CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 3 CHRISTOPHER M. O’BRIEN
F Company, 2-135th Aviation Battalion
Camp Beauregard, La.
I don’t claim to be a “man’s man,” but I’m not scared of anything — well, except electricity. There’s something about knowing that electricity is all around me that is unnerving. I can’t see it and it can kill me at any time if I’m not careful. Nowadays, just about everything requires electricity, and sometimes I am required to (reluctantly) work closely with it.
Electricity shouldn’t be a big deal, should it? I mean everything is safely wrapped in protective sleeves and neatly tucked inside the walls and behind electrical outlet covers. Neat and tidy — that’s what I had at my house. But I also have a teenage son, and he managed to destroy the entire face of an electrical outlet in our carport. I’m not talking about just part of the outlet being destroyed. Everything plastic was in pieces on the ground, exposing all of the electrically charged guts inside.
I was traveling to Fort Rucker, Ala., the next day to attend the Aviation Safety Officer Course and couldn’t leave that outlet exposed for six weeks. I also didn’t want to pay an electrician $150 for a house call that would require only 15 minutes of work. So, against my better judgment, I decided to suppress my fear of electricity and do the work myself. While at it, I figured I would also replace the other old outlet cover in the carport. Easy, right? Wrong!
I know the basics of electricity. I don’t poke metal objects into the little slots and I try not to be around water when I’m plugging and unplugging electrical appliances and tools. I also know there’s an electric breaker box in the house. If I could figure out which breaker controlled that outlet, I could flip it off so I could safely make the repairs. So that’s what I did.
I thought I was smart. I plugged a drop light into the undamaged outlet I’d also planned to replace and told my son to tell me when it went out as I flipped breaker switches. I didn’t have to wait long, as the light went out when the first switch was flipped. I then released my son to go destroy other things around the house while I went back into the carport to replace the two outlets.
I chose to replace the undamaged outlet first. I took the drop light out of the outlet, removed the retaining screw from the cover plate and took it off. I then took a deep breath, reached in with my fingers and pulled out the outlet hardware. I didn’t get shocked! I was extremely relieved. The rest was easy, only taking about seven minutes to replace the outlet. I figured I had just saved myself $75 in electrician fees.
Next, I moved to the damaged outlet. Because I’m so nervous around electricity, I decided to plug in the drop light to reassure myself it wasn’t live. I reached down, very nonchalantly, and started to plug in the light. When I got about a quarter-inch away from the outlet, there was a huge spark and loud pop. The outlet was still hot! I jumped back, dropped the light and invented 56 new curse words in 10 seconds flat! The pop was loud enough that my wife came running to the carport, where she had a front-row seat to my cursing barrage.
It was obvious what I had to do now — call my dad! After he belittled and laughed at me for a little while, he explained what had happened and a passed on few electrical facts I believe everyone should know. First, just because one outlet is dead doesn’t mean the one next to it is too. I guess that should be obvious, but I didn’t consider it. Yeah, I bet you already knew that, right? OK, well how about this? Say there are two plug-ins on the same outlet. Did you know that you can put the top plug-in on a different breaker from the bottom plug-in? Sure you did. Well, what about this? You can have a fan light switch and the fan on/off switch on two different breakers. That was news to me. And here’s the final thing I learned: Even though you flipped off the breaker to a particular light switch (or outlet), and the light turned off when you flipped that breaker, there is a way electricians can wire it so there is still electricity flowing to the light and not to the switch. All you need to do is touch the live wire and you complete the circuit. Nice, huh!
So what are you supposed to do? Calling an electrician is definitely the safest way to go. Or, you could buy a voltage tester pen, which, when placed near an energized object, will give both an audible and visual signal of an electrically charged danger. This lets you know that there is still a step to be completed before you can safely touch the object without fear of electrical shock. I bought one of these pens with the money I saved by repairing the two previously mentioned outlets on my own. In the future, though, I’ll probably just leave the electricity to the professionals.