Friday, April 1, 2011

The death sconce

So, a few weeks ago, brimming with motivation to de-fuzz/dust/clean the main floor of the house, I mopped all the floors with that magical solution, Murphy's oil soap, cleaned and oiled the baseboards, cleaned the fireplace with granite cleaner, and then set out to tackle the light fixture that I could reach, that being the sconce on the wall in the parlor.  It's not our style, and it's not really the style of our house, but hey - it's a light fixture and if it works, right now, it wouldn't be high on our list to replace. 

It was a goldish-brassish fixture with brass-colored rosettes, chandelier crystals and candle-like lights.  And, it was so dirty it actually had dirt-fur (you know what I mean).  "It was..."  Am I, perhaps, foreshadowing a wee bit???

So I carried over my step ladder and my roll of paper towels and my squirt bottle of glass cleaner.  I tackled all the crystals and the brass wall plaque and got it looking looking pretty decent.  Then, there was the matter of the candle-stick looking things, which were stained an unpleasant, "I'm really old and not in a good way" brownish-yellowish color.  So, I unscrewed all the lightbulbs, cleaned them, and placed them carefully on the mantle and started pulling off the candlesticks.  To my dismay, I discovered they were actually wax-coated cardboard.  Not super great, and certainly not really cleanable with my current set of products.  But , this was all something I was willing to consider addressing.

HOWEVER, the second problem was rather more significant - as I was cleaning the candlestick platforms, the ******* thing nearly electrocuted me!  Yes, it was off (thanks, those of you who immediately leaped to that question.)  I got a shock so bad I nearly fell off the ladder, and my arm tingled for two days afterwards.  Not so fun.  Tim turned off the circuit for the fixture and we reassembled the fixture while the circuit was off, and then contemplated the future of the now named death sconce. 

I'm happy to say, this is what we decided on:

Yep, my friends, the death sconce has left the building.

Anyone looking for a wall sconce that may cause near death experiences?

Tim thinks it was a wiring issue, not necessarily the sconce itself (which somehow has not really mitigated my mistrust and dislike of the scorned sconce.) 

But, he's written a helpful explanation of what happened, for those of you DIYers who may be considering the pitfalls of old electric appliances in your homes.   

Says Tim:
Standard practice: switch the light off, clean it.
What the hell happened?
It seems that the electrical mastermind who wired up the lamp figured, "Ah, well, as long as I wire a switch into the circuit, when we open (turn off) the switch, the circuit will be broken and the light will go off!" (It's all too obvious that the phrase "light going off" can apply to a mental state, and mean either beginning to glow or ceasing....)

Well, that's great, except that the electrical power to the fixture comes from one wire (the black wire, according to code, and in fact the circuit was wired correctly; black wire was hot) and the other wire is neutral; it's necessary to complete the circuit, but when the switch is off, there's no charge in the neutral wire. This lovely little fixture was wired with the switch in the neutral rather than in the hot wire, so that when the switch was off, current didn't flow, and the light didn't light...but the whole fixture was loaded with a 110 volt charge.

With the switch in the wrong place, it would be like shifting your car into neutral when you park it rather than turning off the engine. Not exactly great for, say, changing the oil. Another helpful illustration is a zookeeper's experiemce:  cleaning the lion cage when the beast is sleeping, rather than moving him to another place is not a recommended practice.

Here's a good link: How to Determine Which Wire is "Hot" in Household Wiring |
Text is informative and funny:
"If you have not switched off the breakers like you're supposed to and you grab the copper conductor of this wire, you will probably feel an unmistakable tingling sensation quickly travel up your arm. If you do feel it, let go of the wire because this sensation is not good for you. If this happens to you often, be sure to have someone around who knows CPR and first aid when you do home repairs."


  1. I'm wondering if we are beginning to learn why they never cleaned. A few experiences like that and I would stop dusting as well.

  2. Hah! That's a pretty classic disincentive tool!

  3. Good point! I wonder how many other booby-trapped dirty fixtures I'm going to discover in this place......there's plenty of opportunity!