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How Do I Wire a Duplex Receptacle to be Half Switched and Half Constant Power?

January 30, 2007

Q: How do I wire an outlet to make the top plug be controled by a light switch and still have the bottom plug remain constant hot without interruption from the light switch?

A: Before you begin, be sure to turn off the power to this circuit and verify that the power is off at your receptacle with either a receptacle tester or a volt-meter.

I will assume that your receptacle and wiring is already in place. To make this a switched receptacle, you need to install either a 14/2 or 12/2 NMB cable (match existing cable size) from your receptacle to your new switch. At your switch you need to mark the white wire as a hot or black wire. To do this, either use a permanent marker or wrap the wire with black electrical tape.

At your switch, terminate the ground (bare copper wire) to the green ground screw, the white (marked black) wire to one screw terminal and the black wire to the other screw terminal. Install your switch and cover plate and this side is done.

At your receptacle, you also need to mark the white wire as a hot. Now terminate the ground wire with the rest of the grounds in your receptacle box. On the receptacle, just above the brass colored screws (the side with the black wires), you will notice a brass tab that joins the 2 screw terminals together. Use a pair of needle-nosed pliers to break this tab off. Now terminate the black wire that you just ran to your switch to the top brass colored terminal of the receptacle and the white (marked black) wire to the power supply. You do not need a neutral going to the switch.

Close up your receptacle and install the cover plate. Now go turn on the power and test your switched receptacle. If this scenario does not work for your situation, please submit more details to the comment section of this post. 

How Do I Repair My Roof Heating Cable That Stopped Working?

January 29, 2007

Q: My roof heating cable just stopped working. The cable is plugged in, but it is not heating up. What should I check?

A: Check to see if the circuit breaker has tripped or a fuse is blown. Even if the circuit breaker doesn’t look to be tripped, I recommend turning it off and then back on again.

Roof heating cable is also required to be GFCI protected. This is typically done either at the circuit breaker or where the roof heating cable terminates under your eave or soffit.

If the GFCI protection is at the circuit breaker, there will be a trip button on your circuit breaker. Push this button, just to check the operation. If it trips the breaker, it is working properly and reset your breaker. If nothing happens, try resetting your circuit breaker. If the circuit breaker was not tripped and pushing the trip button does nothing, replace your GFCI circuit breaker.

If the GFCI protection is where the cable terminates under your eave or soffit, it is either a receptacle with a trip and reset button or it is on the roof heating cable just behind the plug. There will also be a trip and reset button here. Push the reset button.

If this doesn’t solve the problem, you may have other components inline that control your roof heating cable. If this is the case, please submit more details in the comment section of this post.

How Do I Install a Junction Box?

January 28, 2007

Q: We removed a couple of walls in our kitchen to open it up. One of the walls had an outlet in it. We need to make the wire on this outlet longer so we can move it over and have it in a post instead of the location it was before we removed the wall. So, we need to add more wire and install a junction box. I’ve been trying to find a good website that will show us exactly how to install a junction box, but haven’t found any. Will you explain to us how to do this?

A: Installing a junction box is pretty simple. However, the junction box needs to be securely mounted to something (i.e. wall stud) and it needs to be accessible. Securely mounting it to something is typically not a problem. However, keeping it accessible usually is. Most homeowners do not want to see the junction boxes, so they bury them in a wall, ceiling or floor. You CAN’T do this!

I have learned that when you remove a wall with electricity inside, it is usually challenging to relocate the wiring to eliminate it and not install a junction box at all; especially if the homeowner does not want to get involved in cutting and patching drywall.

The first option I usually explore is trace the wiring back to the power source (i.e. breaker box, receptacle, switch, etc.) and see if you can eliminate it. If this is possible, you also need to determine if you are able to re-feed your receptacle at its new location easily and where you will get your power source from. If you are able to use the existing power source, remove the cable that is too short and install a longer one.

