Let there be light

The lights are on.

The lights are on.

Saturday, I felt like an idiot. As I write this Sunday, I’m feeling relatively brilliant. I got the rest of the outlets put in, then prepared to switch power over to the new lights.

The current incandescent lighting is controlled by two three-way switches, one out at the bottom of the stairs and one by the door to the outside. The new lights would be on two circuits, already wired with the appropriate wires put in the outlet boxes before the last electrical inspection. The office lighting will be controlled from two linked Insteon dimmers, one by the door to the outside, replacing the current switch and one by the hallway near the half bath. The home theater lighting will be controlled by a set of dimmers connected to two three-way light switches, one in the hallway and one at the bottom of the stairs. That way, the three banks of light can be adjusted independently, but all turned off with one switch.

Up till now, I’ve been only working with the wiring I put in. And I mostly knew what I had done. Mostly. When I shut off the fuse and pulled the first switch plate off to make the transition, though, I was baffled. It wasn’t at all what I expected.

This was the two-gang box that contained the three-way switch for the old, incandescent basement lights and the light outside the basement door. I expected to find one wire coming in from the junction box, split to the two switches with a wire going out to the outdoor light and another going to the incandescents — or, perhaps, a three-wire cable going to the other three-way switch. Instead, I found what appeared to be two hot wires coming into the box. There was one wire going out from the inside light switch and one from the outside light switch, but line going to that switch was from a pigtail with three additional wires going out. I didn’t know where those went. There was no red wire, indicating a three-wire cable — which is the only method I was familiar with for wiring a three-way switch.

I contemplated that for a long time. Called one DIY mentor and got his answering machine. Called another and got a hold of him, but didn’t get anything helpful out of him other than a suggestion to “Google it.” Yeah. Thanks, buddy. Finally, I decided I was overthinking it. I didn’t know how or why there were two hot wires, both seemingly on the one fuse, going into the box. But I knew I wanted to leave the outdoor light switch like it was and replace the other switch with an Insteon dimmer that would be paired with another in a switch in the hallway. So I just disconnected the old switch and hooked up the Insteon. At first, nothing happened. Then I tried connecting the pigtailed neutral wires from the Insteon switch with the other group of pigtailed neutrals for the other cables.

And there was light. And it was good.

So I went on to the switch at the bottom of the stairs. I expected this one to be more complicated, because I knew the cable that powered the exhaust fan for the water heater came out of there, along with the three-way switch for the stairway light. When I pulled out the switches, I realized the switch was an older three-way switch. Instead of two brass screws and a ground, this had two brass screws, a black screw and a ground. But there was no red wire. I realized whoever did the original wiring had used a white wire for the traveler between the two switches. This is when I should have realized what would happen next, but I didn’t. I hooked up the old switch to the new wiring and flipped the fuse. The home theater lights came on, after about a three-second delay. I guess it takes that long for the Insteons to activate. That’s kind of a bummer, but not a deal-breaker. Then I flipped the original fuse for the office lights. Nothing.

Hmmm. It took me a minute or two, but then I realized that what I had hooked the dimmer up to wasn’t a hot line from the panel, it was the common line from the three-way switch by the stairs. When I disconnected that, it lost power. So I connected it to the black and neutral pigtails coming off the switch to the outdoor light, flipped the fuse back, and felt very proud of myself when the lights came on. It took a couple of tries to pair the Insteon dimmers properly, but now they both control the office lights.

I have a couple more wiring-related chores: There’s an existing outlet that’s still powered off the original circuit. I need to disconnect that and hook it in to the new outlet circuit for the home theater, and I need to put in the dimmers for the bar-area lighting. But I won’t be installing that lighting until the ceiling’s in, so there’s no rush.

I feel good about figuring out the old wiring, though it probably would have been obvious from the start if I’d had any experience with people using the white wire as a traveler for three-way switches. Still, compared to Saturday, I’m feeling like Einstein.

I’ll be taking a break next weekend, then it’s on to the ceiling. I’ll be taking down the old lighting, installing ceiling insulation and putting up furring strips. Then we’ve got 800 or so ceiling tiles to paint. Let the good times roll!

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