On the House: Ground rules of electricity

Except for switching the lights on and off, I generally stay away from anything electrical.

It's not that I'm afraid of being electrocuted. That thought crosses my mind only when I think that maybe, just maybe, I might try to replace the light switch that, in the words of a family member, "has been acting funny lately."

Instead, I call a friend who recommends a top-notch electrician. Patrick shows up, and a couple of hours and a very reasonable couple of hundred dollars later, the switches have been replaced and everything is up to code once more.

So now, after seven years in Jersey, I have a top-of-the-line contractor or two, an electrician, a plumber, the furnace guy, and an appliance repairman - all reasonable people who come when you need them, or at least call and tell you when they can be there.

Everything else I can handle myself.

My paternal grandfather was an electrician. One summer day, after he and my grandmother moved to San Diego to live with my aunt and uncle, I found in a box of cast-off books a set of manuals he had used in trade school.

Even in 1961, electricity sure had changed since those books were published in 1915. Still, I read them, inhaling the years of mustiness embedded in their pages.

I picked up a few things, though - other than mold spores and silverfish - and I decided to try some experiments.

The light fixture in our second-floor bathroom had a pull chain. I noticed after one Sunday-night bath that if I got out of the tub and pulled the chain, I would get a slight shock.

I should have kept this discovery to myself, but I told one of my sisters, who, after repeating my experiment, fainted. She was not grounded (if she only had stayed on the rug). I, however, was grounded for two weeks.

I had bought an "on the air" sign for our neighborhood "radio station" (six 11-year-olds basically talking to themselves, since we could broadcast only a few hundred yards in any direction from my attic). It required a bit of soldering, so I carefully read the directions that came with the sign and the corresponding chapter in Grandpa's manual.

At least, I thought it was the corresponding chapter. I plugged the sign into the living-room outlet, and the shock sent me flying across the floor and into the couch.

The verdict: improper grounding. My father did not forget to ground me properly. For at least three weeks.

Then, there was Harry.

Harry had been chief engineer of WOR Radio in New York for eons. When he retired, the real radio station that I worked for as a teenager hired him, at 78, to oversee the installation of its new 5,000-watt transmitter.

Harry was my grandfather's age, and had studied the same 1915 manual. Unlike my grandfather, however, he'd read more recent textbooks, so he could handle something like a transmitter made in 1972.

The transmitter was temperamental. It would cut out for no reason, usually at the wrong time, and Harry would have to drive 25 miles from home to the station to fix it.

It was a Friday night, and the local American Legion team was in Nebraska, and the national championship game - heavily sponsored, of course - was scheduled to start at 7:30 p.m. EDT.

I had just turned the broadcast to our play-by-play man in Nebraska when the transmitter cut out. As every button on my phone lit up, I called Harry, who arrived 20 minutes later.

He disappeared into the transmitter room. Less than a minute later, I heard a loud shriek and a thud.

Harry had stuck a long screwdriver into the mechanism to try to jump-start it, and the resulting shock knocked him down.

As the station manager telephoned for fire rescue, Harry groaned to consciousness, and I helped him to his feet. Letting go of me, he leaned over, stuck the screwdriver back in, and the transmitter creaked back to operation.

"Should have remembered to ground myself," Harry said as he climbed into a chair.

Too bad my father wasn't there. He was better at it than anybody.


"On the House" appears Sundays in The Inquirer. Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472 or aheavens@phillynews.com.