Peter McCarthy Electric Co., Inc. - Specializing in Older Buildings in Chicago
Adventures in Old House Wiring....

It always pays to take a closer look....

 I was asked to give a quote on replacing a large number of exterior light fixtures at a 1990s townhouse development the other day. It is hard, at times, to balance quality, or at the very least, safety and code compliance, with economy. They had asked me to quote on a "price per fixture" basis to take down the old ones and install the new ones. Not all that complicated, right? I would normally figure an average amount of time it would take to take down a fixture, install the new fixture and lamp, and test the fixture. I would put in a time allowance for dragging the ladders from location to location, and another allowance for drilling out rusted, stripped and broken mounting screws and re-threading junction box holes, because these have been outside for many years. I would figure that to be the case for about 30% of the fixtures on average. I would then put in a small allowance for set up and clean up, and multiply that all out to come up with an average amount of time per fixture. From there is simple to work out a price per fixture, right? No problem.

The challenge, of course, is to come up with a low enough quote to get the job but high enough to make a profit. Therein lies the number one challenge to being a small electrical contractor. The better you can accurately predict how long a task will take, what materials and tools are required for it, and what the possible unknown issues are, the more likely you are to be successful. When your bid is going to be compared head to head with others, at the outset you hope for a level playing field. In essence, you hope you are all bidding on doing the exact same job.

You have heard the saying about comparing "apples to apples," right? Well, in our business, when the client provides no specific guidance or project specifications, it really invites unethical contractors to cut corners. Think of it this way. On a new construction job, an architect draws up blueprints that specify every task the contractor needs to perform. All the switches, outlets, recessed lights, ceiling fans, exhaust fans, circuit breakers and everything else to be installed are laid out in very specific detail. Every electrical contractor is provided a set of drawings, and he makes up his bid based on that. The architect and the prints serve like a referee, so to speak, to be sure all contractors are bidding on the exact same scope of work. (and then installing exactly what the print calls for) That way, I can't run extension cords under the carpet to feed outlets to come up with a cheap quote while you run conduit. It insures a baseline quality level that all contractors will be (should be) held to. But in a case like this one, the only real instruction was to give a "price per fixture" to change them out. What "changing them out" includes ought to be pretty basic. But on this job it is far from it. Fortunately, I came for a detailed inspection before I submitted my quote.

According to the code, an exterior fixture such as this should be mounted over a junction box. The junction box serves a several different purposes. First, it provides a recessed place for the premises building wire to be tucked away in the wall, thus allowing the fixture to sit flush and flat on the wall surface. Second, it provides protection from the moisture for the wires and splices. Third, when the junction box is securely fastened to or in the wall, it allows for a firm, secure base to attach the fixture to. But for my money, the most important reason for the box is it grounds the fixture by metallically bonding the fixture and its strap to the grounded metal conduit system that contains the wiring. That way, if a hot wire ever makes contact with any metal part of the fixture, there will be a ground fault and the breaker will trip. Bear in mind that "accidental contact" can be made by water seeping in and creating a direct path between the hot wiring and the fixture itself. When there is no ground, when there is no metal connection between the conduit, the fitting, the junction box, and the fixture strap with the ground wire terminated on it, the fixture can essentially become "hot."  The circuit breaker won't trip, the fuse won't blow. It will just remain "hot" until an unsuspecting person who is standing on an aluminum ladder stuck in the moist soil goes to change the bulb and they make contact with the metallic portion of the lamp base. Then they will get a very severe, if not fatal shock. Serious stuff. You have to bond the fixture metallically to the grounding system. In other jurisdictions, they use plastic boxes and even plastic cable. But they all have a ground wire that must be terminated and spliced at every fixture. It’s just that in Chicago, we want a second level of back up, so we use metal pipe between out metal junction boxes.

From time to time, electricians and developers skirt the regulations and cut corners. This townhouse development was one of those times. When I took down the fixture, what did I discover? There is no box. The pipe is just run to the edge of the brick wall and left there. The wires come directly out of the end of the pipe, with no protection from the elements.  There is no ground. No protections for the wires. The splices were not even taped. There was no ground wire, which even a semi-conscientious electrician would have pulled, knowing her was not putting a box in. But here, nothing. They just drilled two plastic anchors into the brick, screwed the fixture bracket to the wall, and put up the fixture on the bracket. Out of site, out of mind. Nobody's gonna see it, right?  Amazing. I took down several fixtures to verify that this was the standard practice there. It was.

Long story short, whoever changes out these fixtures better figure time and material to break out enough brick to install a recessed junction box. They better break out enough brick to get a good, clean vertical cut on the rusty pipe to allow a conduit connector and lock nut to be installed to secure the pancake junction box. They better get approval to mortar over the edges to install the box flush and have it sit flat yet provide a nice seem all the way around. Really, they should allow time to do all that and also time to follow the conduit to the other end and pull a ground wire from there to the fixture as well. That way, the ground wire can be terminated inside where the connection will be clean and not corroded. So it was incumbent on me to show and explain all this to the one member of the association that was there. I wanted to make it clear to the Board what needed to be done. The job would take probably 2 or 3 times per fixture longer than I would expect it to under normal conditions. So when they compare my bid to the other guys, I hope they are comparing apples to apples. And that they understand that doing it right will take a lot longer than doing it the way it was done before. I am well aware the other contractors could bid the change out without mentioning any of this to them, and then just sweep it all under the rug. So it was to the owners benefit as well as to mine, I hope, to show them how poorly it was done, and how much help they needed.

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