Small Home Projects

16 09 2011

While I’ve always got an endless number of big projects planned, it’s the little ones that I end up procrastinating! So I finally started working on getting a lot of the little stuff done – I tweaked my back when I moved the closet doors from the guest room a few weeks ago, so I’ve been trying to be careful of it and not do too much lifting.

I managed to finally get every electrical outlet and light switch in my house changed out for updated ones.  No small feat, let me tell you, and one hiccup last weekend that my dad was able to solve.  It makes me so happy!

Since you can only seen an electrical socket so many times, I thought I'd show you the tools I use instead

I also did a few other electrical things. I replaced the back outdoor light with a matching one to the front (and PS, my next door neighbors’ front light just stopped working, so they replaced it with one not too dissimilar to mine. I’ve started a trend!).

I also wanted to replace the light fixtures in my upstairs and downstairs halls – they have a gold-ish base, which makes them look so dated.  I looked a number of fixtures, and couldn’t find any I liked that weren’t incredibly expensive.  So my mom suggested that I spray paint the fixtures with the same bronze paint that I’d used for the light over my sink. Brilliant!  There’s still one left to do, but I need someone to spot me while I take it down and put it back up, because it’s just a bit out over the stairs.  I’m still trying to figure out why they put it there in the first place. I’m not even sure I could change the bulb if it blew!


And after! MUCH better

And speaking of light fixtures – you’ll remember that I said that the glass in the recessed fixture above my sink was broken.  I planned to get a new piece of glass cut, but saw instead a piece of plastic that they use for fluorescent lights.  I got a big piece and decided to cut it myself.  That’s not as easy as it sounds – the plastic does crack a bit when you cut it. I initially tried with a utility knife, but it wasn’t doing the job, so I got out my gardening shears (I’m all about MacGyver-ing it) and used those.  Even though it chipped a bit, you can’t tell when it’s in the fixture.

The after - looks good!

I also noticed that one of my smoke detectors was fairly old and dated looking.  I just wanted to replace the cover, as I did with my hardwired doorbell, so I picked up a cheap one.  Of course, it didn’t work! But I had an inspiration and decided to spray paint it white, since the paint works with plastic.  So I did that!


After! Looks like it was always this way!

I also added a new shade to the back door and put up a wall cling in the kitchen…

Also during my vacation, I decided to give myself the gift of one of those address signs for the front of my house! I didn’t photograph the whole sign, since I don’t want to be publishing my address! But I did get a corner of it to give you an idea.  And as a note – when you’re going to be hanging a sign on brick, you want to use a masonry bit…and a hammer drill. I had a regular drill and wasn’t getting anywhere with it, until my neighbor rescued me and lent me his hammer drill. Much easier!

It’s been busy busy around here!

Replacing an Outdoor Light Fixture

12 08 2011

Okay, so remember back in February I mentioned that I’d picked up a new light fixture for outside my front door?

Well, I finally installed it! I know, only about six months after I bought it!

There are two reasons for the delay – one, I had it in my head that it would take a long time to install it and two, around that time, I got a copy of the HOA rules, which said that the front of our condos (each building has two units) have to look the same. My neighbors have a white outdoor light.

But mine is prettier!

So anyway, I waited until they were away on vacation – brilliant, I thought.

And the install would have been a breeze were it not for two things, which I’ll get to.

So here’s the before:

It’s not so bad – It just wasn’t what I wanted! Plus, it turned out to be a good thing I removed it.

So I started as I always do with electrical projects – by turning the electricity off.  If you’re going to be working with something like an outdoor light fixture that you can turn on, it’s great to turn it on before you turn off the power. That way, you know definitely when you’ve shut the power off (in addition to testing the wires).

It was tough to undo the fixture because the screws and caps holding it to the mounting plate had rusted.  I ended up using pliers to painstakingly remove them.  As I was working on the fixture, I heard a buzzing.

I didn’t think it was the electricity, since I’d turned it off.  But I suspected I knew what it was.

Any guesses?

That’s right…a mud wasp!

I knew there was one or two around, because we’d started to notice some tunnels in the brick facade – gotta work on closing those up – but I’d never seen  or heard it.  My original plan was to leave the old fixture connected and disconnect and re-connect the wires one at a time.  But when I saw the mud wasp next, and in fact, the mud wasp itself, I decided I had to go with full removal first.

