Ceiling Friendly Fan Installation and Electrical and Support Safety

Hanging a ceiling fan is one of the common home improvement projects that many homeowners do for themselves. From what I have seen done and the aftermath of some of those projects I felt provoked to write of it.

Homeowners are dangerous. The ones who think they are not because they have some tools are worse. Years back, when I thought the geography beneath my feat could fix me and I was tramping all over the world in disillusioned self-pity I somehow wound up in Detroit. Nicest people in the world, city sucks, but still the nicest people one could ask for. When someone in Detroit called me to their home to do a home improvement project for them they were not concerned with how close to free they could get the work done. They were concerned about whether or not the tradesman that was looking at the work was concerned with how well he would do the job. Neat trait of Detroiters, they do care about quality, even if the accountants in those car factories there have dis-emboweled that value from the assembly lines and engineering circles that produce our American cars. Judging from what the Detroiters want in their homes, I know they care about quality.

When I talk about Detroit, I mean the entire metro area. There are a lot of towns, municipalities, and cities that compose what we think of as Detroit. They all share that same value of quality, even if the bean counting penny snatchers think they can do better by us by hatcheting that “expense” from the bottom line.

While I was working in Detroit I was called to home in 1987 and those happy homeowners had their trusty Uncle Clyde come and hang the ceiling fan that they received for Christmas from Aunt Cally. The unsuspecting and innocent people were wise, Uncle Clyde had hung the fan from the same ceiling box that formerly held their little lightweight two-bulb ceiling light dispenser.

When Kathy, the homeowner saw that Uncle Clyde did that she reasoned that the fan not only weighed more, but exerted a tremendously higher amount of centrifugal force than the former 2 lamp, non-fan occupant of that space. Kathy built Fords; she had an idea about some really neat physics and engineering stuff. Kathy called me and asked me to come and look over Uncle Clyde’s work.

Upon arrival, I checked Clyde’s installation while Kathy was telling me her immensely insightful, albeit longwinded, assessment of the situation. When I removed the ceiling fan from the ceiling, I found that Uncle Clyde had installed it using the wire nuts that come with most ceiling fans. There was no metal grip built into the plastic of the wire-caps. Taboo number 1 is what we call those. We also call them, “a fire”. They may not be burning yet, but they are a fire, they are more likely to begin and cause a fire than a match. That is right, an actual match is less dangerous than a cap-nut/wire-nut with no metal sleeve built in which assures a positive attachment of the fixture wires to the supply conductors. They fall off, the fixture wires gob-up beneath them and make poor contact with the current carrying conductors of the home. Sparks occur, little arcs that are every bit as hot and flammable as a match, but, no person is holding or controlling that flame, so, people usually find out about the problem while firefighters are trodding thru their home with axes.

After I removed those wire nuts and handed them to Kathy, I waited patiently while she explained to me how they looked like pieces of candy and they would be potentially dangerous to her children, I nodded my head in approving fashion. It was when she was finished I explained that she could safely discard the deceptive little buggers and I assured her I had at least enough to replace them. I did not want to insult Uncle Clyde, so I explained that using them over again, “is never done”. Better to tell the truth and use that to the desired end, than to bean beloved Uncle Clyde on the noggin with the pointy end of my professional prowess.

Once I sat the fan securely on the floor and out of the path through which I had to walk several times, upon my behest, I was assured by Ms Kathy that it would not be in her way while she stood there telling me surely almost everything she had ever experienced in her life. I then explained to Kathy that the fear she had about the fan installed on the same box as the former 2-bulb luminaire was indeed a problem.

Unless the electrician that wires the home actually anticipates that a ceiling fan or heavy chandelier will be hung in the location of the box that held only the light fixture, there is little chance that the box will be adequately designed to perform safely for such retrofit of a ceiling fan or a chandelier. Once I assured her, and she began to understand it was not because he was a “cheapskate”, but he had accountants that governed his movements also, which in these cases are generally called “builders”, I was then able to go to my truck. I walked there easily because I placed my tools and Kathy’s fan out of my walk-path.

