Common Home Repairs

After spending many years helping my father with all kinds of home repair projects, I eventually found myself in the profession as an adult.  Now, after years (many more years!) of tackling all sorts of projects, I decided I would create a site - a kind of repository - to share a few tips and techniques I've learned over the years.  If you've stumbled upon this site by some random means, I hope that I'll be able to provide you with some of the help you're looking for.  If not, the best parting advice I can give you is what my father imparted on me with just about all projects.... "measure twice, cut once!"  Even though my main work didn't involve much cutting (I worked in my own appliance repair company for many years), the general philosophy of that simply concept always stuck with me.

With that, I wish you good luck and now it's time for me to share my first 'real' article.

Repairing Outlets and Switches

Whenever an electrical receptacle comes loose it’s probably time to replace it. As always, whenever you do any electrical project you turn off the circuit breaker to cut off the power to the receptacle. To check to see if the power is actually off, I stick the probes of a circuit tester in both slots of the outlet and look for no light. After that, I take the faceplate off which is held in place with a small screw. Just to be safe, you can test the circuit again by touching the probes of the circuit tester to both sides of the screw terminals where wires are attached.

Now, you can unscrew the wires from the outlet and be sure to make a note of the arrangement of the wires. When you re-screw the receptacle, you’ll want to hook up the wires the same way. The colors of the wires and the screws are standardized which should make it easier. From here, it’s an easy matter to screw the wires onto the new receptacle. I always wrap the wire around the terminal so it hooks in a clockwise direction. When I tighten the screw, it’ll tend to pull the wire into the terminal making a better connection.

If the color of the terminals is unclear there is another system for telling the screws apart. The ground terminal is usually marked with a special “GR”. The white wire goes to the side with the longer slot on the face and the black wire matches up with the side with the shorter slot.

Moving on to replacing a switch we also have to test to make sure the power is off. To test for power, I touch the circuit tester between the two terminals and between each terminal and the copper ground wire. If the light doesn’t light up in any position then it’s safe to work on the switch. We proceed much like we do when replacing a receptacle. I note the position of the wires and remove the switch. There are two black wires for the switch but you may also find one black and one white wire.

I install the switch by connecting up the wires just like the way they were on the old switch: one black wire to one terminal and the other black wire to the second terminal. It shouldn’t matter which black wire goes to which terminal. Some switches will also have a ground system but that’s unusual. When, I put the switch back into the wall it’s important that it goes in right side up. Standard practice is to install the switch so flipping it up turns the light on. Now, this is extremely important for a silent mercury switch. It won’t operate unless installed properly but of course not all switches are like this.

If you’ve got a light or outlet that’s run by two or more switches you’ll find it’s a little different to wire. These are called three way and four way switches and they all operate the same light. The switches are unique and so is the wiring between them. You can see that there are three wires in two of the boxes and four in the center one. The number of terminals determine what type of switch it is. Switches with three wires connecting to three terminals are called three-way switches. Four wires and four terminals means a four-way switch. If any of these fail you must replace them with the same type of switch.

On a three-way switch there’s one special terminal that’s marked with a black screw and the word “Common” on the box. It will always be connected to a black wire. It’s critical that when you replace this switch, this “Common” wire gets reattached to the “Common” terminal on the new switch. The other two wires can be reversed and the switch will still work.

A four-way switch will have two sets of wires. Make sure you reattach one pair on the top and one on the bottom. Don’t split the leaves of one pair between the top and bottom terminal.

Repairing Lamps and Plugs

When repairing a lamp the first step is to troubleshoot it to see if we can even repair it before we start replacing anything. The contact here in the bottom of the socket is a problem sometimes. So, first I try scraping it off with the tip of screwdriver and then prying it up a little. If these steps don’t work, I’ll start to take apart the socket. Most sockets have a press marking on the upper cover. I squeeze the cover here and work it off. Then I remove the inside cardboard sleeve.

Sometimes a lamp will fail because the wires have come loose from the terminals so you should check to make sure they’re solid. If the connections look good the next thing to troubleshoot is the cord. Remove the wires from the screw terminals, note how they’re connected. If there’s a silver lead and a copper lead, the copper goes to the brass screw. If both leads are copped then the lead with the ridge on the inside of the insulation goes to the silver screw.

