Wednesday, July 6, 2011

first-world lighting woes

I'm not exaggerating when I say that half the light bulbs in my house have decided to go out at once. It's comical, really. One (of two) in the bathroom, two of four in the basement, two of two in the upstairs hallway ... getting around at night before I was able to replace the bulbs was interesting, to say the least.

But not nearly as interesting as my encounter with the upstairs hall light fixture.

To set the scene: I know next to nothing about light fixtures. Paint? Sure. Gutters? I'm learning. Furnaces and water heaters and fuse boxes? Fixable.

But light fixtures scare the hell out of me. I don't understand them. I've never really had to deal with them. And fixing them requires ladders and turning off circuits and buying the right bulbs and all sorts of other stressful things.

So last Saturday morning, motivated by a coupon to a nearby hardware store and tired of almost falling down the stairs in the dark, I tackled the light fixture at the top of the stairs. It isn't a fancy light fixture. Just a shade attached to a fixture that comes straight out of the ceiling.

How does it stay up there? Not by screws, no. Heaven forbid.

Magic, my friends. Or at least, that's what it seemed like when I reached up to twist off the shade and instead the entire fixture came down from the ceiling into my less-than-receptive hands.

Again, how does it stay up there? The hardware inside wasn't giving any clues. In fact, there was insulation everywhere (and I know enough about that stuff to know I wanted to be nowhere near it with bare hands on a hot day.)

Did I mention I'm up on a step stool, alone, holding a light fixture above my head?

So I did what any rational person would do. I let go. And then I grabbed my camera.

The electrical wires weren't going to hold it up for long, I knew. But I had to risk it - I had no other choice. The dang thing was still dangling from the ceiling when I got back from the hardware store, where I'd cajoled two different guys into explaining how light fixtures attach to the ceiling. (They even opened up the box of a similar fixture to show me the hardware and instruction manual, the dears.)

But the magic piece they said I should look for? Definitely not there. Not even close to existing. All I saw was a whole lot of nothing.

Boo. I still had a heavy light fixture hanging from not-very-strong electrical wires, and I knew that if it dropped, I'd not only have a lot of glass to sweep up but a substantial electrician's bill to get a new fixture put in its place. Ugh.

Then, cousin Maria swooped in to save the day. She helped me unscrew the heavy part of the fixture, the glass shade -- the part I'd been trying to get off in the first place. What was left (some metal, insulation, aluminum foil and light bulbs) wasn't heavy at all, so we felt much better about leaving it dangling from the wires for a while. (In fact, we were so convinced it would be fine, we ran off to Lake Calhoun to bask in the sun. I got sunburned. Probably karma.)

On our way home, we stopped by her house to see the progress she and John are making on the upstairs (they bought a fixer-upper about 14 blocks south of me just a few months before I bought this place). And because John is a wunderkind when it comes to DIY house stuff, he had all sorts of ideas for how I might be able to get the light fixture back into its rightful place.

In case anyone else out there encounters this and doesn't know what to do, here's the secret: Underneath all the insulation (which John says is superfluous and really only useful for cutting down on heat loss through the electrical box), there were two keyhole-shaped cutouts that were supposed to catch the screws coming out of the ceiling and hook (hard to explain but common enough that maybe you know what I'm talking about?)

When I'd started screwing off the shade, I'd accidentally rotated the entire fixture just enough to dislodge these screws from their place in the keyholes, thereby removing it from the ceiling. I never would have seen the holes without taking the insulation out (and I probably wouldn't have done that without the approval of someone like John who actually knows what they're doing ). So, that went in the trash:

Gross, huh?

And with a few careful twists, the light fixture was back on the ceiling! Like magic, I'm telling you.

Now my problem is not liking the way the new bulbs change the shade of paint in the hallway (the yellow looks more yellow-green than mustard yellow like it did before). But at least it's not dangling precariously from the ceiling. And if it ever does again, I'll know what to do. And I managed to fix it without a shade or lightbulb crashing down on my head. So all that is good, right?


Like I said, first-world problems.


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