Mission Electrician: Part One

Week 35: Amy

[Edit from Joe:  Before my wife tells you about our latest progress you need to know something important.  My wife is amazing.  Seriously.  She is one of the most determined people you will ever meet.  Just try telling her she can’t do something and see what happens.  I dare you.  Amy and I are both teachers, which means we are huge advocates of life long learning.  It is important to us that we model that philosophy for our own children and this house project is a great opportunity for us to set that example for them. 

We began discussing the possibility of doing the electrical work ourselves when we tried again (unsuccessfully) to get our electrician to start the work on our house.  Little did I know that Amy was way over it and had already begun SERIOUSLY researching this topic.  Next thing I know there are wiring books all over the house and fancy diagrams appearing on the kitchen table that I don’t understand.

Some people would assume that Amy would be happy to sit at home while her husband gets dirty over at the rehab house, but they would be very wrong.  Amy wants to be as much of a part of this renovation as I am and I know that she is excited about being in charge of an entire project.  For this job, I’m just doing what she tells me to do, because I trust that she has done her research.  Now, here is Amy’s post about the beginning of our electrical project:

You may have collected from recent posts that we have finally decided to do all of the electrical work ourselves.  Although we knew next to nothing about wiring, we were committed to learn and prepared to be patient.  Luckily for us, my father in law, Jim, is an electrical engineer whose love language just happens to be gifts  of service.  He also has experience wiring his own old houses.  So, with Jim looking over our shoulders we have moved forward into uncharted territory.

Since Joe has his window restoration project, is coordinating the carpentry tasks, and generally researching everything to death, I have rather enthusiastically adopted the role of head electrician.  I have spent the last several weeks pouring over library books and websites trying to learn all that I can about wiring houses.

At first I began creating little diagrams that helped me to understand the information I was reading.  Once I understood a specific task, such as connecting a light to a switch (top right) I started drawing plans that were location specific to the needs of our house.  As I went along I wrote down my questions in the margins.  It has been very gratifying to go back through my first drawings and answer all of my own questions.

drawing as I learn
drawing as I learn

Below is an early example of my understanding of how the bathroom would be wired.  It isn’t ending up this way but it helps to illustrate the web of wires and cables and how to make sense of them.  It was crazy at first to wrap my mind around.  I am not electrically inclined.  I’m more of a scatter brain really.

detail of drawing
detail of drawing

Here are some examples of circuits I was working on. I started by making a map of each room and then divided the loads into reasonable circuits. I’ve planned for a lot of extra room on my 15 amp circuits just to be safe. The truth is, all of this planning is really just a guess because I won’t know what sort of roadblocks I may find when routing cable through walls, floors and ceilings. In other words, it’s all subject to change on sight.

Thinking about circuit loads and pathways
Thinking about circuit loads and pathways

Once I felt I had enough information I scheduled a time to meet with my father in law to go over my plans and to walk though the house with me.  I was actually nervous to show him my notes and plans.  After all, he is the expert and I a mere amateur.  I really needed his stamp of approval.  Much to my surprise, Jim seemed to think I could do it.  He pointed me in the right direction, answered all my questions and even gave me a bunch of spare cable he had lying around to get me started.  Seriously, without Jim’s guidance this would be a completely different electrical story.

With Jim’s blessing I went straight home to map out deadlines for our electrical jobs over Christmas break. Here you can see I’ve taped it to the kitchen cabinet.

Game plan time


Mission 1: Get to know the crawlspace and run cable to 2 centralized locations

The first task at hand was to run cable from the service panel (below) to two main locations. These locations will then feed all the circuits in the house.

