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11 Epic Electrical Fails

Most of the time, DIY electrical work is no joke…but sometimes it is. These handymen made some pretty big mistakes involving electricity, but luckily they all lived to tell the tale.

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A Shocking E-Mail

A Shocking E-Mail

I'll tell you right off that I hate working with electricity because it scares the heck out of me. But I had to replace an outlet, so I shut off the proper circuit breaker and checked the outlet with a voltage tester. The power was off. OK, no big deal.

I started unscrewing the wire from the outlet, and just as the screwdriver touched the head of the terminal screw, someone sent me an e-mail, which caused the BlackBerry phone hanging at my hip to vibrate. Thinking I was being electrocuted, I threw the screwdriver across the room, where it crashed right through the window. This is one time that hiring an electrician might have been cheaper.

2 / 11
Attention-Getting Dryer

Attention-Getting Dryer

I was installing a new, quieter dryer in a client's high-end house. The power cord was unattached and had exposed connectors at one end. Like an idiot, I pushed the plug into the 240-volt outlet to see if the prongs fit. Well, the connectors at the other end were all touching one another and—WHAM! The loose ends shorted out and knocked me clear over. This in turn set off the house alarm system, alerted the police and set every dog in the neighborhood barking. It's bad enough to goof—it's far worse to have to explain your screwup to your client and your boss, a crowd of curious onlookers and the police.

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Duct-Tape Failure

Duct-Tape Failure

I finally installed a programmable thermostat to cut energy costs. The job went well—or so I thought, until my wife started kicking me at 4 in the morning. The house was a nose-numbing 45 degrees. I removed the new thermostat and duct-taped the old one back in place; I'd figure out the problem after work. When I heard the heat turn on, I smiled and went back to bed.

When I walked into the house that afternoon, a blast of hot air hit me. During the day, the weight of the old thermostat had pulled the duct tape from the wall, leaving the thermostat set in the 'on' position. The gauge read a toasty 110 degrees!

4 / 11
Honey, Someone's at the Furnace!

Honey, Someone's at the Furnace!

We needed a new doorbell, so my handy brother-in-law helped us install one. A few days later, very early in the morning, the doorbell rang. We got up to check the door and nobody was there. About a half-hour later, the doorbell rang and again nobody was there. Convinced it was a practical joke, we camped out by the door. It rang again, and this time we could see there was definitely nobody there. We knew that a doorbell uses low voltage supplied by a transformer. We traced the wires and noticed that my brother-in-law had wired the doorbell into an existing transformer that was also hooked to the furnace thermostat. As a result, whenever the furnace turned on, the doorbell rang. We purchased a dedicated transformer for the new doorbell and are now sleeping in on weekends.

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How Many DIYers Does it Take...?

How Many DIYers Does it Take...?

I walked into the laundry room the other day and turned on the light switch and nothing happened. The circuit breaker hadn't tripped, so I thought it must be the switch or the ballast in the fluorescent fixture. I got my tester and checked the two wires on the switch. My tester didn't light up, so I thought it must be bad. After installing the new switch, the light still didn't work. Next I bought a new ballast for the fixture, installed it and still nothing. Then it dawned on me that it must be the simplest solution of all—a burned-out fluorescent bulb. Sure enough, once I replaced the bulb, it worked perfectly. Next time I'll start with the most obvious!

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Invisible Man

Invisible Man

Not long ago, my parents moved into a senior housing complex. My dad's first project at his new residence was to install a wireless doorbell. After installing it, he heard the bell ring and went to see who was at the door. Nobody! The next day, he heard the bell and the same thing happened. As he was getting to know his neighbors downstairs, he told them that somebody had been ringing their bell and then disappearing. His neighbor said the same thing had happened to him. Then my dad noticed his neighbor's doorbell. It was just like his. It dawned on him that the identical bells sold at the same hardware store were on the same factory-set frequency. Sure enough, after they changed frequencies, the phantom guests quit ringing.

7 / 11
The New FandangoFamily Handyman

The New Fandango

I was in a hurry to get a new ceiling fan installed before my wife got home, so I didn't read the red tag attached to the fan and proceeded with the job. I finished the wiring just as she walked through the door. I flipped the switch, anticipating her admiration. The fan spun faster and faster—then crashed to the floor. While cleaning up the broken bits, I found that red tag, which said something about proper support.

Editor's note: A standard junction box designed to support a light fixture won't support a fan. That's why special support brackets are on the store shelf right next to the ceiling fans.

8 / 11
Flash of BrillianceFamily Handyman

Flash of Brilliance

Recently, I helped my brother install a new motion sensor light in his mother-in-law's bedroom bathroom. We adjusted the setting so the light would stay on for five minutes when it was activated and then shut off. In her adjacent bedroom, the bed was positioned so she could easily get up to use the bathroom at night. About a week went by before she started complaining that the light stayed on most of the night.

I stopped by that evening and observed that the light came on even without any apparent motion in the room. I then shut the pocket doors on the bathroom and discovered it worked properly. After a little more detective work, I found the culprit. She had placed a small digital picture frame on her dresser. Every time a new photo flashed on, it activated the sensor of the light. I moved the frame to another location, and the problem was solved.

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Sparks in the DarkFamily Handyman

Sparks in the Dark

Recently I decided to replace a ceiling light fixture with a ceiling fan in my computer room. Instead of turning off the power at the breaker, I just shut off the light switch and got to work. I changed the box and was finishing up the electrical work when a storm passed over outside. The storm darkened the room a bit, but I could still see fine to complete the job. Just then, my wife came into the room to help out. I asked her to hand me some parts and then she said, “Why are you working in the dark?” Taking matters into her own hands, she instinctively turned on the light switch and sparks flew from my screwdriver. Thank goodness my hands weren't touching the wires. Next time I'll turn off the power at the breaker!

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Cut the LightsFamily Handyman

Cut the Lights

When I built my house, I wanted a tall garage opening to accommodate our full-size trucks. That meant I had to mount the garage door track just a few inches from the ceiling. The installation went without a hitch. The first time I hit the garage door button, the door opened perfectly, rolled smoothly along the rails—and sheared off my ceiling lights!

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UnpluggedFamily Handyman


Recently, I was cleaning my yard with my electric leaf blower connected to a 100-ft. long extension cord. The blower kept cutting out, so I checked the cord and found it had a damaged spot about a foot from the end. When I finished the yardwork, I went up to the hardware store to get a new end for the cord. I cut off the bad end and installed a new plug end. I then rolled up the cord and hung it in the garage. The next time I needed it, I plugged in the blower and then grabbed the other end. Luckily, I didn't touch the prongs or this story would have had a tragic ending! I'd mistakenly put another male end on the cord instead of a female end. With only my pride shortcircuited, I unplugged the cord and replaced the goof.