But I really hate bees and wasps. Hate ’em. And this was a pretty big sucker (not quite as big as the spider they retrieved from the bathroom at the physical therapists’ this morning, but big).

He was sitting underneath the outlet when he realized I’d pulled his home out. Can you see him?

How about now? Look right in the middle.

I’m getting the chills just thinking about it.  Though in fairness, mud wasps don’t sting – unless you really provoke them.  I was really provoking him though, and I just don’t like bugs.

Anyway, this is the point at which the neighbors in the cul de sac must have thought I’d lost my mind. I mean, they don’t know I’ve been working on electrical stuff inside for months, so when I brought my step stool and the light out, they must have been thinking, “oh dear, how’s this going to go?”  And then once the wasp discovery was made, I headed straight inside for some gloves – my work gloves were in the shed, and Barney was outside. Although I generally don’t mind disturbing him, during the summer he thinks anytime I’m outside it’s time for fetch, so I decided to go with rubber gloves, which I had inside instead.

My rubber gloves are awesome – they were a gift.  They’re elbow length black rubber gloves….with red and white polka dot ruffles on them. Seriously.

Picture this – I’m outside, working on electrical wiring, wearing elbow length ruffled rubber gloves.  Classic.

At any rate, I kept the gloves on as I poked around at the wasp and he eventually flew away.  I was hoping to get rid of him entirely (Don’t call PETA on me) because I know he’s just going to do more damage to the house, but he was too speedy.  So I let it go.  He didn’t, because he kept coming back to buzz me periodically, but his home was a goner.  I disconnected all the wiring and got a separate garbage bag just for the old fixture. *shudder*

Then, I poked around and removed any of the mud tunnels that he’d started inside the box (I should probably call it a “she” since I understand they’re the ones that stay with the tunnels).  Once that was done, I sealed up the hole underneath the box with clear silicone.

You’ll see I’d already removed and put in the new bracket.

Since I was actually reading the instructions for the new fixture, I saw that I was supposed to strip the wires of additional tubing to expose more of the wires, which I did – the above is the before.  The next step is to attach the copper wire to the ground wire, the white wire to the white wire and the black wire to the black wire – fairly simple, right?

Easy-peasy lemon squeezy.

I then screwed the fixture on to the mounting plate, and had the brilliant idea to check that it worked before sealing it with silicone.

It didn’t.

I turned the power on and off, turned the switch on and off, checked each of the wires four times, stripped more of the tubing off and re-wired, checked the lightbulb and thought I was going crazy.  I mean, this was a SIMPLE wiring diagram! I’ve done much harder wiring with the three and four-way switches in my hallway! What was wrong?!?!

I was getting ready to send my dad a photo of the wiring or call an electrician when I looked at the fixture one more time.  And then I remembered.

When I bought the fixture in February, I bought a screw in extra that would turn the light on only after dark.

And of course, I wasn’t wiring this in the dark. So the fixture WAS working – just my brain wasn’t.  So I removed the extra screw-in and tried the fixture again. Hallelujah! It worked.

So much prettier, right?

It really does work – I’m not just sayin’!

So the front entryway is looking much nicer. And I did screw back in the extra to get the light to come on in darkness and that works too! I leave it off most of the time to cut down on electricity, but it will be a good security feature when I’m away!

I should also mention that once the fixture was in place, I secured it with clear silicone (for outdoor use) – the instructions note to seal only the top and sides to allow water to drain out.  I thought the last person who installed the other fixture was just being lazy! But I did seal up all three sides very well, so hopefully that will keep out the mud wasp!

And so far, nothing from the neighbors – of course, I haven’t actually talked to them since they got back from their trip yesterday, but I’m hoping they just don’t notice the new light. It kind of blends in when it’s off!

Of course, I now want to replace the fixture out back…


Small, But Nagging, House Projects

2 08 2011

I am the queen of believing things will take longer than they do.  That’s why I always put off filling the Brita until there is absolutely no water left – even though I timed myself one morning and was able to fill it before the timer went off for my oatmeal.  Less than one minute.

So there were a few jobs around the house that I’d been putting off. They were small, but I just needed to stop procrastinating and do them.  It turned out that the electrical ones did take a lot longer than I anticipated, but there is something so fulfilling about getting things knocked off your to do list!

Curtain Tie-Back

In my upstairs bathroom, I added a single curtain across the window to add some privacy (it also makes the bathroom look very fancy, incidentally).  This is a great idea, but unfortunately, I have an air-conditioning/heating vent just under the window, so the curtain also blocked that. My mom had suggested getting some hardware to tie it back during the day – that would still leave me with privacy, but also free up the vent.

