Thursday, May 13, 2010

Crowdsourcing my home wiring problem


I'm sure someone has run into this problem before, or one like it, but Google isn't sending me where I want to go on it.

The situation:

In our master bedroom, there was an old ceiling fan with a three-bulb light fixture below it, pre-dating our ownership of the home. In addition to the fan switch (on the fan) and the light switch (an on-off "pull the string" affair), there was a wall knob to dim or brighten the lights.

The fan stopped working awhile back, and replacing it was on my "to-do" list. Then last week the lights stopped working too, making it a priority.

We decided to go with a new light fixture rather than a new ceiling fan, and found a nice one at Home Depot.

Installation was a breeze: Turn off the breaker, dismount the fan fixture, disconnect it from the wiring, connect the new light fixture to the wiring, mount the fixture to the ceiling, turn on the breaker. Let there be light! And there was light, and it was good, etc.

Except that there's no way to, um, turn it off.

My first assumption was that that dimmer switch was stuck "on" (it had been acting hinky for awhile too). And in fact I had an old-fashioned "on/off" switch ready to go.

Turn off the breaker, disconnect the old switch, connect the new switch (in "off" position), turn on the breaker. Hey ... there's light even though the switch is in "off" position ... and if I turn the switch "on," it throws the breaker.

Hmmm. I'm not an electrician, not even an especially crafty home remodeling type, but I'm not completely stupid. Obviously there's direct wiring to the ceiling fan/light node.

I'm guessing there's what, a second circuit, running through the switch box, that pours more wattage into that first one? If the "dimmer" is on off, regular power. Turn it up, it sends more juice through that other circuit?

Right now, I'm leaning toward getting a replacement ceiling fan/light kit that's pretty much like the old one, and a new dimmer switch. That's option one. Just go back to the way things were, only with working equipment. I've got another light fixture in another room that I'd like to replace, so the one I just bought won't go to waste.

Option two is getting just a plain light fixture, but one with a pull chain/string switch built in, and capping off the wires to the old dimmer switch.

Option three is pulling out that extra circuit and pulling new wire for a wall switch for the light fixture I just put in, or else finding a way to recombobulate all that stuff to make the thing operate from the wall.

Like I said, I'm not an electrician, and so option three doesn't sound too good to me, especially in this old house. We're talking plaster and lath here; I don't even like trying to snake wire through two-by-four framing behind drywall. I also don't like getting electrocuted and that kind of stuff.

Oh, I forgot to mention something: This house was previously owned by an electrician who apparently wired things up with whatever he had left over from the day job, and didn't care about color coding because he knew what he'd done and nobody else needed to. So, when I'm wiring new stuff in, I always have to make notes on the old stuff, because there's no telling which wire is hot, ground, etc. without looking at the existing connections.

So, weigh in if you know more about this stuff than I do:

Question #1: Does option #1 (just going back to a ceiling fan with light kit, switches all on board, and putting in a new dimmer) sound sensible?

Question #2: If I go with option #2 (going light only, once again with switch onboard, and getting rid of the wall rig altogether), as long as I'm careful to cap the wires off properly, am I good to go, or am I missing something that will end with the house on fire?

Let's not talk about option #3 (wiring a whole new setup from breaker to wall switch box to light fixture). I'm just not going to go there.

I'm going to do one of these things this weekend. For the moment, the only way to turn the damn light on or off is to either screw the bulbs in or out, or to throw the breaker (which affects a couple of outlets and everything plugged into them, too).

Update, Friday May 14th

Thanks for all the assistance here and on Facebook, guys!

Got it figured out: The wires in the ceiling were a hot for the fan, hot for the light, and a common neutral for both. No ground.

One of those hots came through the wall switch. No ground there, either -- I don't like this but it doesn't especially surprise me, as some of the outlets in that area of the house are the old two-prong with no ground plug. My guess is that even on the newer outlets, the ground wire behind is just taped/capped off. On my to-do list: Either grounding, or putting GFI boxes in, every circuit in the house.

This afternoon, I installed a new ceiling fan w/light kit.

I initially installed it with the fan circuit running through that wall switch circuit, and a dimmer switch in that circuit, for two reasons: One, I didn't know which hot was which until I got them hooked up, and two, I wanted to know that that circuit was functional (see below -- no way to test it with the light yet).

Once I established that the wall circuit worked, I reversed things -- ran the wall-switched circuit to the light fixture, replaced the dimmer with a simple on-off switch, and ran the "always-on" circuit to the fan.

Since the fan works with the "always-on" circuit, I now know that both circuits work. I can turn the fan on/off with the pull-chain switch on the fan unit itself; the light I'll keep "on" at the fan switch, and turn on or off from the wall.

Why can't I test the light yet? Because, silly me, I didn't notice that the light fixture is for one of those small-base 40-watt "candelabra" bulbs until I actually had the thing bolted to the ceiling, and I don't have one of those bulbs yet. I was tempted to take the unit down and go exchange it for something more robust, but I'm tired of dicking around with this. I'll get a floor lamp or something for additional light.

Anyway, apart from screwing in the light bulb and making sure that's all good, I think this job is done. Thanks for all the advice.

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