How an Electrical Engineer Spends "Vacation"
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Cog·i·ta·tion [koj-i-tey'-shun] – noun: Concerted thought or
reflection; meditation; contemplation.
Kirt [kert] – proper noun: RF Cafe webmaster.
Scott Adams' Dilbert character was born not out of
some abstract impression of the stereotypical engineer, but of the tendency
- sometimes tragically - of an individual's life vocation to reflect
his innate tendencies and preferences. Having myself been born with
at least some level of manifestation of that well-documented genetic
trait known in the medical community as
The Knack, I tend to spend my spare time indulging in things
technical. That can run the gamut of subjects from tearing apart electromechanical
devices, to building model boats, rockets and airplanes, renovating
houses, working on cars, building and restoring clocks, reading books
on physics, astronomy and mathematics, and maybe tending to watch TV
shows like Numb3rs and Built It Bigger.
that the kids are grown, college educated, and married, vacation time
consists of not only maintaining our (Melanie and me) own stuff, but
also helping out with the kids' stuff as well. In October, we drove
down to Greensboro, NC, to visit my daughter, Sally, and her husband,
Matt, at their recently acquired horse farm. They bought it in May of
this year and by the time we arrived, with the help of some friends,
had totally razed an old, dilapidated 3-stall horse barn and hay barn
and erected from their own plans a 60x40-foot, 7-stall horse barn (with
tack room and office) and a 12x40-foot hay and equipment barn. Sally
has been riding and instructing for about eight years and has built
an amazing riding school on her own, while boarding at other facilities,
and now finally has her own place -
Equine Kingdom Riding Academy. Matt just graduated
from UNCG with a degree in biology and is a certified dog trainer, so
a kennel and training facilities will eventually inhabit the property
Cutting wood and swinging hammers are within the capability of most
people, but when the time comes for electrical wiring and plumbing,
that often gives pause to the most ambitious of builders. That's where
I come in. I carry a pair of lineman's pliers
Dragnet, start at 45 seconds)...
Having begun my career
many moons ago as an electrician through vocational school and a couple
years of practice, then entering into electronics through the
USAF, then earning a
BSEE degree, I have kept up electrical wiring skills through the year
while renovating many houses and doing wiring for other people as a
favor. So, when the barn was ready for wiring, I was ready to wire it.
Melanie and I now live in Erie, PA, the initial planning was done via
e-mail exchanges and phone calls to get dimensions and preferences.
Wiring diagrams and parts lists were created just like I am accustomed
to doing for projects on engineering jobs. The kids considered it at
obsessive compulsive personality disorder-like in nature considering
their work was done in a rather ad hoc manner, but my limited availability
justified such an approach. After a few trips to the local Lowe's home
improvement store, I was able to supply a complete parts list that included
item description, quantity, Lowe's stock numbers, and even URLs for
every component. Then, they handed the list to an employee in Greensboro
and came back later to pay for and pick up everything. It worked like
a charm, with only a couple trips necessary during the execution phase
for parts needed to accommodated Sally's requested changes.
when you have to actually pay someone to do work for you, when you have
the free labor of a willing craftsman, the list of features tends to
increase beyond basics. Among other things, their barn now sports the
following electrical amenities:
while I have always been pretty good at the planning and execution phases
of projects, estimating the time needed to accomplish each task (I hate
making schedules) has always been my weak point. Such was the case here
as well. I figured that out of the four full days that Melanie and I
would be visiting (plus a day each way for travelling 650 miles), it
would take a day to mount all the boxes and fixtures, then another day
and a half for wiring.
4-foot, 4-bulb, T-8 (more efficient than T-12) fluorescent light
fixtures in the aisle-way
- 2 more of same in the office and tack room
- An overhead, single-bulb standard light fixture above each stall,
with switch control
- An overhead duplex receptacle above each stall, with switch
control (for fan or heater).
- A duplex receptacle at each stall
- 500 W halogen floodlights at both entrances and facing the horse
wash pad (switches mounted inside).
motion/light sensor-controlled floodlights at all 4 corners of the
barn (disabling switches mounted inside).
- Decorative porch wall light at office/tack room door.
- All receptacle circuits protected by ground fault interrupter
(GFI) circuit breakers.
- Light and receptacle circuits separated per
NEC. Multiple circuits for each to prevent one fault from disabling
entire barn. Circuit load planned for no more than 50% of breaker
rating under normal conditions (lots of overhead for additional
- Metal device and junction boxes used throughout for ruggedness,
fire prevention, and immunity to varmint attack.
- Metal-clad cabling (12/2 THHN w/separate integrated ground wire)
and approved connectors and insulator bushings used throughout for
- Grounding screws connected on all devices and boxes per NEC.
- Underground feeder circuit run to hay /equipment barn. GFI protection
provided at load end.
Well, that estimate might have been good
if plastic-sheathed Romex type wire was being used (standard house wiring).
However, installing the metal clad wiring involved carefully cutting
through the wound armor without nicking the wire insulation inside.
There is a trick to doing it, and I am well practiced in doing it from
my former life as an electrician wiring commercial buildings, but it
takes at least twice the time for making each connection to a box or
fixture than does the simpler Romex that requires only stripping with
yeah, there is also that obsessive compulsiveness issue that always
tends to slow me down. For some reason I possess an innate compulsion
to keep everything as straight, plumb, horizontal, parallel, and perpendicular
as possible. It could be labeled a personal pride thing, but the Freudian
psychoanalytical community's diagnosis would probably be more apt in
For all the above reasons, the job actually took four
full days, with the last splice being made at around 9:00 pm on the
evening before we headed north back to Erie. I figure that I put in
a little over 50 hours in four days, and that is with help from Matt
for half the time.
There is great satisfaction in completing
the job, then standing back and surveying all that which you have created.
There was one short in the entire job, and that was not a hot-to-neutral
or hot-to-ground type of short, but rather one between the ground and
the neutral in one receptacle box.
kind of short is only noticed in a GFI-protected circuit. Had it been
on a standard circuit breaker, it would never have manifested itself.
You might be tempted to think that having the neutral shorted to the
ground is not really a problem since, after all, the grounds and neutrals
are bonded together back at the circuit breaker panel. It does create
a possible hazard, though, since it presents an opportunity for some
or all of the current from the hot wire to return via the ground wire,
which is only truly at ground potential back at the panel (due to conductor
resistance). If there is an open neutral somewhere in the circuit, an
otherwise ground potential wire can be carrying all or part of the circuit's
return current - a job normally assigned to the neutral wire, and the
very condition which a GFI circuit is designed to protect against.
So, in the end, while Sally and Melanie did daughter-mother things
all week and Matt divided his time between his full-time job and helping
me, I spent my entire "vacation" from morning to evening wiring a couple
barns. Though my 50-something back was aching, fingers were utterly
sore from cutting cable, twisting wire nuts, hammering staples, and
turning screws, I count it time well spent. A few months from now we'll
tackle adding switches and receptacles to the human barn (primary residence),
and maybe run a new waterline out to the horse barn.
most interesting thing about the whole experience: As I was installing
the final piece of armored cable between a junction box and an overhead
stall light, it was exactly long enough to complete the job. That is,
I began with four, 250-foot spools of cable and had exactly nothing
left over at the end. It took precisely 1,000 feet of cable - with no
wasted lengths - to do the job. Kinda cool, n'est-ce pas?