Not a major project, but I still dragged my feet on doing it! Finally, I found a piece of hardware I liked at Lowes and installed it.  I went from this:

To this:

Simple, nice – nothing major, but just enough to allow for more air flow.  And guess what? It’s helped my house be cooler upstairs.  Don’t know why I put it off for so long!


I was also still in the process of replacing all of the outlets in my house (and some switches too).  There are still a couple left to do – those that major appliances are plugged into – but I finally pushed myself to get the rest done.  I went through all the outlets in the guest room to remove the extra tab, which tied them back into the light switch by the door again – I can’t tell you how much that had been bugging me!

I also went through all the outlets in the office and replaced those, as well as the switch plates – much nicer.

And then I needed to motivate myself to replace the GFCIs downstairs.  I needed to replace the one in the downstairs bathroom (the upstairs bath had been done by the previous owner), and the three in my kitchen.  Installing a GFCI is slightly different, because if you wire it incorrectly, it may not be a ground fault interruptor as it’s set up to be.

If you’re not sure what the difference is between a GFCI and a regular outlet – GFCI stands for Ground Fault Circuit Interruptor and they’re used in locations that are close to water.  Water is a great conductor of electricity (did you know that you’re not even supposed to be using water from a tap while there’s lightning because you could be electrocuted? I just found that out recently) so you don’t want to have just a regular old outlet there.

Yes, even if you want to save some money, like one homeowner I just saw on Holmes Inspection. Spring for the GFCI, it’s not that much more expensive and it could save your life.

The GFCI is designed to trip whenever it detects the slightest variation in the electrical current – like if there’s water involved.  So when you’re installing it, you have to make sure that it is set correctly so that it will trip if and when you need it to.

I installed the outlets based on the wiring instructions included in the box (if you’d like me to go into more detail on that, just let me know and I’d be happy to do a separate post!) and reset the outlet to make sure it was wired correctly.  It was set perfectly! So I replaced all of the outlets, and even replaced the switch next to the sink in the kitchen – that, combined with a new lightbulb over the sink means I fixed the outlet/switch that I thought I was going to have to call an electrician for – man, was I tickled about that!




And I was also pretty pleased that I finally replaced the knob fan switch with a new one:



Shed Door Knob

Not long after I moved in, I picked up a new door knob and lock for my shed – my neighbor (yes the creepy one) had mentioned that he would have mowed my lawn while I was away one time, save for my shed being locked. It wasn’t, but the door often stuck.  But it clued me in to the fact that anyone could get in there.  It’s not connected to my house, so it wasn’t a safety issue from that perspective, but it was in terms of someone hiding out in there.

But my dad pointed out to me that I’d need to chisel the door to get the plate flush, and he knew I’d never used a chisel before.  I finally got comfortable using one on my interior upstairs doors, so I thought I’d give it a go.  What a nice difference.

Here’s the finished product!

Now I just have to remember to take a key whenever I’m working on something outside!


I use the term “bush” in quotes because these things growing next to my deck are HUGE.  The previous homeowner had never trimmed them (there are three, two unknown types and one holly) and they’d obviously been planted back in 1984 when the place was built.  They’d gotten to be almost as tall as the house, and my neighbor has been commented to me for pretty much the entire time that I’ve lived there that I need to get it trimmed.

I almost paid someone to do it last year, but he wanted $200.  So no.

But it was too big a project to tackle alone. My parents said they would help me out with it this year, so on a crazy humid morning after I’d already trimmed the part I could reach, my dad and mom came by with their truck, mini chainsaw and a ladder and we went to it – or rather, my dad went to it, and my mom and I piled up branches and tried to avoid falling debris.

My dad was concerned that I’d be left mostly with a bunch of sticks, since when you don’t prune a large bush like that, it only grows leaves on the outside.  I knew from watching an old episode of This Old House a few years ago that I was going to run into that, and I wasn’t as concerned with how it would look as I was with how overgrown it was.  So we chopped it way back and down, and although I’ve got less privacy on my deck now (not a big deal where it’s located), the bush is MUCH more under control.

