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A Really Bad Idea – Installing A Dimmer Switch

I have a life outside of writing and I devote a significant amount of time to it. I don’t have a choice really, we live on a fairly large property which is as demanding as a government tax auditor and I spend a considerable amount of time mowing the lawn, cutting dead tree limbs, trimming stuff that seems to grow despite periods of drought and fixing stuff. There is always something to repair, fix, change or replace.

I wrote a couple of months ago about the joy of assembling the new barbeque we bought to replace the one we had. For those of you who missed that article, it can be summarized by the phrase “fixing stuff doesn’t come easy to me.”

Despite this simple reality, I am very enthusiastic about trying things that inevitably should be left to those who actually know the name and purpose of all the tools and gizmos that are required to fix, repair or assemble something.

I never, however, let terminology stand in my way and it was with this cavalier, optimistic attitude that I decided last week to install a dimmer switch in the library.

Installing a dimmer switch is easy. I know this because I looked it up on line before I got started and it said that it was easy, right at the beginning of page one on the web site. I should have read page two of the instructions. Apparently there is more than one meaning for the term easy.

I trundled my bones down to the local hardware store which is as mysterious a place to me as a Masonic Temple and bought a dimmer switch. I made my selection based on colour because I am a fairly visual person. As it turns out, I should have made my decision on whether or not I needed a single or double-pole switch.

I was to learn the definition of those terms later…….much later in the process. They were buried on page two as it turns out and would subsequently discover when I got around to reading it.

I didn’t tell Maggie I was going to install the switch. I like to surprise her like I did one time after she went to work and I rearranged all the furniture in the living room or the time I decided to paint the bedroom a deep Chianti red while she was on a trip to Cairo. I think it makes her life more fun or at the very least more secure if she doesn’t know what I’m up to until after I’ve done it.

When I brought the new dimmer switch home, I remembered to turn off the power before removing the old light switch. This has not always been my policy when doing electrical stuff but after getting a rather significant electrical jolt and watching a screwdriver fly through the air and embed itself in the opposite wall a few years ago, I tend to be somewhat rigid in adhering to that practice now.

I took off the switch plate, pulled the old switch out of the wall and unscrewed the wires. I then prepared to install the new switch.

Problem number one: the wall had a red and three black wires; the switch had two black and a green wire. I realized that I probably should have observed which wire had been connected to which wire on the old switch.

I went back out to the garage, threw the circuit breaker to on and went upstairs to my office, rebooted my computer and the modem to look up wiring diagrams. Problem solved and back down I went, turned off the power and went to the library and connected the wires as shown on line, pushed the dimmer switch back into the wall, replaced the cover plate and went out to the garage and turned on the power.

I went back to the library and turned on the dimmer switch. There was no power. I don’t mean that there was no power to the light to which the switch was connected; I mean there was no power in the library at all. None of the lights worked, the phone had no power nor did any of the wall sockets.


Just to add spice to the moment, I became aware that there was no power in the front foyer either. The ceiling fan in the clerestory ceiling had stopped turning, the overhead light didn’t turn on and neither would the outside lights at the front door.


Because there was power in the rest of the house, I was pretty confident I had merely popped a circuit breaker so back out to the garage I went but all the breakers were unbroken.I don’t handle complexity well and this was starting to get complicated.

I turned off the power, went back to the library, removed the wall plate and pulled out the dimmer switch. I wired the switch to a different r black wire, pushed the switch back into the wall, replaced the plate and went back to the garage to turn on the power and after checking to see if it worked, tried connecting the switch to the third black wire and turned the power on yet again.

I wasn’t quite as optimistic when I went back to the library because I had this sinking sensation growing in my stomach that this was going to be like assembling the barbeque had been but the library had power. The light in the library was on and the switch dimmed it. Unfortunately, the library now had too much power. The new dimmer switch now controlled and dimmed all of the lights and sockets in the library and as a new added bonus it also controlled the ceiling fan, outdoor lights and ceiling light at the main entrance foyer as well.I felt like the switch was battling me for control of the house electrical system and I was caught up in an expanding power struggle.

It wasn’t quite what I had intended but I had somehow managed to connect a dimmer switch that now controlled lights and power sockets in two different parts of the house simultaneously. I decided it was time for a drink and a cigarette so that I could weigh the possible advantages of leaving things as they were; starting with answering the question, “Will Maggie notice?”

There weren’t any advantages that I could see and I was pretty sure Maggie would notice. She’s pretty sharp and quite observant when I’ve screwed something up. (To be honest, after Cairo, I think she looks for things when she gets home from work) So after my cigarette, I went back to the garage, turned off the power and decided to take a look at the light switches in the front hall to see if I could rectify the situation. at least in the hallway.

Bad decision.

The hall had all of its switches connected to each other in series which necessitated returning to the garage, turning the power back on, going up stairs, rebooting the computer and modem and looking up switches wired in series. That information is readily available on line; it is also as mystical as trying to understand the Kabala.

While it hasn’t served me all that well in my life, I resolved to fall back on trial and error as the only recourse open to me.

Another bad decision but apparently when it comes to this kind of stuff, I am a creature of habit.

For the next five hours, I went back and forth from the front hall to the garage to turn the power on and off more often than a five year old asks ‘why’ after you’ve answered their original question. I tried all kinds of different wiring configurations and alternately had the ceiling fan and the outdoor lights working but not the overhead light, the overhead light working but not the ceiling fan and the outdoor lights or nothing working or everything working but all still connected to the library’s dimmer switch.Even more troubling was the fact that no matter which configuration I tried, I always had two or three wires with nothing to which to connect. I was pretty confident that wasn’t helping the situation.

I finally decided to put everything back the way it was and simply remove the dimmer switch in the library and install the original light switch which was almost a good decision. What would have made it a very good decision is if everything had gone back to the way it was before I tried to install the dimmer switch.It didn’t.

For reasons I still don’t understand, the library switch is still now controlling power in both the library and the front hall which means we have to leave it in the on position at all times.

We can’t dim the lights in the library and now have to turn them on manually rather than using the switch and while the outdoor lights and overhead light in the front hall are working again, the ceiling fan isn’t.

Fortunately, we tend to only use the fan in the summer so it is my hope that I will be able to get an electrician in to fix things over the winter before Maggie notices next spring.

She thinks I’m really handy after I assembled the new barbeque over a two-day period and I don’t see the point in spoiling her illusions. I’m thoughtful like that.



Barbeques and Dirty Words


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