Tuesday, October 11, 2005


The one where the house didn't burn down

The good news is, I didn't set the house on fire. The bad news is, I didn't sleep a wink thinking about that red and black wire getting jiggy with each other.

Oh right, you have no idea what I'm talking about, do you?

The short version is, I installed a digital thermostat on the weekend. It went pretty well, except for the extra wire. As if you thought I might possibly skip the long version for just this once...

I like to consider myself a handy chick. I have my own power tools, I know the difference between a Robertson and a Phillips head, and I can make a rough approximation of a dove-tailed joint with hand tools. I've assembled a new barbeque, taken apart an old one to see why it wasn't working, figured it out and put it back together again.

But electricity scared the bejesus out of me. I don't mind messing with tanks of flammable gas, but I am definitely antsy about electricity. Which is kind of ironic, because my grandfather was a master electrician. I could have used his assistance yesterday. Everybody told me it was a simple task. Match up the coloured wires and you're done.

For six months, I lurked in the thermostat aisle at Canadian Tire, reading the packages and comparing models and features, weighing my desire for a programmable thermostat against my deep-seated fear of setting the house on fire. I'd linger in the dining room, gazing resentfully at the ancient $1.99 discount thermostat that came with the house and dreaming of programs and digital readouts. I'd prowl around other people's houses, looking for their thermostat to confirm the fact that yes, in fact, everybody else has a better one than me.

(Okay, maybe I'm hyperbolizing just a little bit here. But, sadly, not much.)

So on Saturday, I impulsively (inasmuch as having pondered something for six months can be impulsive) ran out to Canadian Tire and shelled out $39.99 for a 5+2 programmable digital thermostat. I read the "quick installation guide" on the package once in the store, once at a red light on the way home, and one last time sitting on the dining room floor with screwdriver in hand. I installed the batteries, and when the LED readout popped up just as promised, my confidence was bolstered.

I stood up, took a deep breath, and pried the old thermostat off the wall. To my delight, the wires were attached just as the quick-installation guide promised, and I unscrewed the terminals without incidence. And yes, I had even remembered to turn off the furnace switch before getting started. Wondering if I had missed my calling as a professional digital thermostat installer, I gleefully screwed the back plate of the new thermostat on the wall. I started matching up coloured wires to their terminals, green to G, red to R, white to W and yellow to Y, black to ... black to ... what the hell do I do with this black wire?

And so I turned back to the mangled wreckage of moulded plastic wrap (digression: is that not the most annoying form of torture ever invented, trying to get stuff out of that hard plastic shrink-wrap stuff?) and noticed the owner's manual. The one with the detailed installation instructions that say "when removing the old thermostat, make careful note of where each wire is attached to your original thermostat." That would be the theromostat lying discarded on the counter, any connection to its former wires long since forgotten.

Oh crap.

Did I mention that although I bought the thermostat on Saturday, I waited until Monday to install it? Thanksgiving Monday, the statutory holiday when neither electricians nor digital programmable theromostat installation help desk people were taking calls. I reread the installation instructions with the same level of attention that Jennifer Anniston's property lawyers read her and Brad Pitt's divorce proposal.

From what I could gather, a wire previously attached to an Rh terminal could be attached together with an Rc wire to the R terminal. In other words, I could attach the red and black wires to the same terminal. Now, I'm no electrician, but I do know that if you attach two live wires, and they are the wrong live wires, armageddon ensues.

So I did what every girl does when she gets into a jam - I called my Daddy. He opined that the black wire was a ground, and I could just leave it exposed and tucked away. I didn't like that advice very much, so I shopped around. I called my former good buddy ÜBerGeek, whom I should know better than to call for DIY advice after hearing about how he dumped acid all over himself fixing his garburator pipes. I explained my two alternatives (leave the black wire exposed, or attach the black and red wire to the same terminal) and he said, "Uh-huh, that sounds good" to each option.

Finding this less than reassuring, in desperation I finally called my father-in-law. Since I have never actually called him before, let alone for consultation on matters that could burn down the family home of his grandchildren and only son, he sounded pleased in a perplexed sort of way to hear from me. After hemming and hawing for a while, he said that in household wiring, black and red are usual positive wires. I paused, the enormity of what I don't know about electricity weighing heavily on my shoulders, and then asked in a small voice, "Is that good or bad?"

In the end, without providing any sort of comfort or reassurance whatsoever, he did convey the fact that he was of the opinion that attaching both wires to the same terminal was not the worst possible idea ever, although only marginally more astute than leaving one exposed wire.

(Are you still reading? Am I still writing? We both deserve some sort of endurance award for that. Courage, we're almost there.)

In the end, I attached the red and the black wires to the same terminal. I sent Beloved downstairs to flick the switch to re-engage the furnace, not exactly sure what to expect or what form of disaster recovery I should be ready to initiate, but nothing more exciting happened than the furnace fan humming to life. I stood guard over the thermostat for a few doubtful hours minutes, but it showed no predisposition to self- combustion or other socially unacceptable behaviour.

Sadly, that's the end of the story. Are you kicking yourself for riding it out, hoping for a big finish? Hey, you can't say I didn't warn you with the short version... no Jerry Bruckheimer-esque special effects were promised, or even alleged.

But, um, is there an electrician in the house? I'd feel a lot better about leaving those black and red wires together in perpetuity if I could have the blessing of a professional, or at least someone with the courage of their convictions.

You'll have to excuse me, I have made just enough references to my house burning down that I now have a stomach-ache and have to find some wood to touch in a big hurry.