One of the most educational experiences for a homeowner is following around the home inspector as he or she looks over a house you’re about to buy. You never knew so many things could be wrong with a house, did you! I’ve been through that process half a dozen times, and every time I learn something – enough so that this time the inspector seemed impressed (and on his best behavior) when he realized I was at least a little more aware than the average home buyer. As I told him, “This ain’t my first rodeo.”
One of the more critical systems in the modern house is the electrical system, one that many DIYers still treat as if it’s as magical and mysterious as the spells of a Middle Earth wizard. In reality, though, much residential electrical work is within the reach of most DIY types. With some basic tools and a little common sense (not to mention a good reference work or two), anyone can install a ceiling fan or swap out a toggle switch for a dimmer. Don’t be scared – but do be careful!
Many basic tools for residential electrical work are already in your toolbox – an assortment of screwdrivers, a hammer (maybe), and a good pair of pliers. Most of the remaining tools are specific to electrical work, but fortunately they’re not terribly expensive. Let’s see what you’re going to need:
Wire Cutters and Stripper
If you’re going to be working with wires, especially 12- and 14-gauge insulated copper wire such as is buried in the walls of your home, a good set of wire cutters is absolutely necessary. You’ll use this tool to cut cable and individual wires to length, then to strip off the insulation of the individual wire strands. If you intend to work with electronics and low-voltage wiring, you might want to choose a stripper that doubles as a crimper for end-to-end splices and adding terminals.
No good electrician goes anywhere without a pair of needlenose pliers. They’re indispensable for putting the necessary bend in the ground when wiring up a switch or outlet, and they can straighten a bend that’s already been made. Good pliers have a cutting edge built in so you aren’t forced to hunt for your wire cutters all the time. Make certain to get pliers with insulated handles that are comfy in your hands, especially if beginning a big project.
Sometimes it’s tough to trace a long string of wiring, doubly so if you’re working with wiring that’s already been installed. A continuity tester, when applied to a wire that isn’t “hot,” can tell you whether you’ve found two ends of the same circuit or the wires aren’t connected to each other. They’re also good for determining whether a light bulb is actually burned out or doesn’t light because there’s some other problem in the lamp or circuit. It’s just a battery with two probes and a light, if there is continuity across the two probes, the light will illuminate.
For those who are new to the wiring game, a receptacle tester is used to check the polarity of receptacles (“plugs” or “outlets”). Newbies are prone to reversing the hot (black) and neutral (white) wires on plugs, this little tool’s three-light display tells you whether the plug is wired correctly or not. For a couple of extra bucks, you can get the version that checks GFCI (ground-fault circuit interrupter) plugs, the ones required by code in or near wet locations and out-of-doors. It can also be used – with caution – to test whether a circuit is hot.
Nothing’s a bigger pain that trying to track down the circuit breaker that controls a distant plug or light. With this handy two-piece set, you simply plug a sender into an outlet (or into an adapter for a light socket) and then search the breaker panel for the signal with the receiver. Not only does the receiver zero in on the correct breaker, but when you turn off the correct breaker, the signal goes away. It beats the heck out of calling someone on the phone and asking, “Did the light go out this time? This time? This time???”
A multimeter meters multiple things. But you knew that… Good multimeters read the voltage and resistance of both DC (direct current, like batteries) and AC (alternating current, as in the walls of your house). That lets you use a multimeter as a continuity tester and a circuit analyzer. Most of all, I use mine to check every exposed wire in an outlet box to be sure that the power to that wire is off – the final safety check before grabbing a bare wire.
Do you know how to wire an end-of-run switch? Add a dimmer on a three-way light switch? Install a GFCI that protects multiple outlets? Neither did I without a reference – and there are some good ones out there. Buy one and use it – oh, and phonatics? Trust me: it really is easier to read a paper book than to try to juggle your smartphone or tablet in the dark – but you can get a digital version of this one if you’re that diehard!
Those are some of the specialized tools you’ll want to add to your arsenal before tackling a serious electrical project. If all you’re going to do is install a new light fixture, you can get by with just the bare bones – but whatever you do, be safe: that’s what the circuit analyzer and multimeter are for!