Tuesday, February 22, 2011

"Real Electricians Don't Use Hammers"

Yesterday’s electrical work was more of what one might expect:  be available when the electricians arrive, stay out of their way except to answer a specific question, poke your head into the CoachHouse occasionally to see how things are going or to offer bottles of water, and otherwise sit on the patio and pretend to concentrate on reading a book.  

I’d like to say that they arrived at 8am yesterday morning and finished all the work necessary prior to sheetrock installation, but with their arrival time of 1:20 p.m. and a quitting time of 5 p.m., I’ll see them again late today or early tomorrow (I think).  But enough electrical work is completed to allow the insulation work to begin this afternoon, per this morning’s phone call from the prime contractor.
This morning was cool and my day started with an hour walk.  I’m still amazed by the low humidity here, and even with yesterday’s unusual February heat, it seemed a nice temperature sitting on the patio in the shade of the Airstream, listening to the work of the electricians.
But the 10-hour day of electrical work last Friday was also a 10-hour work day for me.  As mentioned in my last blog, starting with “where do you want to put the toilet,” this tiny custom CoachHouse build has been followed by a continuing set of questions I’d never considered before.  And last Friday’s focus, actively working alongside 2 of the three electricians, included determination and placement of wall receptacles (what I’ve always called electrical outlets), switches (and which switch controls which device), recessed lights, vent fans, outside lights and receptacles, etc.  

These decisions may sound easy, but I was staring at 2x4 studs and concrete floor when asked questions such as, “Where do you want the switch for your kitchen under-counter lights?”  I first had to envision a kitchen, then countertop space, then backsplash height, then a switch.  

Even harder than switch location was the electrical wiring drop for the under-counter lights themselves.  If I pick a spot too low, the wiring won’t be “under cabinet” but will stick out of the back splash and upward to the light.  If I pick a spot too high, the wiring will be up inside an upper cabinet, costing valuable storage space.

Certainly there are “work arounds”, but they fall into the added cost category. As a side note, the entire kitchen cabinetry is only 5’6” wide, and when you take away 36” for short upper cabinets above the kitchen sink, you are limited to a 30” wide full upper cabinet.  Every inch counts.  

And do you know, off the top of your head, the height of your kitchen countertop?—34”or 36” or something in between?  I had no detailed cabinet drawings yet, no mockup—just my “Revision 20” of a hand drawn floor plan, a tape measure, and my hand to point and say “please put it here.”
And then I’d listen to the “whacking” of the electricians’ wrenches, their tool of choice, to nail the receptacle box, or recessed IC box, or other electrical component onto the stud (or stud pieces onto stud, then box, depending on location).  All three of the electricians had one thing in common:  they all were wearing fancy leather tool belts, with lots of tools, but not a hammer among them.  

And let me say, the sound of driving a nail into a stud with the side of a wrench is not a pretty sound—closest technical term I can think of is a “whacking” sound.  As the morning progressed, and these twenty-something aged electricians became more comfortable with their elder female handy assistant, I had to ask:  “Did all three of you forget your hammers today?”  And I got a polite, somewhat proud, and tightly specific answer:  “Electricians don’t use hammers.”
Well, there you have it, question answered and our work continued.  And so I stared at 2x4s, measured distances, discussed with the electricians and the rick-man, pointed, and listened to whacking in response to my “please place it here.”  I thought about it and just couldn’t figure it out—why not a hammer?  Safety issues?—nothing was “hot” yet.  Weight issues?—they were already carrying enough tools to make any tool-man proud.  And so they went off to lunch, and I still pondered the specificity of their answer:  “Electricians don’t use hammers.”
I'm probably not known for socially polite silence taking precedence over an interesting discussion.  I’m also not known for small talk at parties; seems such a waste of time when interacting with another human being to only talk about the weather or the latest episode of “Lost” when I could be learning about their opinion on international trade, or their experience in career or volunteer work, or their belief system that drives their habits and hopes.  I can’t ask a bird “why”, I can only watch, listen (to their foreign language) and learn; and if I stared at people the way I stare at birds, I’d probably have the police knocking at my door. 
So mid-afternoon, I couldn’t stand it anymore, and asked—“OK, so electricians don’t use hammers.  But WHY don’t electricians use hammers?”  The two lead electricians literally stopped work and smiled at each other with that good humored expression that comes when the knowledgeable receive an honest question from the ignorant, with the simple goal of learning.  

You see that smile all the time from a parent over their four year olds’ endless supply of “why” questions.  But today I was watching two kind-hearted twenty-something electricians smile over the ignorance, and honest question, of the elder CoachHouse owner.

Just as children are encouraged by the parent’s smile, I knew my question was well received.  One of the electricians came over to me, holding out his wrench.  “See these 2x4s framed so closely together?  You can’t get a hammer in between them to get a good drive on the nail.  But this wrench?  I can bang it almost any direction in a tight space and get a good drive each time.  See?” Then he whacked the wrench back and forth between the two studs, and handed it to me to feel its weight.  “Electricians carry HEAVY wrenches—much better than using a hammer.  If someone uses a hammer, they aren’t a REAL electrician.” 

His words carried the sound of a craftsman, with a great deal of pride in his voice.  And so he completely answered my question, took back the wrench and continued his work; and I continued mine—with new appreciate of what we often casually call “the tools of the trade.”  Maybe a new bumper sticker is warranted:  “Real Electricians Whack Nails.”
A four switch box mounted between closely neighboring 2x4 studs:

How many electrical receptacles could we possibly have in a 12’ x24’ CoachHouse?  Twenty; but that includes the washer/dryer and water heater—so only 17!  Two cell phones, laptops, and “Nooks” to be charged, not to mention digital cameras, crock pot and rice cooker.  Seems we need electricity for everything but the binoculars!

How many electrical switches could we possibly have in a 12’ x 24’ CoachHouse?  Fourteen, but that includes 3 for outdoor receptacles… 
And where do you want to put your modem and router boxes?  How about on a top shelf, inside the upper cabinet, above the refrigerator?  And so the boxes below, just beneath sheetrock line:

Any day that we can learn from a craftsman that takes pride in their trade--that is a good day.

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