Since it’s my first wiring job and the service panel makes me a touch nervous, I’ve decided to rough everything in without being hooked up to the service panel. This way I can focus on thinking through my work and not on electrocution. For now, I’ve left way more than enough cable length to attach to my panel and labeled each bundle of cable. We’ll save the live electricity work for later. [Edit from Joe:  Once we are done we will have someone connect the circuits to the panel.  We are ambitious, but not stupid.  We will also have our work inspected.]   For those of you who know something about wiring, yes I know I need to put the door/cover on my panel.  Also, that yellow cable is not my work. Just the black and white cables. Nothing that I am doing is drooping and hanging, thank you. The yellow cable is feeding the one and only electrical source in the house, so we are thankful to be able to plug in a spotlight so we can work!

service panel in the basement
service panel in the basement

On day one Joe and I ran three 14-3 cables through the crawlspace. Each cable has two hot wires, one neutral and a ground. Each cable will branch off into two separate circuits (one hot per circuit) connecting to 14-2 cables (one hot) for all of my 15amp circuits. So, if you’re following: our three cables will provide enough power for 6 circuits. This will more than cover everything on the first floor (minus the kitchen).

Joe and I army crawled our way across the crawlspace and scouted out the locations for feeding cable up to the main first floor locations. This was a relatively easy task. We used nail-in cable staples to attach the cables to the beams.

Running cable in the crawlspace
Running cable in the crawlspace

As for the second floor of the house, we will install a secondary service panel and feed all the circuits from the upstairs panel. In preparation for this we ran cable from the basement main power source up to the secondary panel location upstairs. We used two cables for this job, both 10 gauge. One is a dedicated circuit to the dryer and the other will feed power to the panel for all the second story circuits. This job was less dirty than the crawl space work but required more drilling, pulling and creative weaving around obstacles to get the thick wire to go where we wanted without violating code.

My faithful assistant
My faithful assistant

Let’s back up a bit and touch on the crawl space.  I have to admit that I was worried about bugs crawling in my hair, spiders and webs in my mouth, and accidentally putting my hand though a wet rotting corpse but it actually wasn’t bad at all.  Much to my relief.  It also helped that I was not alone and had my faithful assistant there to pick spiders out of my hair, should they crawl in there.  [Edit from Joe:  Yes, it wasn’t bad at all…  but notice neither of us are really smiling in the crawlspace photos]

Communicating through the floors


Mission 2: Assemble one small circuit.

I decided that my next challenge should be to rough in all of the first floor bathroom (each step and task a new experience for me). Starting with the bathroom was an obvious choice since it was what electricians call “new work”. This is where the walls are framed out but not insulated or dry walled. In other words, see through. It was beneficial to be able to see the skeleton of my work rather than imagine what is behind the walls.

Before beginning my second wiring task I needed to head to the Home Depot. Now, let me take a moment to recognize that I am not ignorant of the fact that I am a girl. I also recognize that most electricians are big burly men, clad in red flannel.

[Edit from Joe:  Really?  I always think electricians look more like me.  Not so burly, but maybe deceptively strong and athletic]

Since I do not resemble the Brawny napkin guy I am quite in the visual minority. I’m not sure if this makes me more defensive (probably) or culturally inclined to question and doubt myself (probably) but I do not feel it is the store clerk’s job, however nice they may be, to make broad and sexist gender exclamations about my shocking (get it? Shocking!) plans to electrify my own house.  I shall not be deterred by my chromosomes.

As soon as my boots hit the electrical aisle, I was quickly accompanied by an overbearing electrical dept. manager who seemed to not want me to touch the merchandise and simply put things in my cart for me. After lengthy bouts of electrical information (of which I can happily say I already knew) I was given leave to open my mouth and he listened and exclaimed, “Wow! I can tell you have really done your homework!” I guarantee you that if I were a man he would not have said that to me, nor would he have felt the need to launch into an educational spiel. He also would have allowed me to place my own items in my cart. I was not permitted  to wander the electrical aisle unescorted and completed all my shopping with my male escort.

In the work room there is probably sign that reads, “No woman shall be permitted to wander alone.”

