Preparing to shoot a few segments of Big Jon in 5 for BEER2WHISKEY in our upstairs studio at Barley's Taproom in downtown Greenville. That's owner Josh Beebe preparing for his closeup.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Great Attic Caper of 2012

I hate it when something goes wrong with my house. I'm not really a do-it-yourself kind of guy.

My list of home-repair talents once contained nothing more than changing a light bulb and shaking the toilet handle.

Of course, those were the days of not owning my own place. Home ownership -- not all it's cracked up to be, by the way -- forces even handy-challenged types like me to push the envelope.

When I lived in Louisville and had several friends who worked in the trades, my home-repair efforts consisted of buying a case of beer, ordering a pizza and calling one of them. I assumed the role of assistant: opening beers, holding a flashlight and passing tools. I became quite accomplished at opening a beer with one hand as I held a flashlight with the other.

Even when I bought my house in Florida, I had friends who were willing to do most of the heavy lifting on home repair/improvement projects. I looked forward to my sister's visits with extra anticipation because my brother-in-law was part of the package. In two or three visits to that house, he probably made improvements that added $5,000 to $10,000 to its value. He knocked out walls, filled in doorways, created doorways and enlarged closets. He makes Bob Villa look like a poser.

But with that Florida house, I began challenging my comfort zone. I embarked on ever more complex projects culminating with installing a hot tub in my backyard. I built the deck, poured a concrete sidewalk to it, as well as running the electricity and plumbing to it. A buddy of mine, however, did come over and run a new 220 electric line from one side of the house to the side with the hot tub. He knows no fear. The only way to shut off the electricity in that house was to remove the meter. He ran a new 220 line out of the circuit breaker box without shutting off the electricity. "Stand back," he commanded as he prepared to shove the new 220 cable into the circuit box. "And whatever happens, don't touch me."

I am still awed by that. I did buy him dinner. Willing to crispy critter yourself for the sake of my hot tub gets anyone a free dinner in my book.

Since buying my house in Greenville, my go-to solution to home-repair issues has been to try to make the fix myself. From a mid-winter issue with my air handler to a mid-summer problem with my air conditioning compressor to a spent heating element in my fridge, I got online, found repair suggestions, bought whatever parts were necessary and made the repair.

When faced with the expense of bringing in a pro or taking a calculated risk with a repair or improvement in the murky mist of my uncharted waters, I'll give it a try myself first.

My house was built in the early 1960s. The one thing about older homes is that every repair/improvement nearly always morphs into a WTF project. Nothing is ever as easy as it seems or as simple as it should be. I always figure an extra 25% into every repair budget because I know that, somewhere along the line, I'm going to be ambushed by either a previous do-it-yourselfer's half-assed screw up or by things that are just so old they must be replaced.

The main level of my house is basically a fireplace surrounded by open space comprising the kitchen, dinning area and living room. The whole thing isn't much more than 400 square feet. Overhead lighting consisted of a fluorescent fixture in the kitchen and three can lights recessed in the ceiling of the dinning and living areas. They were all on one switch. My bright idea was to separate them, putting the kitchen on its own switch and the three can lights on their own switch with a dimmer. Sounds rather simple, right? Yeah, not so much.

I hoped that maybe the wires for each came into the switch box, in which case I could just add second switch and break them up that way. No such luck. There was no way of knowing where these two sets of lights were connected. I thought maybe a junction box somewhere in the wall, but there were no guarantees.

My backup plan was to just replace that switch with a dimmer, disconnect the kitchen light at the light fixture, and run a new switch and wire to the kitchen light. The problem with that scenario is that my house has a crawlspace and most of the electric lines run under the house. How was I to get the electric from under the house up to the kitchen ceiling light? I was confounded, but not defeated. I stepped back and pondered the puzzle for a couple of days.

As I flicked on the light on my range hood one evening as I was cooking, er heating something up, I had my eureka moment. I remembered seeing the electric wire for the range hood running up through the cabinet above it and into the little attic that is over the kitchen area. I opened the cabinet door and sure enough, there was the wire running into the ceiling.

My house is a little tri-level affair with the top level sitting on the bottom level and both stuck on the back of the main level. Six steps go up from the main level to the top level and six steps go down from the main level to the bottom level.

The attic over the kitchen has an access door that is located about head high in the second upstairs bedroom. There is a mirror on the door that opens into the attic. I hadn't so much as peeked into the attic since I first looked at the house prior to buying it almost exactly five years ago. I just remembered that it wasn't usable space and hadn't bothered with it.

