The Tao of home repair: Keep hope alight

April 29, 2015

Two of my recent home repairs were back-to-back, somewhat related, and cost less than $15, though the alternative could have been far more costly.

The chain for the ceiling fan in the master bedroom snapped, leaving the light on, and the wall switch failed, so the fan and light would no longer come on at all.

Before you do any kind of electrical work, you should be able to tell if your power is on or off. You can get a cheap meter at any hardware store that will let you know if there is voltage in the line, or you can go through trial-and-error with your fuse box.

Keep in mind that just because a few electrical devices went off in a room it does not mean everything in the room is controlled by the same circuit breaker.

Usually that is how residential wiring is set up, but it depends on the acumen of your home’s designer and electrician. It also depends on whether or not your home was built when the National Electrical Code came into effect.

Each state’s electrical regulations differ. If you are in doubt, do not perform a complicated electrical repair without consulting an expert.

At first, our ceiling fan would come on with the wall switch, even though the light chain had come out. The light would remain on without any kind of blinking or noise that might have indicated a wiring or polarity issue.

The fan’s variable speed worked. The wall switch, however, began to fail and then stopped working altogether. I did not suspect that one problem was causing the other because the light and fan had been working fine even with the chain removed. The wall switch gave a bit when you pressed it, which suggested an internal mechanical failure.

With the circuit breaker for the room off and a check of the voltmeter to confirm a dead line, I removed the glass cover on the light and unscrewed the switch hub from the opening. I then extracted the light wires from the switch and brought the switch to my desk.

Under good lighting, I took apart the switch to discover that the mechanism inside holds the chain and must be set exactly with a spring resistance. I removed the chain-holding lever, remembering how the mechanism was put together, and then removed the remaining bit of old chain.

I replaced that with a new chain and fed it through the hole in the switch casing. Once it was reset on the spring and the casing cover was returned, I sealed the casing with a small amount of vinyl tape to keep it together.

I pulled the chain to be sure the switch was opening and closing before I reinstalled the switch in the light circuit. Once the wires were returned, I pushed the chain and threaded opening through the port and then re-attached the hub. Next, I removed the old wall switch by taking off the cover. I inspected the wiring to be sure there was nothing wrong, such as moisture, crossed voltage, or corrosion.

The older model switch had a pushdown groove style of connector that seems to me dangerous and antiquated. I removed the switch, stripped the wires, and applied the break in the hot black lead to the brass connection of the circuit. If you find the wiring is over your head, consult an expert before removing and replacing any wires.

The new switch was a wider version, better for hitting while fumbling around in the dark. There’s no difference, except some people like flicking the switch. Either version will fit in most residential electrical boxes. I replaced the cover with a new one for the different model, too.

Once I had the new switch installed, I hit the circuit breaker and checked the light to be sure there was no issue with the fan/light switch wiring, like snapping, popping, light, or the smell of smoke.

When none of that happened, I was able to replace the glass cover and pull the chain several times to make sure the light came on and off. The chain did not show any sign of getting caught, so I think it will work well.

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