I don’t have a before picture, and I’ll take an after picture at some point…but my plan now is (yes, I’ve always got new plans forming – for every project I do, there’s four more behind it!) to pull up the grass on that side of the fence (which is mostly weeds), put down some of the brick edging around the bushes and mulch in there, put some stone down for the rest of it to match the stone in my front yard, and then put down some more of those tire pieces to make a little path.  I’d also like to replace some of the front fencing with a gate so that I can actually get in and out of the backyard without having to hop a fence! So I’ll be working on that stuff at some point – the gate will probably wait until next year.

Apple Pie

And finally, just because I was happy about it – I used some fresh apples from the local farmer’s market (which I LOVE) to make an apple pie – it was fabulous:

Just about to go into the oven...

And just out of the oven....MMMMM!



Upcoming Projects

25 02 2011

Since I seem to just keep adding projects to my list…

  • Painting the hallway – as I painted the doors in the hallway upstairs, I realized how dreary the wall color is.  The hallway is dark because it gets no natural light, so I thought I’d lighten it up a bit, and paint over the dirt caused by having a basset hound that drools.  I’ve picked this color:

This is again from Better Homes & Gardens.  I looked through a LOT of paint samples at Lowes and used them and this to check against my walls, and the colors in every room upstairs, and decided that I liked this Ivoire from Sherwin Williams the best.

Luckily, Lowes could match this for me, and I picked up the paint yesterday.

I fully intended to start on this during the long weekend, but I think I just needed a weekend off from home improvement.  Plus, I’m sort of reticent to start painting before a chair gets moved down my hallway – just in case I need to touch up the walls.  But you’ll be seeing the results of this soon!

Another project I want to work on soon:

This outdoor light

I really love the look of these lights, but every time I’ve seen them, they’re super expensive.  So I thought that wouldn’t be a project I’d get to.  Then I saw this one at Lowes a few weeks ago, for about $30.  I couldn’t believe it!  So I picked it up.  It will be kind of an advanced electrical project for me, and I’ve been hesitant to hang it up yet because according to the HOA rules, the front of our houses is supposed to look pretty much the same – our lights now are different, but they’re both white.

So I may need to check with the neighbors on that one.  And I’ll probably wait until it’s a bit warmer out too.

And finally:

The Fireplace

Nothing is wrong with my fireplace, but I don’t like this brass accent around the glass – it really dates the fireplace (I just found out that my house was built in 1984, so now I know when all of this stuff dates back to!).

I’ve seen on various home shows before that you can paint this, with a heat/fire resistant paint, so I’m going to do some more research into that and update the fireplace.  Then, it won’t look so dated anymore! I can’t wait!

I also picked up a few more switches and sockets at Lowes this past weekend, so I’ll be finishing up changing all of those out pretty soon.  I’m really excited that it will be all done!

What projects are you working on?

Changing Electrical Outlets

14 02 2011

Now that I’ve overcome my fear of electrical work, I’ve been an electrical switch changing fool! I changed the switches by my  back door – and learned that the “mystery” three-pole switch there actually controls the light in my kitchen – the switch in the office, and the switches in the downstairs bathroom.  I’ve got just a couple left before all of the switches in my house have been changed over from the originals. I did leave anything that the previous owner had changed herself, but I am so, so glad to be rid of the off-white gross switches.

So the next thing to do is switch the electrical outlets.  I read up in my handy dandy repair book about it, and set to work.

Ah, the "Before" - gross

So, as usual, I started by turning off the electricity.  I’d learned previously that these outlets were connected to the breaker for the doorbell.  Strange, I know.

Even though I knew that I’d shut off the electricity, I still tested it just to be sure – since this house is wired strangely, I wanted to make sure I hadn’t missed anything.

No blinking light, no power = good

I had picked up a package of 10 outlets to use around the house – these are meant more for contractors who are putting in new outlets in a house, but I had more than 10 to replace!

I made sure to pick up the outlets I wanted

I also read through the entire process in the book first – I wanted to make sure I was ready to get started and finish the project.

This book really is super handy

Then, I was ready to get started. I removed the plate cover first, and then unscrewed the old outlet.

Then I got a good look at the wires.

Pretty straightforward

Then, of course, it got complicated.  As I read in the repair guide, I needed to check the “hot” side of the original outlet to see if the metal tab was still there. If it had been removed, it means that the outlet is controlled by the light switch.  I knew that already, and it meant that I had to remove the metal tab from the new switch as well.

No tab on the old switch

The tab is still there.