If you have a cable that drops down from the ceiling and one that comes up from the floor, you will probably need 2 junction boxes. Here you either need to install an old work (cut-in or remodel) box in the ceiling or hopefully you have attic space above for a nail-on box. Now you need to either install an old work box in the floor or fish the existing cable over to and up the nearest wall to match the height of the rest of the receptacles in the home.

From here, install a cable between the 2 junction boxes. You may use a plastic blank cover for the junction box in the wall, attic or ceiling. However, if you install a junction box in the floor, use a metallic blank cover. All of your blank covers may be painted to help them blend into your floor, wall or ceiling.

I really can’t explain how to fish your walls, floors and ceilings. To do this you need lots of experience, some proper tools, a knowledge of how the framing runs and you need to know some tricks. Tools I recommend for this are a fish tape, a string with a nut on the end of it, some jack chain, fish rods, an assortment of various length drill bits and a magnet.

If you provide more details for your exact situation, I can probably explain to you how to re-wire this circuit.   

New Danger Label Required on All Portable Generators

January 25, 2007

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) voted unanimously (2-0) today to require manufacturers of portable generators to warn consumers of carbon monoxide (CO) hazards through a new “Danger” label. The label states that, “Using a generator indoors CAN KILL YOU IN MINUTES.” Manufacturers will be required to place the “Danger” label on all new generators and the generators’ packaging. The label warns consumers that a generator’s exhaust contains carbon monoxide, a poison that cannot be seen and has no odor, and that generators should never be used inside homes or garages, even if doors and windows are open.

The death toll from CO associated with generators has been steadily rising in recent years. At least 64 people died in 2005 from generator-related CO poisoning. Many of the deaths occurred after hurricanes and major storms. CPSC staff is aware through police, medical examiner and news reports of at least 32 CO deaths related to portable generators from October 1 through December 31, 2006.

“These deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning are preventable,” said Acting CPSC Chairman Nancy Nord. “The warning labels are meant to stop consumers before they make what could be a fatal mistake.”

Generators should be used outdoors only, far from windows, doors and vents. The CO produced by one generator is equal to the CO produced by hundreds of running cars. It can incapacitate and kill consumers within minutes.

The new “Danger” label requirement goes into effect on May 14, 2007 and is required for any portable generator manufactured or imported after that date.

In a separate action last month, the Commission began rulemaking to address safety hazards with generators by approving an advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPR). The Commission directed staff to investigate various strategies to reduce consumers’ exposure to CO and to enable and encourage them to use generators outdoors only. Those strategies include generator engines with substantially reduced CO emissions, interlocking or automatic shutoff devices, weatherization requirements, theft deterrence and noise reduction.

Generator On-Product Label

Generator On-Package Label




January 4, 2007

The demand for portable generators has increased greatly in recent years. So too have the number of people who have been killed or sickened by carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning from the improper use of those generators. Portable generators are extremely useful machines, particularly after the loss of electricity in the wake of a storm or other unforeseen circumstance. However, the amount of CO emitted from a portable generator can be several hundred times that released by a modern car’s exhaust and can kill consumers in a very short period of time. Consumers need to be adequately warned of the hazards posed by the improper use of a portable generator.

Today I am voting to promulgate a final rule that requires all portable generators sold in the United States to bear an explicit warning label that will better advise consumers about the very real danger of CO poisoning posed by the use of a portable generator in or near a home. The final rule requires labeling that uses explicit language that warns, “Using a generator indoors CAN KILL YOU IN MINUTES,” and “NEVER use inside a home or garage, EVEN IF doors and windows are open,” as well as other pertinent safety warnings. Providing this safety information will convey to consumers the CO hazard associated with generators and instructions on how to avoid the hazard. The deaths resulting from CO poisoning from improper portable generator use are preventable, and this warning label is an important step towards eliminating these tragic, but avoidable, deaths in the future.


I am voting today to issue a final rule for labeling requirements for portable generators. This vote today concludes a process that involved excellent Commission staff work and is an important beginning step toward improvements in the safe use and operation of portable generators.

