Home improvement

Let there be light

I have made it no secret that I am not a fan of doing any home improvement that involves electricity. I think this goes back to the time some 20 years ago when I once tried to change out a light fixture. I thought I had turned off the breaker but I had clearly not, as the shock I received clearly reminded me.

When we had several fans and lights installed recently, I hired someone to do it. My wife and I agreed that this was a good investment because (a) there were quite a few, and it would have taken me about a week straight to get it done and (b) electricity was involved.

I know plenty of you out there are shaking your head wondering what the big deal is. It’s simple! You just need to know what wire to connect where, and be mindful of the electrical set-up, which means being a masterful wizard of the invisible energy force that is electricity, the thing that can nearly knock you off a ladder when you don’t turn off the correct breaker.

For some reason unknown to me, I decided I could handle the task of changing out an outdoor light by myself. I wanted a motion sensor light in my backyard so that when I take the trash out in the evening, the light magically comes on. (To those of you saying it’s not magic, I disagree. It’s magic.)

But I figured this was pretty straightforward, and I had the better part of an afternoon to spend on what would take most competent electricians about 10 minutes. 

I went to the home improvement store and began to shop my options. And there were A LOT of options. And some of them were very expensive options. I didn’t want fancy. And I certainly didn’t want expensive. I wanted a plain, basic outdoor light that came on when I walked in the backyard, and with easy access to the bulb when it came time to replace.

That was a needle in a haystack. First off, tons of the lights have what appear to be a very complicated manner of replacing a bulb. I wanted to reach up into an open area, unscrew a bulb, and screw in a new one. And I wanted a motion sensor. Eventually, I found my options, and it was a whopping three different lights, and only one in the color I wanted. This actually worked for me, as it was also the cheapest option, and that’s usually my number one priority on things like this.

I got home and turned off the breaker. This should be a breeze, I said. It was not a breeze.

For starters, the old light was really old. I am convinced the light was installed in 1923, and the house was just built around it. After fighting with rusted out screws, I eventually got the old unit off the wall. 

I looked at what awaited me, and I saw something pretty simple: A black wire, a white wire, and a grounding wire. I still have no idea what a grounding wire actually does, but I know it’s gold and important and maybe stops my house from burning down?

I attached the respective wires to the new light. Learning from previous experiences, I did not fully install the whole fixture. Rather, I turned the breaker back on and went to test the light. There is a little tab you can switch that says “Test” that lets you see if it’s working even when it’s still light out. So I flicked the tab and turned on the light. I waved my hand in front of the sensor. Nothing.

I called my wife (yes, she was just upstairs, but it seemed like a long walk) and told her it wasn’t working and we’d need to call an electriciation. She suggested I ask a neighbor to help, as several of my neighbors are far more handy than I am. I conceded that was a good point. 

I turned off the breaker and went to pull the light down, and decided I would try and reattach the wires one last time and give it a try. While I was fumbling with the fixture, I felt a little click. And I realized I had not, in fact, turned the light to “Test.” Sigh.

I cut the breaker back on and waved my hand. Magic!

I called my wife back and told her that the light was working, and there were only a few sparks. She said, “There were sparks?” The fact that she did not get that I was joking tells you the confidence she has in my electrical work.

So the light is now installed, and it lights up gloriously when I go to take the trash out. I feel very accomplished, and can’t wait for the next electrical project I have. So I can hire someone competent to do it.

Mike Gibbons was born and raised in Aiken, S.C. A graduate of the University of Alabama, you can e-mail him at or follow him on Twitter @StandardMike.

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