Of course, it’s not as easy to remove it as you’d think.  I used my wire cutters to remove the tab, but apparently I didn’t remove enough of it.  If you don’t remove all of the tab, the light switch no longer controls the outlet – it works, but is always on.  This might not be a big deal in most cases, but for me, both my office and my guest room don’t have overhead lights, so it helps to have a light switch controlling the lights.

I also learned that if the outlets are controlled by a switch, if even one of the outlet’s metal tabs isn’t properly removed, then none of the outlets are controlled by the light switch.  So it’s not as though I can make the decision to have some outlets in a room controlled by the switch and others not.

I hooked up seven new switches yesterday, but they’re not controlled by the light switches in the rooms, so I’m planning to pick up smaller wire cutters and use those to fix the outlets.

The tab, mostly removed. As you can see, I didn't have the easiest job cutting it off

Once I’d readied the new outlet, I removed the old one.  Again, I used the wire cutters to remove the four wires from the back, and a screwdriver to remove the ground wire.

On an outlet like this, the red and black wires are “hot” and connected to the side with the brass screws (like the ones you see above).  The white wires aren’t, and they’re connected to the silver screws on the other side.

I had to strip the ends of the insulation off to expose the wire

First, I connected the ground wire, winding it around the green screw in a clockwise direction.  Next, I connected the two “hot” wires (the red and black) to the two brass screws.

Hot wires attached

Then I attached the two white wires to the silver screws.

All connected!

Then, I put the new outlet back into the box and screwed it in place.

Almost done.

You may notice that the outlet holes seem to have a white piece inside them – this is the case.  Apparently, I got new child safe outlets, which have an extra plastic protection to keep kids from being electrocuted.  I still put the plastic outlet covers on any unused outlets just to be safe (my niece does come for visits), but that’s a nice feature to have!

I turned the power back on and tested the outlet - it works!

Once I’d checked to make sure the power was working correctly, I put the outlet cover back on.

Lookin' good!

There were a few spots in the house, like this one, where I hadn’t yet replaced the outlet covers with new, square plastic ones.  I don’t like these metal ones, so I’ll be replacing them at some point.

Once I’d gotten the hang of replacing the outlet, the remaining ones went much quicker. Of course, now I have to go back and remove more of the metal tabs, but at least I should be able to do that without having to unscrew the the entire outlet! (Don’t worry, I will turn off the power :))

Changing a Single Pole Light Switch

4 02 2011

After my success in changing over a three-way light switch, I was game to try changing over every old switch in my house.  Of course, I’m doing it piecemeal, but I’m trying to do it along with my trim painting – so that meant the hallway switches this week.

I have three switches in the hallway – one that controls the fan (a one-pole switch), and two that control the hall lights, connected to the downstairs switch.  I learned that the one at the top of the stairs is actually a four-way switch, which will necessitate yet ANOTHER trip to Lowes to return the three-way switch I’d gotten.

But I was able to change out the three-way switch next to my bedroom, and then moved on to the one pole switch.

After the three-way switches, this one was a snap!

First, I turned off all of the electricity to the hallway.  I knew it was off, but I double-checked with my handy electrical tester.

The before

First, I unscrewed the switch plate and removed it.

I double checked that I’d picked up the correct switch – I wanted a one-pole switch.

It's the right one!

Next, I removed the screws holding the switch to the box.  The switch is still attached to the wires at this point, so I gently pulled it out of the box, so that I could work on the wires.

Still not free

I then unscrewed the three screws on the back – one for the ground wire and two for the hot wires.  Like with my three-pole switches, these were attached inside the switch.  Although you can sometimes pull these out after loosening the screws, that again wasn’t the case for me, so I had to cut the wires as closely as I could to the switch itself.

Once the old switch was removed, it was time to install the new one.  I started by stripping off about 1/2″ of the insulation on the two hot wires with my wire cutters.  The two insulated wires are either both black or one black and one white with a black marking (to indicate that it’s hot).  Before you attach them to the new switch, check your switch to see which is the top end.

See, it says "top"

This is particularly important when you’re installing a single-pole switch, unless you want to constantly be switching things on in the off position.

Once you do that, attach the ground wire to the ground screw (it has a greenish tinge) first. If you’re not sure which is the grounding wire, it’s the bare copper wire.  Sometimes, it’s also a green insulated wire.  To attach it, bend the tip of the wire with needlenose pliers and loop it around the grounding screw in a clockwise direction.  It may already still be looped from the previous switch, so placing it around the screw like that is fine.

