Sunday, March 20, 2011

HOME MAINTANENCE: DIY can save time, money but watch for hazards

It was supposed to be a quick and easy switch: a recessed light in the kitchen for a more decorative pendant fixture. But like Gilligan with his “three-hour tour,’’ Cambridge condo owner Daniel Evans had no idea the comedy of errors that lay ahead when he began tinkering with the electrical work.

Plan accordingly: Build or draw mock-ups of your project. Get all the appropriate tools.

Get a partner: A second pair of hands or eyes is necessary when working with electricity, power tools, or while off the ground.

Backstop: Know the locations of emergency shutoffs. Use caution in multifamily buildings. Don’t attempt unless you understand how your work affects other units.

Weather matters: Consult the forecast before working outside. Rain or sudden cold can ruin fresh finishes and set you back.

Bullpen call: Hire a pro for a day or so to get over a psychological hump, picking up yourself afterward if you can.

Know your limits: Sometimes you just have to ask for help. Also, be aware that energy levels wane around meal times.

Second opinions: Budget for a contractor to inspect your work.

“When I took everything out, I did not pay close attention to the way everything was wired,’’ Evans said. “This was probably my first mistake.’’

What followed was a series of miscalculations, missteps, and contractor blunders that ran for two weeks and resulted in one expensive light fixture. First, led astray in part by dubious instructions from the Internet, Evans couldn’t figure out how to connect the wires from the recessed lights which are all on one circuit to the pendant light, which is on a three-way switch. This resulted in him disconnecting all the lighting except the pendant light. When he took it apart again to rewire it, he discovered that he’d somehow turned off the bathroom lights as well.

“There was a point that I thought, ‘I am never going to have lights in my kitchen again,’ ’’ Evans recalled of the ordeal.

Hammer-wielding weekend warriors, take heed: The time may come when you have to fire yourself. Fixing something in your house can save big bucks and bring tremendous satisfaction. Conversely, failing to do the job right can be far more expensive than if you had called in a pro in the first place, and humiliating to boot.

“I think someone should call in a professional when a project starts generating more guilt because of failure to complete than it generates satisfaction in a job well done,’’ said Paul Eldrenkamp, owner of the Newton contracting firm Byggmeister.

Generally speaking, repair work typically done by a contractor who is required to be licensed offers the most hazards to the do-it-yourselfer. Plumbing for example, or, as Evans now knows all too well, electrical work. That doesn’t mean homeowners should be afraid to do simple tasks, such as running wires, said Ken Sparrow, owner of Gibbons Electric in Arlington.

Where things most often go south is at the connection to a fixture, outlet or other electrical node. Common missteps include loose or unconnected wires around screw terminals, or wires twisted and compacted in a sloppy way. Mistakes here can be deadly.

Add to the mix the outdated wiring often found in many older New England homes, like BX cable, which has a metal, tube-like shield around the wires and is often not properly grounded, and the potential for danger is compounded.

“I’d much rather see a customer run all the wires and then call a professional to connect them up,’’ Sparrow said.

That’s sort of what Evans ended up doing. Exasperated and unsure how to proceed, Evans perused the online site to find a local contractor to finish his fixture replacement. What he didn’t expect was for the electrician to also be flummoxed by the wiring.
Evans contacted Sparrow’s firm, which sent out an electrician. After 20 minutes of continuity tests on the exposed wires, the electrician diagnosed the problem: an unusual connection for lights on the same circuit and a lurking “traveler’’ wire about which Evans had no idea.

A short time later, the electrician had the new fixture installed and brought Evans’s ordeal to a merciful close.

“In the end, I felt embarrassed because I’m a computer engineer and I figure I can do things on my own,’’ Evans said. “But the reality is that wiring can be very complex. This made me realize that there are some occasions that you just have to call an electrician and spend the money to get it done the right way and get it done fast.’’

Plumbing may seem simpler than electrical work, sometimes deceptively so. But as Linda Luo can attest, some homeowners learn plumbing isn’t for them only after they passed the point of no return.

When Luo dropped a diamond pendant down her bathroom sink, she and her boyfriend decided they could retrieve it themselves. Attempting to remove the drain where they believed the pendant to be, Luo and her boyfriend watched in horror as the partially rusted pipe disintegrated before their eyes.

Suddenly Luo had a steady leak and standing water on her bathroom floor. Making matters worse, the leak worsened whenever Luo used the sink in her other bathroom, as both rooms shared plumbing connections. This detail she didn’t realize until too late.

The final straw, though, was when she bought the wrong replacement pipe. “So we gave up,’’ she said, and called in the pros. But the plumbers were booked for several days, so Luo endured the mess and inconvenience for almost a week before she could get her pendant — and her bathroom — back.

Jeff Wood, whose firm, Boston Standard Plumbing & Heating, resolved Luo’s situation, has many horror stories of DIY jobs done wrong: One customer connected a pipe from the heating system to an ice maker, feeding it nonpotable water. Another dripped an especially acidic sanitizer in the dishwasher pipes, flooding the kitchen.

Homeowners should be especially cautious undertaking a plumbing job if they live in a shared building, Wood said. In a typical Boston brownstone, for instance, the emergency water shutoff is located in the lower level, which many times has been made into an apartment.

“If that unit is locked and you can’t get into it, you probably shouldn’t work on the water lines,’’ Wood said.

The same can be said for carpentry projects. Eldrenkamp, whose company builds and remodels homes, believes that while basic carpentry and residential construction is not that difficult, what’s hard is doing it quickly and in a way that looks good and holds up over time.
“A DIYer needs to understand that things won’t always come out looking as clean and crisp as hoped for, and that the work might not stand the test of time,’’ he said. “Consider it a learning experience, and move on. There’s diminishing returns in trying to get something perfect, and perfectionism is sometimes just a cover story for procrastination. Be honest with yourself and recognize the difference.’’
First, Eldrenkamp advises homeowners to sketch out their ideal finished product on paper, and then forecast potential roadblocks.

Next, do a mock-up with scrap lumber or boards of foam core to finalize details and determine your proper building sequence. His biggest bit of advice is to check your ego at the door.

“Don’t be afraid to aim high, but remember that it’s often wiser to try to demonstrate your fundamental humility to your spouse than your advanced carpentry skills,’’ he said. “Especially if you don’t, in fact, have any advanced carpentry skills.’’

Steve Holt Boston Globe March 13, 2011

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