When I approached the check out lane to purchase my loot the perky woman behind the counter took one look at my heaping cart and said, “What are YOU working on?!”

“Oh, some wiring. You know.”

“Security system, eh?”

Yes, because the only thing a woman might be driven to wire is a home security system. Adorable. I understand her thinking. If I had a husband, I wouldn’t have to wire anything. Then again if I had a husband I wouldn’t need a security system either. Grr.

I tried to restrain myself and politely, and sort of embarrassingly answered, “No, I’m wiring a house.”

To which she maddeningly replied with, “All by yourself?”

“Yes…..all by myself.”  I’m a big girl.

Armed with my dignity, my research folder, and my trusty wiring 1,2,3 textbooks, I escaped ye old Home Depot more determined than ever to prove my chromosomal worth to the world.  If I had been defensive before, things just went to a whole new level.

Truthfully, I do have my loving husband to physically help me (“Hey you, pull that cable through, hand me that drill, go buy more nail plates, make me coffee) and my father in law to answer all my questions (10 text messages a day) but don’t other real electricians have brutish assistants? Don’t they also field questions to a higher more knowledgeable person?

Does anyone know that Mercer Mayer Critter book, “All by Myself”? I read it to my daughter all the time.  I need to make my own sarcastic version of this showing women doing things “All By Themselves”

The next morning I went to the house and began by laying out all of my new purchases and orienting myself with each of their purposes. It was an electrical Christmas.


I was about to wire an entire house and here I have never even spliced a wire. A tall order to say the least. I have read and read and read about all of this. I know all about the types of cable, how the terminals on a receptacle work and how to insure polarity. I recognized all the tools and their various uses in the electrical aisle. (Although I quietly endured a lesson on each one) I’ve read in more detail than I care to admit on how to strip the insulation off of a cable to expose the wires with my “ripper”…but I  had never actually physically done it before. I had never even held the ripper. Yet I had actually TOLD people (strangers no less) that I (“I”) was wiring the house. Yup, me.

So, I sat on the floor practicing with my cutter and ripper, preparing my skills for the job ahead. For my first trick, I attempted to install a junction box (like an traffic intersection of cable) so that my main line of cable from the power source could branch off for the individual tasks on this circuit. Only to find that I had neglected to purchase nails to attach it to the stud……off to a great start.

No matter, just keep moving forward. I’ll get nails for that later.

Junction box
Junction box

As you may have noticed I have gotten a little label crazy. It’s kind of like a Hansel and Gretel bread crumb technique so I can remember where each cable is coming from and going to. Also, if I ever have to bust into my walls (GASP!) to repair mis-wired boxes (my word) I will know which cable is for what.

box for housing 3 bathroom switches.
box for housing 3 bathroom switches.

I was able to drill some holes in the studs (requiring a brief monologue with a cranky drill) and then route my GFCI circuit cable up and over the door frame and snake it back down near where the receptacle box will be mounted.

My 14-2 cable running over the door

This week, I hope to make some more progress on finishing up the cable runs to the bathroom switch boxes and fixture locations.

And to the lady at Home Depot…   Yes, all by myself. 🙂


6 Comments Add yours

  1. amyheavilin says:

    I love this post! I am just working my way through your blog after being introduced to it by the clarinet teacher at CG – I’m thrilled to know I’m not the only conductor/teacher/renovator out there! I can relate so much – I usually am left alone when I go to a big box store in my work gear. But if I go after school in my dress clothes, it’s like moths to a flame to make sure I REALLY know what I need. I generally start with, “I’m restoring my 4th house…” And they back away. Ha!


    1. Amy and Joe says:

      Amy! This is so true. How a woman dresses in the hardware store totally changes the experience. I once went there with black knob and tube wiring smudges all over my face and I couldn’t get anyone to help me when I actually did need help. What a difference. It’s been a fun social/gender experiment for me.


      1. amyheavilin says:

        That’s exactly what I’ve always called it – the gender social experiment!


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