Then, tighten the screw.

Next, attach the two hot wires.  There’s no difference in the order they’re installed  because they’re both hot wires, so just curl it around its terminal in a clockwise fashion and tighten the screw with the screwdriver.

All attached

Grounding wire attached

Then carefully push the switch and the wires back into the box, and tighten with the screwdriver, making sure that the grounding wire isn’t touching other wires.

Ready to test!

Turn the power to the switch back on, and make sure that it’s getting power by testing it with your handy electrical tester.  Mine was, so I switched it on, and the fan came right on. Success!

The final step is to replace the switch plate – if you feel more comfortable turning the power back off for this step, definitely do so.  I actually put the plate back on before turning the power back on.

Nice, new switch!

I also changed the single-pole switch in the guest room.

Before. Grody.

After. Lovely!

This gave me so much confidence that I tackled my bedroom switch. I didn’t take any photos of the process, because I was concentrating so hard on not making a mistake.  So I’ll just describe it.

In my bedroom, I’ve always had one dimmer-type switch by the door that has two bars on it – one controls the light, and the other controls the fan.  It’s old looking, and the same tan color I hate, but I wasn’t sure what I could replace it with.  There didn’t seem to be too many choices at Lowes.

However, I did find a great switch – very clean looking, with dimmer controls for both the fan and the light, and additionally, on/off switches.  I did like that the old switch could control on and off, along with dimming, with just the two bars, but I’ll have to get used to it.

The main difference here was that the back of the new switch had wires coming out of it – not screw terminals.  And it had the option of being used as a three-way or a single pole switch, so it had wires to accommodate all of that. The diagram was a bit intimidating.

But I was ready to give it a try.

I first shut off the power, and since my bedroom windows were covered in plastic, I couldn’t let any natural light in. And my electricity is not wired the best in this house, so my bedroom is connected to the hallway (not as strange as the guest room and office being connected to the doorbell, but whatever).  So I had to use a flashlight lantern I have to have enough light to work.

I checked the electricity with my voltage meter, and it was definitely off.  So I unscrewed the panel, unscrewed the switch, and pulled it out.  it was a tangled mess of wires.

I took note of which wires were for the fan (it was labeled on the back of the old switch, fortunately!) and which were for the lights.  I started with ground, at which point, I realized that the old switch was NOT grounded.  Fabulous.

There was a ground wire in the box – it was just pushed back a bit.  So my first job was to ground the wires.  The new switch had an insulated green wire coming from the back which was the ground wire, and electrical nuts (those plastic conical shaped things you see all the time) to connect them.

It was easy enough to do – I just put the tips of the wires close together, slipped the top of the electrical nut over it, and turned it until it felt tight enough.  Easy peasy.

The best thing I did for this switch was to leave the old switch attached and change one wire at a time – this way I didn’t get confused by the jumble of wires, and could check either the new switch’s diagram, or the old switch for more information.  In this way, I gradually disconnected the hot wires for the fan and lights and reconnected them to the new switch.  I also had to cap off the two extra wires that I wasn’t using because I didn’t need it as a three-way switch.

Once I was done, I screwed the new switch back into the box, crossed my fingers and turned the power back on – and low and behold, it worked!  One thing they told me in the instructions was to make sure the light and fan were on at their highest power before removing the switch – that ensures that they’ll work correctly with the new switch – I’m not sure if this is just if you’re adding a switch, or also if you’re replacing one that does basically the same thing, but I went with it anyway.

I used a new screwless cover (complicated, so I won’t get into it here), and the new switch looks very snazzy! I’ll post pictures sometime in the future.

Playing with Electricity

18 01 2011

Don’t let the title of this post fool you – I take electricity VERY seriously and safety is my #1 concern.

It’s bugged me for a couple of years (since I moved in), that a number of the switches in my house are off white.  I don’t know if there was a sale when the builders constructed this place or what, but it looked dirty and depressing to me.

But I have NO experience with electrical work (save just changing out switch plates and turning on circuit breakers), so I was too nervous to give it a shot.  But when my friend gave me “Dare to Repair” for Christmas, and there was a section on changing out switches, I felt a little more confident in giving it a try!

The original switch. Yuck.

The first thing I learned in reading the tutorial was that there are two kinds of switches – single pole and three-way.  The single pole switches are for a single point of entry – like if you walk into a bedroom with one door, and turn the lights on and off from the doorway switch.  A three-way switch is for when you have more than one location where you can turn lights on and off – like a hallway with a switch at the top and bottom of the stairs.  That’s what I was dealing with.