I sprinted upstairs with a flashlight and opened the access door. Peering around inside, I saw it there in the corner: a junction box. I now knew there was electric available to hook up the kitchen light. Now all I had to solve was the mystery of where to put the switch and how to get the wire to it.

I fell back into ponder mode for another day.

I hopped out of bed on Thursday morning with a formed idea of how to tackle the project and was determined to do so that day. After exchanging a couple of e-mails, drinking a cup of coffee and feeding the cat, I sprang into handy-man mode.

My idea was to bring the electric out of the junction in the attic down through the cupboard that is attached to the back of the fireplace. This is sort of a freestanding wall cupboard with a base cabinet and counter below it. It's a counter that only serves to collect mail, change and other odds and ends that I am too lazy to put where they belong. I've always wanted to put my microwave on that counter, but there is no electrical outlet anywhere close to it because of the fireplace. I decided to run the electric down the inside of this cupboard, locating the switch in a box mounted to the cupboard's under side. Additionally, I decided to also include a receptacle to overcome the no-electricity issue.

The first thing I did was run to Home Depot and buy some attic decking to put down over the joists.

There are mounds of blown insulation in there and I thought I'd just throw the decking over the joists, insulation and all. I carted the decking upstairs. I donned an outfit I considered appropriate for rolling around in fiberglass insulation: long pants, long-sleeved shirt, baseball cap, safety glasses, a respirator and surgeon's gloves. I looked like something straight out of Mad Max. I put a small step ladder in front of the attic opening, and climbed up and in. I immediately encountered my first minor setback: there was already flooring with the insulation having been blown in on top of it. Because the flooring was staggered lengths of 1x6s, I was able to locate the kitchen ceiling box with little effort.

I climbed out of the attic, dusted myself off, and carried the decking back down to the Honda CR-V I am driving this week. After turning off the breaker for the main level, I took down the kitchen fluorescent fixture. In doing so, I inadvertently solved the mystery of where the kitchen overhead and the three can lights were joined; they were joined in the fluorescent fixture -- not in the box, but in the light fixture itself.

Armed with a list of everything I would need to complete the project, I went back to Home Depot. I returned the decking and purchased the required materials. I bought a new kitchen light fixture in the process. I'm not a fan of fluorescent lights and decided to just go ahead and make the change.

By 11 a.m., I was back in the attic. I installed a new junction box between the floor joists and made a direct connection from the original light switch to the three can lights. I sprinted downstairs, flipped on the breaker, snapped the switch to "On" and was flabbergasted when the cans actually came to life.

Back outside -- my breaker box is on the outside of the house -- to switch off the breaker and then back into the attic. I spent the next two hours up there installing a bigger junction box where the old one was to accommodate the extra wires I brought into it. All of the existing connections had to be separated to change boxes and then reconnected with my new line. I used wire nuts the size of soup cans.

Calculating where I needed to drill to drop the wire for the new switch and receptacle was easy. I just found the chimney and drilled about five inches from it. I had to go down to the cupboard to drill that hole and the ones in the shelves and then out the bottom. The wall cabinets in the kitchen are built in and are all wood. This part of the job required nearly an hour. I then had to fish the hot line down into the cupboard and the switch line back up through the ceiling.

By now it was late afternoon, but I wasn't in the mood to quit. I wanted to get this job done.

After running the switch wire back to the kitchen light box, my attic time was about over. I had sweated about two gallons and was beginning to feel like I had been on a three-day bender.

I installed the new kitchen light fixture. Now all that was left was to hook up the new switch and receptacle. It was now close to 7:00. Wiring all of that took me another hour -- hey, I told you this was uncharted waters for me.

After making all of the connections, but before installing the switch and receptacle in the box, I snapped on the breaker to run a little test. I flipped the new switch and...nada. Damn thing didn't work.

It was getting dark and I was beat. I cleaned up most of the tools and mess, then hit the shower.

The next morning I wasn't looking forward to trouble shooting my work, but it had to be done. I plugged a table lamp into the new receptacle and it came on. Well, at least I knew I wouldn't have to go into the attic again. The problem was somewhere between the line coming into the switch and the light fixture.

I decided to check the new light fixture, and bingo, one of the connections had pulled loose inside it. I reconnected the wires and it worked.

It was $75 worth of materials and roughly 14 hours or so of labor, but well worth the investment.

Historically I average three Home Depot trips for every project.

This may also be the only home improvement project I've completed with only one trip. That in itself is a major accomplishment and perhaps worthy of a call to the Guinness world record people.

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