My Excellent Christmas Lights Adventure

First, the lessons. (A) Just because something is labeled doesn't mean that it's labeled correctly. And (2) The solution to the problem is probably more simple than you think, if you haven't pushed all the buttons.

I spent three hours yesterday afternoon putting up our Christmas lights. This included twelve strings of lights around the eaves of the house, which required much ladder work along with some precarious roof balancing and stretching to reach the places the ladder wouldn't. I hung a lighted fake garland around our doorway, and hotglued two strands of lights, one individual bulb at a time while atop a 12' ladder, around our brick archway. In other words, I went to a fair amount of life-threatening trouble.

Christmas Vacation movie poster
I then ran a series of extension cords to a heavy duty power strip attached to a heavy duty timer, which was in turn attached to the GFCI outlet on our front porch, thereby ensuring that no actual human intervention would be required to ensure a nightly (and morningly) sincere and tasteful public display of our Christmas spirit.

Darkness fell across the neighborhood and we were ready to experience a wattage-filled Christmas miracle. The timer counted down and...

Say, do you remember that scene from Christmas Vacation where Clark Griswald expectantly connects the thousands of lights to the power source? Sure you do. It's a classic movie scene, never to be repeated. Well, until now, when our Christmas lights filled the darkness with more darkness (except that our neighbors' lights were lit, lucky dogs).

I methodically started checking the electrical connections and components. I made sure the power strip was turned on, the GFCI outlet reset, the timer was working. I bypassed the timer, plugging the power strip directly to the outlet. Still nothing.

At that point, I reflected on what my friend Tommy had told me about having to replace several GFCI outlets in his house on multiple occasions, because they went bad. His were all indoors; mine was outdoors, exposed to the elements, so it probably was more susceptible to malfunctioning.

So, this afternoon I drove to Lowe's and bought a new outlet (a non-GFCI outlet, at that; not gonna mess wit dat stuff anymore). As soon as I got home, I flipped the breaker in the garage that was labeled "Entry Light/Front Porch," pulled the old outlet, and prepared to install the new one. The old one was designed for push-in connection; the new one had screw connectors, so I had to strip insulation to expose enough of the wire to wrap around the screws. As I was preparing to strip the insulation, I touched the "dead" hot wire with a screwdriver. Imagine my surprise at the resulting spark, pop, and alarm. The spark and pop were from the tool touching a live wire; the alarm was the uninterruptible power supply in my office reacting to the loss of power when the breaker tripped. Yes, that would be the breaker labeled "Office," which I apparently should have realized meant "Office...oh, and also the completely unrelated exterior outlet on the front porch." 

No harm; no foul. But that's why they invented volt meters, and I'll remember that in the future.

Now the power is really turned off, so I finish installing the outlet (incidentally, Debbie is standing by, phone in hand, and has already dialed "9-1"). Feeling triumphal for having changed out the outlet without getting electrocuted, I plugged in the lights and...

Say, do you remember that scene from Christmas Vacation where Clark Griswald expectantly connects the thousands of lights to the power source?

Meh. Still no wattage. I was out of ideas, other than to run the whole shooting match to different outlets, losing the clean installation as well as the timer. As I started to disconnect everything in preparation for Plan B, I felt something on the end of the power strip. Something that felt suspiciously like...like...could it be? A reset button?! Are you kidding me?

Long story made short: I reset the power strip, and we have lights. And lessons learned.

And a newly relabeled breaker box.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Eric published on December 4, 2011 8:50 PM.

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