I came back in with the rest of the tools I needed and my joist spanning retrofit ceiling fan grade junction box. I showed it to Ms Kathy as she ooohed and aaahed, at the mechanical marvel of a little devil I was about to put in her ceiling. I explained that getting it in would be no problem for me, and that “No, I would not have to make any hole at all; I would only need the one that was already there.”

I then went up the ladder, and began to mangle, twist and ruin in every manner possible the existing box that formerly held her light and then promised to drop a 45 pound ceiling fan on hers or someone else’s head. It was then that the sparks shot all over the house and melted my pliers and burnt my screwdriver until it looked like bread forgotten in a toaster. I went downstairs with my knocking knees and new bout of perspiration and made sure that the breaker actually tripped while the volts in that wire were shooting all up and down my arms and across my chest. That didn’t happen, but I wanted to say it just so you could laugh. I “always” make the concerned area SAFE before I do what I do. If I don’t, the thing I just described would have happened and probably just as Ms Kathy would be giving me a fresh cup of coffee so that in the ensuing panic I could knock it over leaving coffee stains all over her freshly painted dining room walls. I hate that when that happens. Turn off the power before you work on a circuit. Leaving the power on is not brave, it is profoundly stupid.

There are two kinds of shocks. One is a shock. Those make messes and ruin stuff and they mess up your day. The other is an electrocution and they mess up your day and ruin everybody else’s day because the suffix “cution” means you died, and the prefix “electro” means you died and it was preventable. We control electricity, if it kills us or shocks us it is because we were dumb.

So then, where were we?

Oh yes, I was ripping that old box out of the hole in the ceiling being very cautious to leave Ms Kathy’s ceiling drywall undisturbed. I succeeded, through, diligence, patience and several bouts with staving off the involuntary arrival of thoughts over how there has to be a better way to get money. Ms Kathy was amazed and expressed how I must have a god given gift because that which I just did looked to be the impossible. She had no idea how close to right she was. Except for the two fingertip marks on the flat ceiling paint, it was a perfect tear-out. I measured the marks from center of the hole and then jumped down to measure the ceiling fan mounting base. I then assured Ms Kathy that the ceiling fan base would cover the fingertip marks.

“Oh, yes, Ma’am. I would be happy to clean them off anyway. Do you have a damp cloth?”

Eleven minutes later, I got back to why I was there. Nobody will ever see them, but, “(she)I will know they are there”, what does that mean? Price just went up 10 bucks.

I opened the retro-fit expanding joist spanner ceiling fan box kit. At my request, Ms Kathy laid out an old towel upon which I could lay out my parts on her table so that I could avoid scratches in her table’s finish and so that my parts would not roll away.

I then (this is the part where you read and understand, “understand” being the operative word, the directions) whipped the handy little concoction up into the hole in the drywall and after some positioning feats and marvels I was turning the spreader threads. I turned and adjusted the little rascal until it was tight enough and well enough grounded and supported that I could do one arm chin ups from it, which I did several of in order to assure Ms Kathy that the spanner bracket retro-fit ceiling fan junction box would do the job. All that while I was assuring her I really do weigh 238 pounds and that if it can hold me swinging from it, then it would hold her fan. She readily agreed.

I then did, as the enclosed instructions will teach you and prepared for the installation of the fan support box. Then I searched around in the hole for the wire I seemed to lose. This way and that, here and there, darn where did that thing go? I know it was here…when I found it I brought thee wire thru one hole I cleared in the box that was intended and designed for that purpose. Then I strapped it down into the box using the wire fastening means provided while making sure I had at least six inches of each conductor coming through and that the outer covering was at least Ã?¾ inches inside and protruding from the wire fastening means inside the box. I did not tighten that clamp to much, but just enough to hold the wire securely without over tightening. A clamp is to hold wire from wiggling and being pushed from the inside to the outside of the box. Over tightening, can and will cause short circuits, ground faults and fires.

