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!


Inside Projects – An Update

9 07 2011

I’m really not a big fan of heat and humidity.  Not at all. Particularly here at the beach, where it seems to mean bugs up the wazoo biting and bothering me. Literally “bugging” me!

So anyway, the 4th of July weekend was hot and humid, so I decided to focus on some of the indoor projects that I’ve been neglecting.  It’s all small stuff, but it was stuff that was nagging at me.

I’ll just list them by bullet point, since I didn’t photograph anything I was doing (for the most part):

  • (Mostly) finished the electrical socket replacement project upstairs – I realized I didn’t have all the socket plates that I wanted, but I got the sockets all switched out, and fixed the guest room so that the top outlet is connected to the light switch again.  Pain in the butt, but worth the time and effort.
  • Replaced the mystery switch in my bedroom.  Still don’t know what it goes to, and had to repair it the next day when one of the wires snapped and I smelled burning plastic.  Good thing I’m paranoid and check these things!
  • Chiseled around the doors to the bedrooms and bathroom so that the new handles fit flush with the side of the door and can properly close.
  • Chiseled out the door jamb to the bathroom so I could install the plate and the door can now close AND lock.
  • Hung up three cards that I framed after picking them up in San Francisco airport. I’ve decided to make the wall heading up the stairs my travel wall, and put up prints that I pick up in the airport or during my travels.  Next to go up will actually be a Christmas card from one of my clients in Prague with a beautiful sketch on the front of the city.  I think it fits with the theme!
  • Cleaned out the closet in the guest room.  It was really giving me agita, so I bit the bullet, pulled everything out of there (it’s where I keep the vacuum, ALL my artwork that’s not hung up, suitcases/carryons/duffels/etc, all fancy dresses, guest blankets and bathrobes, and my Halloween witch dress) and sorted through it.  I decided which dresses I really want to keep and will wear again, which dresses should just be gotten rid of and which I can try to sell.  I figured out which suitcases I really use regularly, and stored the others in the attic. I was able to consolidate the remaining ones all into one big suitcase, which fit much more neatly in the closet. I put my artwork flat under the bed (not a great solution, but a solution), folded the blankets better, put the vacuum on the other side from the nice bathrobes for guests and it was done.  And the doors closed. Sigh. Of. Relief.
  • I washed the blanket I keep on the guest bed because my pup uses it as his personal bed (and I don’t want to have to wash the sheets every five minutes) and washed all of his doggy bedding (with three beds in the house, that’s a lot of bedding! Yes, he’s spoiled).
  • I just generally tidied up – stuck the clothes I wanted to donate in the car and actually took them to the donation bin, sewed a button on a coat I planned to donate and dropped that off too, emptied my “things to put elsewhere” basket upstairs, and FINALLY did two months worth (at least) of filing.
It’s funny how all of those things are jobs that don’t take up a lot of time individually, but when you put them off, they nag and nag at you until they become BIG jobs.  I need to remember that, and just get better about doing things as they come up.  Though some of it’s been on the back burner because of all my travel and back and forth to my parents’ this year.  There’s always something to do though, so I should just get used to it!

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!