The Commission staff concluded several years ago that the warning labels on portable generators were not as clear or as strong as they could be about the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning related to operating portable generators in or near living spaces. Staff worked in the voluntary standards arena, through Underwriters Laboratories (UL), to make changes to the labeling requirements, as well as to the operation of the generators themselves. When this process stalled, UL took it upon itself to impose new labeling requirements for generators bearing the UL certification mark. But this is not a consensus standard and it is unclear how many currently marketed generators bear the new UL warning label.

The Commission’s broader and more comprehensive review of the existing portable generator safety measures could take a considerable amount of time to reach a conclusion. There remain inconsistencies in generator operations which the label cannot cure, such as, the inability to use generators in the very circumstances—wet conditions—in which they are most likely to be needed, and instructions to use a short extension cord, which can have the effect of placing the generator too close to the house for safe operation. But while we are working on the other issues relating to generator safety, we should do what we can to try to stem the rising tide of deaths from portable generators. Therefore, I think that today’s action to mandate improved warning labeling could be one important step in enhancing generator safety.

As a matter of course, we will take another look at the labeling of generators in the context of the broader generator safety rulemaking. If fundamental changes are proposed to the generators themselves, it could certainly have an impact on future generator labeling requirements.

Replacing a Heating Element in an Electric Water Heater

January 24, 2007

We receive emails and phone calls all of the time from people curious if they can replace their heating elements or do they need a new water heater. I am happy to tell you that you may replace the heating element(s) at a fraction of the cost to install a new water heater.

To get started you need to turn off the power to your water heater. Hopefully the circuit breaker is labeled. If you have a small water heater, 20 gallons or less (approximately 30 inches tall), it is probably a 120 volt unit on a single pole 20 amp circuit breaker and it will only have 1 heating element. If your water heater is 30 gallons or more (approximately 48 inches tall or taller), it is probably a 220 volt unit on a double pole circuit breaker (typically 30 amps) and it will have 2 heating elements. Once the circuit breaker has been turned off, go to the water heater and ensure the power is off using a volt-meter.

Now you need to turn off the cold water supply to your water heater and open the drain at the bottom of the water heater. To allow the water heater to drain faster, go turn on the hot water in a sink; this will allow air into the lines and tank. After the water has been emptied, check for voltage again across each terminal on the heating element to ground. If there is no voltage, remove the wires.

After the wires have been removed, remove the heating element. It either bolts in or screws into the water heater. If it screws in, you will notice a large hex type nut that is part of the element; you can get a water heater element socket to remove this at most any hardware store. With your element removed, take it to Home Depot, Lowes, a hardware store or a plumbing supply house and get 1 or 2 new ones. If your tank has 2 elements, I recommend changing both of them. Even though only one of the elements is bad now, the other one will probably go bad shortly. Water heater elements are relatively cheap, approximately $15.00 – $25.00.

Before installing your new elements, I recommend cleaning out the sludge in the bottom of your water heater. The easiest way I have found to do this is with the back of 500 series wiremold. You will also find this wiremold at Home Depot, Lowes, a hardware store or an electrical supply house. The back slides out of the wiremold cover and is approximately 1/2 inch wide. Bend the end approximately 4 inches back at a right angle to form an “L” shape. Insert this through the bottom heating element hole and pull the sludge out. This sludge is typically the cause of your heating element going bad. This is slow and tedious work, but it needs to be done to ensure the longevity of your heating element.

Be sure to clean the entire area around each element opening and replace all seals or gaskets. If your element threads in, be sure to wrap some teflon tape (clockwise) around the threads to prevent leaks. Now hook up the wires to your heating elements.

Make sure you close the drain at the bottom of the water heater and turn on the cold water supply. DO NOT turn on the circuit breaker until the water heater is completely full, as this will instantly ruin your new elements.

Once your water heater starts to get full, the hot water that you opened to drain your tank will start flushing out the air. Leave this open until the air stops and just water flows out of the faucet.

Congratulations, you just replaced your electric water heater elements.

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