Strictly speaking, a battery consists of two or more cells connected together in one package. So, in the list below, only the 9-volt battery should be called a battery, the others are cells. However, cells are often called batteries.
I am often asked to fix devices that use cells or batteries. Sometimes the metal parts in the equipment that make contact with the cells or batteries get corroded and need cleaning (use fine sandpaper). More often, the equipment just needs new cells or batteries. I like to keep a few of each of the following common sizes on hand. It saves a lot of time when I have to fix someone’s smoke alarm, flashlight, answering machine, or toys that require batteries.
- D cells
- C cells
- A cells
- AA cells
- AAA cells
- 9-volt batteries
I always buy alkaline batteries for my customers, even though they cost more, because they last longer. When I buy batteries, I mark the date of purchase on each battery. This is not necessary if the battery has an expiration date on it. I store my batteries in the refrigerator where they have a longer shelf life.
Bulb receptacles are white plastic or porcelain devices that fasten to an electrical box, usually on the ceiling. You then screw a light bulb into the receptacle. Some receptacles have a built-in outlet so you can plug something into them and some have a pull chain so you can turn the light on or off. They are not expensive and it is well to have a few of each style on hand.
CIRCUIT BREAKERS AND FUSES
The purpose of circuit breakers and fuses is to turn off the electricity when a circuit is drawing too much of it, whether because of a short circuit or being overloaded. Circuit breakers come in several styles, but one style is the most common. Ask at your hardware store which style is most common in your area. I like to have on hand a few of each of the following sizes of breakers.
- 15 amps
- 20 amps
- 30 amps
Many older houses use fuses instead of circuit breakers, so it is good to have the most commonly used sizes on hand. Buy only the time-delay fuses (sometimes called slo-blo). I like to have on hand the following sizes of time-delay fuses.
- 15 amps
- 20 amps
- 25 amps
- 30 amps
Dimmers are used to adjust the brightness of incandescent lights. They can also be used to adjust the speed of fans, such as window fans. In most cases, dimmers cannot be used with fluorescent lights, although there are some special fluorescent lights which can be dimmed. You should be aware that dimmers sometimes cause a lot of noise and static on AM radio stations. They may also interfere with TV reception. I find that the knobs on
dimmers frequently break, so if you are replacing a dimmer and the knob is OK, keep the knob.
DOORBELL AND PUSH BUTTON
It’s a good idea to have an extra doorbell, or chime, or buzzer to use when determining why someone’s doorbell isn’t working. You should also have an extra push button or two in case that is what needs replacing.
Electrical boxes are made of steel or plastic. They go on a wall or in a wall and they contain outlets, switches, or dimmers. Most of the original boxes in a new house are plastic. Most boxes intended for installation in an existing house are steel. It is well to have a variety of steel boxes on hand.
Handy Box Handy boxes are used very frequently. They are rectangular boxes with rounded corners. They are mounted on the wall, rather than in the wall. Handy boxes are frequently used in basements and garages. You can put a switch or an outlet in a handy box.
Octagon Box There are also octagonal boxes that are surface mounted. They are roomier inside than the handy box and are better if you have several wires and connections inside the box. They can also hold two duplex outlets so that you can plug four things into the box.
Pancake Box If you are installing a box for a ceiling fixture at a spot on the ceiling where there happens to be a joist, you can use a pancake box, which is only 1/2 inch deep.
Switch Box The “switch box,” a rectangular steel box, is used for the majority of cases when you are installing a switch or an outlet. You cut a rectangular hole for it in the wall and it is held in place with Madison bars or with hardware that comes with the box.
If you are installing a dimmer, which is usually much larger than a switch, you can use a deep box if there is room in the wall to accommodate it. That will leave more room for the various wires that may be in the box. If the space between the two sides of the wall is small, you may have to use a shallow box.
Whenever I install a switch or an outlet in a steel box, I always wrap the switch or outlet with two turns of electrical tape so that the connection screws are covered. I do this before pushing the switch or outlet back into the box. This prevents accidental short circuits if the switch or outlet touches the side of the box or a ground wire.
Cover Plates for Boxes For all of the above electrical boxes, you should have several cover plates that are designed to hold duplex outlets, a few cover plates designed to hold switches, and one or two blank covers. The blank covers have no holes in them. They are used to “blank off” a box that is no longer in use.
The most widely used electrical cable is 14–2 with ground. It is used for all indoor circuits that do not carry more than 15 amperes of current. Also widely used is 12–2 cable which can carry up to 20 amperes. You should have some of each on hand, and buy other types of cable when needed.
These come in brown and ivory. Unless the homeowner wants brown, I always use the ivory outlets. It is much easier to see where the holes in the outlet are, especially if you are plugging something in when the light is dim or the outlet is behind a sofa. If the store where you are buying outlets has two kinds of outlet, buy the heavier, more expensive variety. Most outlets are rated at 15 amperes. Use a 20-ampere outlet if the electrical line and the circuit breaker are rated for 20 amperes. If you are installing a new outlet outdoors or in a room with a concrete floor, such as a basement or garage, or within 5 feet of water (sink, bathtub, etc.), the code now requires the use of a GFCI (ground fault circuit interrupt) outlet. On rare occasions, you might want to install a surface-mount outlet.
In addition to the long extension cords that you employ when working at some distance from a house, it is well to have some extension cords to give to customers for use inside a house. Here is what I like to have on hand.
