Lessons From My Stepfather: Looking back on an electrician’s early life

Published On
Jun 15, 2022

The first electrical service I helped install was back in 1961 when I was 14 years old and wet behind the ears, as we said in those days. My stepfather and I were building a new family home and trying to save money by doing much of the work ourselves. We were in North Dakota, where the pleasant weather doesn’t last as long as other places. Our primary objectives were to get the outside block walls up, concrete floors in the basement poured, framing done and roofing finished. All the interior work could be done later when the weather turned cold.

Inside work

We also needed to install electrical power early in the construction schedule to provide temporary power for the block layers, carpenters and the other building trades doing the work that we were not familiar with. Supplying temporary power is a very common issue that all electrical contractors have faced.

I am writing about this topic since my stepfather passed away this past August. When I was visiting the home we built and that he still lived in, I was in the basement and happened to open the cabinet where that service was located.

It brought back many memories from all of the incredible things he taught me in such a brief period of my life. We installed the heating and cooling system, and I helped do the roofing and attic insulation. We did all of the electrical rough-in (under the supervision of a licensed electrician). We actually energized the circuits after doing the makeup and installing wire nuts on all of the ungrounded and grounded conductors in the junction boxes that eventually became outlet boxes after connecting lights, receptacles and switches. Despite all that I learned, however, some of his methods were questionable.

Some incorrect advice

I painted the inside and outside walls, woodwork and doors, and did all of the sanding and other similar work. That experience is probably the reason I did not become a painter.

My stepfather also gave me the job of installing all of the lights, fans, receptacles and switches. He told me to do it even though the circuits were all energized, without shutting off the power, and then proceeded to show me how. He also said that if I were to get shocked, it was just part of being an electrician and I needed to get used to it. By the way, I have never become “used to” getting a shock, thankfully. He also told me that you never had to worry about getting a shock from a neutral since it was a grounded conductor and not an ungrounded one. Everyone discovers how wrong that is the first time we receive a shock from a neutral and have to fall off a ladder to get off the circuit.

My stepfather also told me that, before installing a wire nut, I needed to use lineman’s pliers to twist the conductors together. Again, this is not true, since wire nuts have a spring inside that does so when the electrician puts it on, and twisting it with lineman’s pliers damages the copper wire.

I discovered the very uncomfortable sensation of a shock when I attempted to twist all of the white wires together with the pliers. One of the switches in the two-gang switch box was switching the ceiling light where the power was in the box in the ceiling, and there was a two-conductor NM cable coming down to the switch.

In that case, the white conductor was connected to the hot black conductor in the ceiling box, and the black is the switch leg going from the wall switch back to the ceiling light box. I tripped a 20A single-pole circuit breaker and then started turning off all the power before doing any more work on the circuits. I turned the power back on and reset the clocks before my stepfather came over to check my work. I did not want him to call me a “wuss” about working on de-energized circuits.

I teach a lot of electrical safety classes for electricians and use some of my experiences to illustrate why we use 120.5, the eight-step process of establishing and verifying an electrically safe work condition, NFPA 70E Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace and the six similar steps OSHA requires.

About the Author

Mark C. Ode

Fire/Life Safety, Residential and Code Contributor

Mark C. Ode is a lead engineering associate for Energy & Power Technologies at Underwriters Laboratories Inc. and can be reached at 919.949.2576 and Mark.C.Ode@ul.com.

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