12 Tips for Easier Home Electrical Wiring
Even if you have years of wiring experience, there are always a few tricks you may not know. We worked with two master electricians with decades of experience between them to glean their tips, tricks and techniques. From straightening cable to labeling wires, these tips will help you wire better, faster and neater.
Uncoil Cable Without Kinks
Pulling plastic-sheathed cable through holes in the framing is a lot easier if you straighten the cable out first. If you simply pull the cable from the center of the coil, it’ll kink as you pull it through the studs. The trick is to lift a handful of coils (four loops will reach about 12 ft.) from the center of the roll (left) and toss them across the floor as if you’re throwing a coiled rope. Next, walk along the length of cable, straightening it as you go (right). The electricians we talked to prefer this method because they can keep the cable contained in the plastic wrapper for easier handling and neater storage.
Pack Electrical Boxes Neatly
If you’ve done much wiring, we’re sure you’ve had times when you could barely push the switch or outlet into the box because there were so many wires. The solution is to arrange the wires neatly and then fold them carefully into the box. Here’s how to keep wires neat and compact: First, gather all the bare ground wires along with a long pigtail and connect them. Fold them into the back of the box, leaving the pigtail extended. Next, do the same for the neutral wires. If you’re connecting switches as shown here, you don’t need a neutral pigtail. Leave the hot wire extra long and fold it back and forth across the bottom of the box. Put a wire connector cap on the hot wire to identify it. The neatly packed box makes it easy to identify the wires and leaves you plenty of room for the switches.
Remove Sheathing from Underground Feeder (UF) Cable
Underground feeder (UF) cable has a tough plastic sheathing that allows you to bury it directly in the ground without running it through a conduit (of course, it has to be buried deep enough to satisfy the electrical code). But that tough sheathing is also difficult to remove—unless you know this trick. Start by separating the black and white wires from the bare copper by grabbing each with pliers and twisting (top). They’re easy to tear apart once you get them started. Pull them apart until you have about a foot of separated wires. Next, remove the sheathing from the insulated wires by grabbing the end of the wire with one pliers and the sheathing with another pliers and working them apart. After you get the sheathing separated from the insulated wire at the top, just peel it off (bottom). Repeat the process to remove the sheathing from the black wire. Finally, cut off the loose sheathing with scissors or a knife.
No-Snag Fish Tape Connections
After going to all the trouble of working your fish tape to its destination, the last thing you want is to lose the cable or get your tape stuck on something inside the wall as you pull it back. Here’s how to avoid both problems. Start by stripping an 8-in. length of cable. Using a side cutters, cut off all but one wire. Cut at a steep angle to avoid a “shoulder” that could catch on something. Then bend the single wire around the loop on the end of the fish tape and wrap the whole works with electrical tape to form a smooth bundle. Now you can pull the wire without worrying that it might fall off, and the smooth lump won’t get snagged by or stuck on obstructions.
Check the Whole Wall Cavity With a Stud Finder
The Tools You Need
Once your hole is drilled, you can shove a glow rod through the hole to start fishing wire, attach your wire to the eyelet at the end and pull it back through. Glow rods can also be used to hook wires to pull them out as a wire snake tool. As their name suggests, glow rods glow in the dark. This makes them easier to spot when you’re working in dark areas fishing wire (which is most of the time).
Glow rods come in various lengths and thicknesses, and you can combine as many sections as the job requires. Thinner rods flex more and work better when you have to make sharp turns when fishing wire. A thicker rod can span longer distances and is better for hooking wires that are more than a few feet away. A 9-ft. glow rod kit costs about $40 at home centers. Expect to pay about $60 for a 24-ft. kit.
Push Through More Than You Need
Identify Roughed-In Wires
Save yourself a lot of headaches by identifying the wires as you install them. It’s a lot harder to figure out which wires go where when they’re covered with drywall. The electricians we talked to use a “code” for marking wires, and so can you. The top photo shows one example. Another method is to use a label (bottom). But by the time you get back to connect switches and outlets, you might find that drywallers, tapers and painters have covered the label or knocked it off. That’s why it’s best to use non-label coding whenever possible. Develop a system and write it down. You’ll never have to guess which are the “line” and “load” and which wires are the travelers for your three-way switch.
Test Wires Before Touching
When you’ve done a lot of wiring, it’s easy to get complacent about whether the power is off. But don’t. Use a noncontact voltage detector to check every wire in the box or area in which you’re working. Always check the tester on a wire or cord you know is live to make sure it’s working before you rely on it. Noncontact voltage detectors are available at home centers, hardware stores and online. The Klein-NCVT-1 tool shown here has a green light that indicates it’s turned on and working—a nice feature that’s well worth the extra money.
We asked our electrical pros what problems they run into with GFCIs and how to solve them. For starters, we found that most complaints occur when several outlets are protected by one GFCI. There are several possible causes, ranging from a light or appliance with a ground fault that’s plugged into a downstream outlet, to a defective GFCI or even a circuit with too much cable. To determine whether the problem is with the GFCI itself, or downstream, turn off the power to the GFCI and disconnect the wires from the “load” terminals. Push the reset button (if it doesn’t click, you’ll have to reset it after the power is back on) and plug a GFCI tester into the GFCI outlet before you turn the power back on. If the GFCI trips after you turn the power on, replace it. If it holds, then the problem is with one of the downstream outlets. To avoid the timeconsuming process of troubleshooting the “load” outlets, the easiest and best solution is to replace each of them with a new, tamper-resistant GFCI.
Multiple Switches, One Hot Wire
A box with three switches is crowded enough without adding extra wire connectors and pigtails. Here’s a wiring method that eliminates extra connections and creates a neater installation. Instead of running a separate pigtail from the hot wire to each switch, just leave the hot wire extra long. To connect the switches, simply score the wire with your wire stripper and push the insulation to expose about 3/4 in. of bare wire (left). Wrap this bare section at least three-quarters of the way around the screw terminal of the first switch. Repeat the process for the remaining intermediate switches (right). Connect the last switch in the usual manner, looping the wire around the screw in a clockwise direction.
Strip Cable Sheathing First
It’s tempting to push your roughed-in cable through the knockouts in the box and worry about how to strip the sheathing later. But that’s the hard way. It’s much easier to remove the sheathing before you push the wires into the box. The only trick is to make sure you have the cable in about the right spot before marking it (left) and removing the sheathing (right). As long as you don’t have the cable stretched tight, there will be enough “play” to make final adjustments after you’ve inserted the conductors into the box. Remember, the electrical code requires that at least 1/4 in. of sheathing be visible inside the box.