Now I follow the instructions to mount the junction box to the joist spanner tension support arm. I am as excruciatingly painstaking about this step as I am about the phase in which the box is prepared for supporting the fan. Read and “understand” the instructions that come with your unit. If I was not very conscientious over this, Ms Kathy could well be sitting at her table with an accountant from the ivory tower at Ford, or perhaps GM will send recruiters to steal Ford’s quality control technicians and while they sit beneath her fan, it could fall and kill them. It has happened and it really messes up the day, not to mention how it splashes terribly from the punch bowl, and messes up the croissant platter.

Ms Kathy told me she had the fan assembly instructions so I was able to look those over. It turned out on inspection that Uncle Clyde, bless his heart, did read them and follow them well. It was one part of this ordeal I could use to exact praise upon Uncle Clyde. It seems that Uncle Clyde was a “jack of all trades”, according to Kathy and did all sorts of things for people. A regular handyman and he did everything from rake yards to cutting down trees, to hanging drywall. I resisted asking why she thought a man with such qualifications should reduce himself to working with fire inside of people’s walls. Amid her praise of his following the directions good, I ascended my ladder with Clyde’s handywork in tow.

To the two 3/16 studs that stick through the entire depth of the box from the top side, I fastened the fan base as per fan manufacturers instructions using all washers, nuts and lock devices. (which in this case were in Uncle Clydes pocket…so, I used my own from the truck) I took the actual fan from the wire on my ladder and in a balancing and juggling act approaching the metaphysical I followed “to the letter” the fan manufacturers instructions.

I ran down to the basement and turned on the bre… oh no!! I had to figure out some way to get that fan down and hook up the wires without Ms Kathy noticing…

I retrieved from my truck two orange hard plastic cap nuts with metal inserts and one barrel crimp and a ground pigtail with screw mount provision. I fastened the ground pigtail into the fan junction box on the provided screw. I then stripped back the insulation on the white and black conductors to appx Ã?½ an inch of exposed copper conductor on each. Then, approaching the metaphysical once more, I fought the mother of all battles, held that fan, and placed the white wire on the fan to the white building electrical supply conductor. With the tip of the fixture wire held just an inkling beyond the tip of the supply white I spun on the orange wire cap until I was certain that the contact was made and the white wires could not be pulled from beneath the cap nut. I repeated that with the black and added the blue conductor provided within the fan for the light fixture assembly that Uncle Clyde put on. I always strip the fixture’s stranded conductors just a little longer than the exposed conductor of those supply conductors coming from the junction box. When there are two or more of them to be bound together beneath a cap nut with a supply conductor I twist them together first then bring them to the supply wire together beneath the cap nut/wire nut.

The ground conductors, bare copper, green or green with a yellow stripe always go together and I usually use a barrel crimp and a smashing tool to mechanically bond them beneath one terminal point then twist them all together. An appropriately sized wire nut is a good way to bring them together also. Then, they must be twisted into the appearance of a non-separable configuration.

Being extremely careful while I lift the fan into place, fighting dreams of the Bahamas and cursing life’s various beaches because I am not on one of them, I carry on in my practice of the metaphysical and in accordance with the instructions from the fan manufacturer. I mount the fan…again. I am being very considerate in this that I do NOT cause any wires to be pinched, wrapped around screws or wedged between various components that could threaten the integrity of any conductor’s outer insulation. I fasten and secure the fan to the base plate using all of the screws, washers, lock washers and nuts that the manufacturer supplied. Uncle Clyde, yes, you guessed it, lost all the lock washers. I had more in my truck being the good electrician and general cocky know it all that I am.

I loaded my truck amidst pleas that I look at this and that and those other things she spoke of while I was there. That will all be in other stories. I hope you enjoy your new ceiling fan. If you are at all in doubt, call a real electrician. Electrical wiring is not a hobby and unlike many homeowner type projects, electricity can, will and does kill, and the health and wellbeing of your entire family as well as the integrity of your home is what is at stake.

Ms Kathy asked me what she owed me and I asked her what she thought it was worth. She said three hundred dollars. I told her that 140 would be plenty. She was thrilled. I even got a cup of hazelnut gourmet coffee to go and that was before cool coffee was fashionable.

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