It wasn't my fault. I owe it all to Heidi "Zelda" Barton and Bryan Bowers, so blame them. I was minding my own business on a frosty night in February, 1982, when the phone rang. It was Zelda.
"Hi, I'm staying over here at Bryan's while he's out of town, and me and his girlfriend keep blowing fuses trying to keep the heaters on. You know something about electricity, right?"
My first big mistake was answering the phone. My second was responding, "Well, I know a little." Within hours I'd nearly electrocuted myself three times, and pronounced Bryan's recently-purchased fixer to be future host to the next Great Seattle Fire. Bowers freaked on the Long Distance line.
"But Jef, I can't have that place burn down. I just spent everything I had to buy it. I can't afford an electrician." Pregnant pause. "Can you do it?"
"Uh, I don't think so, Bry. I know some real basic stuff, but this house is three stories high with a full basement apartment. It's got three kitchens, every floor is 1500 square feet , the ceilings are 14 feet high and everything is plaster and lath! You need someone who knows what they're doing."
"Jef, I'll pay you $10 an hour if you can do it."
In the immortal words of Cybill Shepard's Maddie Hayes, "Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid!" It took 350 hours of Zen Gospel Wiring to do that house. I spent as many as 16 hours a day drilling holes, pulling wire, studying the code and bugging the hell out of local inspectors to make sure everything was being done right. I ultimately moved into a room on the second floor, because I was at Bowers Towers more than I was home. My official title was Designated Building Manager and Second Guitarist.
When the whole project was finally done the Electrical Inspector gave it a rave review. A much different response from the near cardiac arrest on his first visit. He later told me, "You know, I don't know any electrician in town who would have touched that place." I thanked him for his praise, took the money from the job, grabbed my guitar and went to Europe for a month.
Word of mouth being what it is, I was soon getting calls from other electrically-challenged musician types. "Hey, you done with Bowers? How about looking at my place." I should have spotted this as a trend, but all I could think of was how to finance my next album. Like a lizard on a hot rock, I rolled over for a cheap tan.
By 1987, I had a full C-10 Electrical License in California, an Oregon journeyman card, a year of voc-tech training in everything from Ohm's Law to computer trouble-shooting ("Hey look, guys, the new 256K chip is gonna revolutionize the industry!") and a lot of guitar-pickin' clients who were really scared of electricity. In 1990, I passed the Washington State Electrical Administrator's exam.The rest, sadly, is history.
DON'T, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, WIRE YOUR OWN HOME UNLESS YOU KNOW EXACTLY WHAT YOU ARE DOING! Because you probably don't.
Yeah, I'm shouting in computer talk, but I'm doing it to save your ass. In the last 17+ years I've seen some of the most horrific, abominable, unbelieveably insane, extremely hazardous wiring you could ever hope to not stumble onto, let alone live with. Way too many "Home Improvement" types think they can go down to Home Depot, buy some supplies and an idiot book, and save themselves money. No. They can't. It doesn't work on the TV show, and it won't work for you. "This Old House" will become "This Old Bonfire" or "This Old 240-Volt Shock" if you screw up. Wiring a house is not like changing your oil. There are reasons for electrical codes, and they are intended to keep you from Kevorkianizing yourself and everyone you love. The National Electrical Code is revised every three years, and chances are extremely good your local jurisdiction is more strict than the NEC. Ask someone in San Francisco, Chicago or Seattle.
This is not some macho ego posturing. Believe me, I'd much rather be playing guitar in Lahaina than crawling through a grody attic with a tool belt and a box of wire. But so far, I've managed to potentially save a lot more lives with a handful of wire nuts than I have with a gross of Fender Heavy guitar picks. So go ahead, change your own oil. But let someone qualified wire your house, even if they belch and play Garth Brooks music while they work.