The instructions were for a single pole switch, but I used them for my three-way, and it worked out well.  First, it’s important to check the new switch when you’re purchasing it to make sure it’s the kind that you want.  Otherwise, you end up going back to the store like I did to pick up the correct one.  I always forget to read directions until I’m ready to actually start the project.

Removing the Old Switch

The most important thing to remember when working with electricity is to TURN IT OFF.  I went to my main service panel, located the circuit breaker for the stairway and shut it off.  You can also turn off the power to the entire house if you prefer, but I didn’t want to have to reset my internet and tv, so I just went with the individual breaker.

Remember to turn the power off FIRST

To make sure I was safe, I had picked up a voltage indicator at Lowes – a very handy little tool.  After unscrewing the switch plate, I tested the wires for voltage.  There was no beeping.  (I first checked the indicator with an outlet I knew to be live to make sure it was working – that way I definitely knew the power was off to the switch I was working on).  If you’re not sure if the power is off, or you can’t seem to get it to go off, don’t continue with the project.

No beeping or flashing - power is off!

The next step is to remove the screws that attach the switch to the box.The wires are still attached, so you’ll need to pull it gently out of the box to get access to them.

The book suggests labeling each of the wires, so you know where they go on the new switch

I was able to unscrew the bottom wire (the green one – that’s ground – I knew that from watching my dad work with electricity), but even though I unscrewed the other three wires, I still couldn’t remove them from the box.  The book says “if the wires were inserted into the holes in the back of the switch, place a small screwdriver (a metal nail will work, too) in the slot located next to each hole to release the wires.  If this doesn’t work, use the wire cutters to snip off the wires as close to the switch as possible.”

It was the case for me that I couldn’t remove the wires, so I had to cut them. Fortunately, I’d gotten some electrical wire cutters for this very possibility.

It's out!

Installing a New Switch

To install the new switch, you need about 1/2 inch of bare wire to wrap around the terminals.  Since I’d cut the wires, I didn’t have this and had to cut some of the wire’s insulation off with the wire cutter.  I carefully cut the insulation, and then used some needlenose pliers to pull it off.

Ready to install!

This is where things deviate from the book because I was working with a three-way switch.  Importantly, I started by curling the ground wire around its terminal and tightening with my screwdriver.  According to the “Dare to Repair” book, starting with the ground wire is an extra safety precaution and I was all about safety!

Ground wire - attached!

Next, I attached the wires to the screws that correlated with the screws on the original switch (or so I thought – more on this later).  The book notes that the wires should be looped around the screws in a clockwise direction.



I connected all three wires and then carefully pushed the switch back into the box and screwed it in, making sure that the grounding wire wasn’t touching the other wires.

Next, I turned the power back on at the main switch and used the voltage indicator to make sure that the switch was receiving electricity.  The book cautions that if it’s not, turn the power off again and go through the steps again.  If it’s still not receiving power at that point, call a licensed electrician.

Fortunately, mine was, so I screwed the switch plate back on and success – the lights turn on and off!  I was very excited that my first foray into electrical work was a success!


However, it turned out to be only a short lived success.  Although the switch worked, depending on how the switches were set upstairs, it didn’t always work.  Obviously, I’d wired it incorrectly.

So I did a little googling, and came across this video:

I learned that coming in to a three-way switch, you have a “common” and two “travelers” – in the switch in the video, he has two white wires, which are neutrals. He takes these and puts them together with one of those wire caps.  Then, he attaches two black wires and the red wire to the switch. Fabulous. Except, in my switch, I had a red, white and black wire, and each had been attached to the switch that was in there before.

What to do?

Well, in watching the video, I learned that the black and red wires were “travelers.” These are the terminal wires.  In my case, the white was the “common” wire, or the hot wire, feeding in the power.  On a three-way switch, you have the ground, the common, and the two travelers and four screws on the back.  I left the ground wire attached where it was and took the other three wires off.

The common goes to the black screw, and the other two wires can be attached to the other two screws, without needing to have them go to a specific screw.  Once I went through all of this and turned the power back on, the switch worked perfectly.  Ah, troubleshooting at its best!  I’m ready to change all the other switches I need to in the house!  And when I change a one pole switch, I’ll post about that as well.

The finished product!