnecting the fixture from the wires poking out of the kitchen wall.

When the fixture was loose, I covered the ends of the wires coming out of the wall, and made sure the black and white wires could not touch each other, a situation that could create sparks.

Then I carried the light fixture to the car, and like an old horse pulling a delivery wagon, I made my regular stop. I could have gone to almost any electrical-supply store in the Baltimore area and bought a ballast. But I went, almost on auto-pilot, to Peoples Electrical Supply Co. Inc., in the 300 block of Gay St. on the eastern edge of downtown Baltimore. I had been there many times before, including the last time a ballast had gone bad.

I knew what to expect. I knew it was a business presided over by Bill Dorman, a large man with a full beard, and an office full of hockey sticks from the old Baltimore Clippers, and a man whose visage reminds me of Rasputin, the turn-of-the-century bearded Russian monk who served as an adviser to the czars.

When I presented my dead ballast to one of Dorman's assistants, he eyed the deceased, and remarked that he "might" have a replacement. He returned in a few minutes with a new ballast and assured me that putting it in the light fixture was not a big deal.

For the final act, I took the new ballast home. With the light fixture on my workbench, I studied the location of the old ballast. I memorized the positions of its wires. Then slowly, respectfully, I removed the deceased ballast and hooked up the new one.

Once again I plunged the kitchen into darkness. And, after consulting my photo and wiring sketch, I reconnected the wires and reattached the light fixture, with its new ballast, underneath the kitchen cabinet.

For the finale, I restored electricity to the kitchen. Then I swallowed hard and flipped the switch that controlled the star of the show, the fixture. The light beamed. I was amazed. Moreover, there was no smoke or cracking and popping sounds coming from the fixture.

I had succeeded. I waited for applause.

I didn't hear any. But I also didn't hear any humming, and in the ballast-repair drama, silence from the light fixture is the equivalent of a standing ovation.

Pub Date: 2/20/99

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