Home improvement

Let there be light

I don’t know much about electricity.
I know it exists. I know it is necessary to watch Sportscenter on my TV in the mornings. And I know that if you touch an exposed wire of a light fixture that you thought was turned off at the breaker but wasn’t, it hurts. Bad.

But that pretty much ends my knowledge. My brother-in-law is a former electrician, and he was kind enough not to laugh too hard when he was helping me replace some fixtures in my house recently.
I had a light fixture in our upstairs hallway that was controlled by three different switches — one by the switch right at the light and two in each stairwell. For years, the switches had been dysfunctional. You had to have them in a certain combination in the two stairwell switches in order to operate the main switch by the light. As long as stairwell one was down and stairwell two was up, the main switch worked. Mess with either stairwell switch and the hall was dark and no switch worked.
I had no idea why this was and solved the problem by enacting a very strict “Touch either stairwell switch and we get rid of a pet.” Sometimes Draconian measures are the most effective tool.
I was explaining my problem to Ron one day, and he looked at me with that expression that said, “I think you have a very basic problem, and have developed an overly complicated and inconvenient workaround.”
I showed him the problem, and he began to explain to me what he thought was the problem, and it had a lot of sentences that involved words I know individually, but not when put together in that particular order.
I told him that years ago the main switch had gone out, and I replaced it with a three-way switch since, you know, there were three switches.
I applaud Ron for his restraint and only chuckling a bit.
He explained to me that what I needed was a four-way switch. I told him there were not four switches, but three. He sighed. I get that a lot when people who are good at home repair help me repair my home.
Apparently — I’m still not clear on the details — a light with three switches that operate it needs a four-way switch. A light with two switches needs a three-way switch. I can just guess this is the equivalent of electrician’s snipe hunt for the uninformed.
For less than $2, we had a four-way switch in hand, and he installed it about 600 times faster than I could, and he had the added difficulty of having a 10-year-old and a 70-pound dog trying to help.
I told Ron that the three-switch and four-switch designation was completely new to me, and asked if that was possibly why the main light in our kitchen had a similar issue. As long as the switch by the sunroom stayed in the down position, the switch by the back door worked. Otherwise, dark kitchen. Ron, holding the recently removed three-way switch, said, “Lemme install this one downstairs.”
In no time, boom — two functioning light switches.
I make no apologies for my lack of electrical knowledge. I know plenty of useful things, such as how many homeruns Dale Murphy hit in his career (398), how to tell the difference between a male and female carpenter bee, and which one can sting (males have yellow dots; they don’t sting) and how to juggle. I may not have the skill that can light my house properly, but thankfully my sister had the good sense to marry that into the family.
I’m just glad to have all of our lights functioning as they are supposed to, and that I can rescind my pet removal order. I’m not sure how to repay Ron, but I am thinking of teaching him how to juggle.

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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