Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Sparks Flying

When it comes to wiring, you can't afford to be cheap

By Walter Jowers

JULY 24, 2000:  Last week, an electrician called and wanted to argue with me. This happens about three or four times a year, and it always follows the same pattern: I find problems with the electrical system at a house, but the person selling the house doesn't want to fix the problems. The real estate agent sincerely wants to close the deal, so she finds an electrician who'll say I'm wrong. Then she urges the electrician to call me and badger me, hoping I'll cave in and say the electrical system is either just fine or it can be fixed for, say, the price of a small cheese pizza.

Before I go any further, let me explain that virtually all of the real estate agents I know work tirelessly to get problems solved, and solved the right way. Most don't have the time or inclination to gin up dueling opinions on an electrical system. But a few do, and when they do, I have to listen to their electrician buddies.

Understand, I don't mind people calling and arguing now and then. Truth is, I rather enjoy it. But I have wondered why these arguments always spring up around the electrical stuff. No roofers ever call and tell me that the roof's not really leaking. No plumbers ever call and tell me that the sewer line's not really busted. But when it comes to the one system that can electrocute people and set a house on fire, every knucklehead who ever hooked up a stereo is overflowing with contrary opinions.

I've puzzled over this for a while now, and I've come up with a few reasons why people want to argue over the dead-obvious basics of electrical work. First, it's possible to do wiring all kinds of cockeyed, goofed-up ways and still have a pretty good outcome. It's like when my friend Jim went to Europe and put gasoline in a diesel car, and diesel fuel in a gas-powered car. He could've blown up either car or both, but he didn't. Both cars ran. Oh, they smoked and jerked and made funny noises, but they got him where he needed to go.

Similarly, when you're fooling around with a house's electrical system, you can hook the white wire up to the spot where the black wire should go, and vice-versa. It's wrong, and it could get you killed, but it'll work, in the sense that the light will still come on when you throw the switch. For a whole lot of local wiring bubbas, that's plenty good enough.

Another local problem: Around here, the term "licensed electrician" means anybody who works for a guy who ever got an electrician's license. Never mind if the guy with the license hasn't pulled a wire since the last moon landing--if he says somebody's an electrician, he's an electrician.

More than anything, though, here's what scares me about local electricians: There are a fair number of them who have come to believe that it is perfectly acceptable to have a house full of sparky, half-ass wiring, because it would cost money to fix it.

Last week's arguing electrician told me point-blank that he could fix the problems I'd found, but that it would cost money. As if I were supposed to relent, and say, "Aw, hell, I thought y'all could fix it with some duct tape and Christmas tree tinsel. If somebody's going to have to spend a dollar, then never mind."

I don't know what to make of a tradesman who carves out a niche as the man most willing to do the sorriest job for the lowest fee. Going that route guarantees a string of stingy, troublesome customers, and the nagging dissatisfaction of never doing a job well. Me, I'd rather raise worms.

For those of you who might've had trouble separating the good electricians from the bad ones, let me offer the Top Ten Ways to Know Your Electrician Is a Knucklehead:

10. He suggests that you not run your hair dryer and the toaster oven at the same time, because he tapped into an existing circuit to save you money.

9. He says that leaving all the wiring exposed is OK, just don't chew on it.

8. He brags that he's the guy who wired up Al Gore's rental house over in Carthage.

7. He asks if you want two- or three-hole receptacles installed.

6. He says you don't really need that ground wire.

5. He says, "It ain't really right, but it won't hurt y'all."

4. There's more stuff on his dashboard than in the back of his truck.

3. The magnetic "ABC Electric" sign falls off his truck and reveals a sign that says, "Bobby's Roofing."

2. He carries a roll of pennies that he uses for fuse replacements.

1. He asks to borrow your tools.

You people with electrical problems, listen to me: There's only one right way to do electrical work, and it's not the cheap way. When you need a little wiring done, use a first-rate electrician, and be willing to pay the going rate.

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