My head hurts

I spent the afternoon working on  wiring for the lights. I mounted the electric boxes for the sconces that will go on either side of the projection screen, for a light in the closet under the stairs and put up a couple of boxes for switches in the appropriate locations. Then I started trying to figure out how to wire the lights. Naturally, I started with the hardest circuit first.

The two main rooms in the basement — the home office and the home theater — will be relatively simple. One circuit for each room, each with eight or nine lights. In the home theater room, there will be the two aforementioned sconces and six can lights. The sconces will be on one dimmer, the six can lights will be divided between two dimmers, front and back. I’m going to power all three dimmers through two three-way switches, so it’ll be easy to turn the lights on or off from the bottom of the basement stairs and from the office side of the basement. (I’m hoping to buy remote controlled dimmers so I can do lighting scenes for different applications – movies, games, tv, etc., and program them into the Logitech Harmony remote that I hope will control all the A/V, but that’s another story.) On the home office side, there will be nine can lights, including one for the short hall that separates the two rooms. I haven’t decided if those will be all on one switch, or if I’ll put in zones for the desk areas and the music area.

But then there are these orphan lights. Directional can lights that will shine on the fireplace. A light in the closet. Pendant lights over the bar and puck lights in the soffit over the back bar. Lights for the unfinished storage area. About seven lights altogether that didn’t fit neatly onto either of the other two lighting circuits. So, I thought, why not just put them all on one circuit?

That was fine. I had an idea of how to put one set of lights on a switch, then keep the circuit going to unswitched outlets or lights. But for some reason, trying to extrapolate that to five sets of lights, all with their own switches, made my head hurt. Then I was trying to figure out if the method I used would work if the power went to a set of fixtures first, before the first switch. I think it would have, but I just couldn’t wrap my head around how to do it, and if doing it that way would require using a lot more of the more expensive 14/3 wire.

A little electrical background: There are two main gauges of wire used for indoor electric: 14 gauge and 12 gauge. Twelve gauge is larger (yeah, 12 gauge is larger than 14; I already figured that out the hard way), and generally used for 20-amp breakers. Fourteen gauge is used for 15-amp breakers. Both come in either 2-wire (plus ground) configurations or 3-wire (plus ground) configurations. The shorthand is gauge/number of wires. So 12-gauge wire in a three-wire configuration is referred to as 12/3. For simple wiring, all you need is the two-wire configuration. But if you want more than one switch to turn on and off the same light, or if you want to have switched and unswitched power on the same circuit, you need 12/3 in some places. In an electric circuit, you have the hot wire, carrying the charge. You have the neutral wire, which completes the circuit. And you have the ground wire, which diverts electricity safely into the ground if there’s a short somewhere along the line. So you always have at least two wires plus the ground. The third wire comes in when you need a second hot wire either for a common carrier for a three-way light switch (which lets two switches control the same fixture or set of fixtures) or to carry current past a switch.

Anyway, back to my set-up. I have a wiring book that explained how to run a fair number of simple circuits, but it didn’t include any examples quite like this. What seemed to make the most sense to me, given the configuration of the lighting and the location of the sub panel, was to run from the sub panel to the two lights by the fireplace, then to the switch for those two lights, then to the switch for the puck lights under the back bar, then to the outlet for the puck lights, then to the pendant lights, then to the switch for the pendant lights, then to the two lights in the unfinished space, then to the switch for those two lights, then to the light in the closet and, finally, to the switch for that light.

But, as I said, I just couldn’t wrap my head around that. It seemed like in order to pull that off, I would need to run the 14/3 wire between everything. But I wasn’t even sure about that. I wrestled with it a good part of the afternoon. I’d pace around the basement, come upstairs and read the wiring book, look stuff up online. Go back downstairs. Pace around a bit more. I was seriously ready to start beating my head against a wall. Finally, I found a forum online where someone raised a similar question to mine, but it was too different to really help me. But, I thought, I could ask the question there. So I registered for the forum, started a new thread and laid out the problem, much as I did up above, though with a bit more specificity. I started trying to diagram out the circuit run. And when I got to the end of that, before I even submitted the question, the solution came to me.

If, instead, I started with the switch in the closet and worked around the other way, I would always be dealing with a simple switch-fixture combination. That I knew how to do. And it required a lot less of the 14/3 wiring. (Did I mention that’s more expensive?) To simplify even further, I decided the switches for the pendant lights and the puck lights could go in a dual-gang box (a two-switch box). So that’s what I’m doing. So, this circuit goes from the subpanel to the closet switch and then to the closet light. There’s a 14/3 run between the switch and the light to carry an uninterrupted hot line on from the switch to the light, where it will go onto the switch for the unfinished area. That pattern repeats then with all the switches, with 14/2 running in between. Clear as mud? I’d draw a diagram, but it would probably end up looking like the remnants of a bowl of spaghetti.

Because of all the mental work, I only got about half the circuit run today, but it’s all downhill from here.

I think.

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