Now I use a continuity tester to check the cord. There should be no continuity between the ends of the two wires and or between the prongs of the plug. If there is then it means there’s a short circuit somewhere in the wire or plug and they should be replaced. There should be continuity between one wire and one prong and between the other wire and the other prong. If there isn’t then again the wire and plug should be replaced. If there’s a switch on the lamp or cord you’ll need this in the on position to test for continuity. Now if none of these quick fixes work then you’ll have to replace the socket.

I’m going to add something called an “underwriter’s knot” this protects the leads from being yanked off the terminals. Be sure to get a replacement that matches the original. You probably only need to get the inner socket. The wires just connect up to the new socket, as always I put a hook in the wire and wrap it around the screw terminal. Notice that some wires have many small strands of copper inside. This makes them flexible in a way that single strand wires aren’t. But these better wires should be twisted tight before I attach them to the screw terminals.

Now the plug at the end of a lamp cord or any other appliance can also be easily damaged and also easily repaired. For simple flat cords you also can use a quick connect plug. The plug pulls apart by squeezing the prongs together. Then, I feed the end of the plug through the back of the cover, spread the prongs apart, insert the wire into the back of the core, and squeeze the prongs together. I slide the cover down onto the cord and the job is complete.

These plugs are fine for lights and small appliances but if you want  a little stronger connection it’s easy to find plugs with screw terminals. For these, you start with a clean end on the wire. This type of wire is sometimes called zip cord because the two sides pull apart easily to allow you to strip them. For this plug, I strip about ¾ of an inch off the ends of the two wires and twist the strands of the leads together tightly. Each lead also gets a hook at the end to fit around the screw terminal. When I connect the leads to the terminals I attach the lead with the ridge on the side to the silver neutral terminal. If the screws aren’t color coded, this lead goes to the wider prong. The final step is to work the cover back down over the core.

Now things are a little different if you’re working on a grounded plug. Cords with grounded plugs will usually have the plug molded right at the end of the cord. But, these can start to fray and work loose over time so the best thing to do is just replace the plug. First, I cut off the old plug and strip the ends of the wire. This cord has an outer shaving of insulation. I strip back about a ½ inch of this with a utility knife and cut it off. Then I strip about ¾ of an inch off the leads inside. Most replacement grounding plugs will let the cords feed through plug from the back. Then you connect the wires with the green lead going to the green screw and so on. As always, the colors indicate the grounding circuit.

The white lead goes to the silver terminal, notice that the screw terminals on some plugs are located in the back. These are called “dead front plugs”. Replacement plugs where the terminals are on the front of the plug and covered with a cardboard removable disk are illegal even though they’re still found in some stores. Finally, the black lead goes around the brass screw. The last step is to pull the cover over the plug and screw down the cable clamps.

Repairing Faucets

There are a few mechanisms that make faucets work and you can usually tell from the outside what you’ll find on the inside. Faucets with a separate control for hot and cold water are either “compression faucets” or “cartridge faucets”. Compression faucets seal out the water with a rubber washer, these tend to be older and a little less expensive. The handles have a certain stiffness to them like turning off an outside hose faucet.

Cartridge faucets are newer and operate very easily. The handles are often fat and decorative and usually don’t turn very far. Cartridges are also often used for the faucets with one control for both the hot and cold water. There are disc, ball, and sleeve subtypes of cartridge faucets. The ball faucets can be differentiated from the sleeve types by how far the lever moves from side to side. Ball types do not have a level that moves from side to side very far.

Before you do any type of repair you should make a note of whether the leaks are coming from the knobs, the base, or the spout of the faucet as well. Drips out of a spout are an internal problem with the cartridge, ball, or washers. But, leaks around the base of the handle or spout are caused by how the faucet is mounted. This usually involves something called an “O ring” so you should watch for that when you take the faucet apart.

When repairing a compression faucet, first remove the handles. Usually there’s a screw holding the handles down so unscrew them. Keep the drain in the sink shut just in case you drop something so you don’t lose it for good. Remove the handles by sliding them up and they should come off of a grooved shaft. Next, remove the faucet stem, which is sometimes fused to the valve. If you have any metal piece that won’t come off the faucet try using a little penetrating oil to loosen it up. Let it sit for 15 minutes and then try again to remove it.

After the 15 minutes, you can loosen it with an adjustable wrench. Some types of penetrating oil will damage rubber parts, which may be okay if you’re going to replace everything in the compression faucet handle. You might want to explore other types of oil too. The valves work by forming a seal with the rubber washer at the end of the stem and a brass seat. The washer covers a hole in the seat, stopping the flow of water. There are also O rings on the side of the stem that are supposed to keep water from leaking out of the handle.