2-Wire Extension Cords I have 2-wire extension cords that are 6 feet long and 9 or 12 feet long, and in both white and brown.
3-Wire Extension Cords These are for computers and other appliances that must be grounded. I keep two of these: one that is 6 feet long and another that is 9 or 12 feet long.
3-Wire Heavy-Duty Extension Cords These are for air conditioners, etc. Two of these, one 6 feet long and one 9 feet long should be sufficient.
Another useful cord is the type that has a switch somewhere along its length. This switch is used to turn on whatever device the cord is being used with.
There are also cords that have an outlet on the back of the plug and a switch at the end of the cord. You plug such a cord into the wall, then you plug an appliance such as a lamp or a TV into the outlet on the back of the plug. The switch at the end of the cord is then used to turn the appliance on or off.
I like to have on hand cool-white 40-watt, 30-watt, 20-watt, and 15-watt fluorescent tubes, and starters for those sizes (for older fixtures). There are other sizes of fluorescent tubes, but they are expensive and rarely used, and I would not buy them until needed.
Compact fluorescent bulbs (they screw in like an ordinary bulb) are becoming more popular and less expensive, so I like to have a few of each of the popular sizes on hand.
Fluorescent fixtures also have a component called a ballast. I wouldn’t replace a defective ballast. It is usually better to just buy a new fixture.
Books that tell how to service fluorescent lights usually have tables of symptoms. If you compare the problem with those tables, you can usually tell whether you need a new tube, starter, or ballast.
I find it helpful to have a wide variety of bulbs on hand. I am often asked to fix or install a lighting fixture. Sometimes the only fix needed is a new bulb. The homeowner may not have any bulbs for the new fixture. Having the right bulb can save a trip to the store. If you are looking at an electrical parts catalog, bulbs may be called “lamps.” I like to have on hand the following light bulbs:
25-Watt, 40-Watt, 60-Watt, 100-Watt, 150-Watt Bulbs This makes a good selection of light bulbs.
40-Watt Appliance Bulb This is a small bulb suitable for ovens and refrigerators.
Indoor Floodlights (75-Watt, 150-watt) Some newer floodlight bulbs can be used indoors or outdoors.
Long-Life Bulbs At the electrical supply store or the home center, you can buy long-life bulbs. These bulbs cost more than ordinary light bulbs but they last many times as long as a standard bulb. It makes sense to use them in situations where the bulb is hard to get at to replace. Examples might be where a heavy ladder is required or where an elderly person cannot reach. Buy several long-life bulbs of various wattages. The compact fluorescent bulbs have an even longer life and they use less energy, but they won’t always fit in every fixture.
Night-Light Bulbs These are small-base bulbs in various wattages (3-watt, 7-watt, etc.).
Outdoor Floodlights Use 75-watt or 150-watt lights.
Rough-Service Bulbs These are for use in your drop light. Use a 100 watt bulb if available, otherwise use a 75-watt bulb.
Small-Base 60-Watt Bulbs These bulbs are used in chandeliers and other lighting fixtures.
OUTDOOR ELECTRICAL FIXTURES
I am often asked to install outdoor electrical outlets or floodlights. I like to have on hand the necessary outdoor boxes and waterproof connectors, outlets, bulb holders, and a special sunlight-resistant electrical cable.
Power strips are useful devices. You plug the power strip into a properly grounded outlet and the power strip either lies on the floor or desktop or is mounted on the wall. You can then plug six devices into the power strip. Most power strips have a small circuit breaker built in. Don’t buy cheap power strips; pay a little more and get a good one. You can usually tell by the weight—the heavier, the better.
If the power strip is to be used with computer equipment, the recommended type is the kind that has two surge suppressors built in, one for the computer and one for the modem. These suppressors provide protection against voltage spikes, possibly caused by lightning, that may come down the power line or the telephone line.
These outlets plug into and screw onto a standard duplex outlet. They then provide six places to plug devices into. These devices are useful for clocks, lamps, and TVs, but they should not be used for appliances that draw a lot of current such as air conditioners, irons, etc.
SURFACE-MOUNT ELECTRICAL HARDWARE
If you are installing new wiring, there may be situations where it is difficult or impossible to run the wires inside the wall. An example would be a masonry basement wall. In such situations, you can use surface-mount components, such as those made by Wiremold. This is a more expensive solution than just running armored cable around, but it looks nicer, which may be important to the customer. You should familiarize yourself with these components, but there is no need to buy them until they are needed.
The commonly used switch is usually called a toggle switch. You should always have on hand an assortment of switches. I like to have several single-pole switches and a few 3-way switches. The 3-way switch is for installations where a light can be turned on and off from two different locations; for example, the top and bottom of a flight of stairs. Replacing a 3-way switch can be tricky, so make a note of what is connected to what before you disconnect an old three-way switch. Pay particular attention to which wire is connected to the screw on the switch which is darker in color than the other two. This is the critical wire, the other two wires can be connected to either of the two remaining screws. Switches usually come with brown or ivory handles. I use ivory unless the customer wants brown.
These are sometimes called solderless connectors. You should have several of every size, from the tiny ones that are used inside some electric clocks and other small electric appliances to the large sizes that can be used to connect several size-12 or size-10 copper wires. When you use a wire nut to connect wires, hold the wire nut and pull on each wire individually to make sure it is secure in the wire nut.