Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Big Lighting Re-Model

As electrical engineers, J and I both took power class and played around with 220 V, but the thought of wiring in our house still scared me. So, we called in the help of my dad for this project, who has had some experience with house wiring. I actually think that after we were done this project, the idea of wiring in our house frightens me much less than it used to. This project actually started when my parents gave me "new lights" as a birthday gift (back in June). This summer was pretty busy for both me and my parents, so this was the first weekend that my mom and dad could come down to actually deliver on my birthday gift. Here is a before shot of our kitchen.

It doesn't look that bad in the photo, but the truth of the matter is that it was nearly impossible to see what you are doing while cooking with this lighting arrangement. The sink area was also particularly dark. Not to mention that the light fixture was 21 inches long, meaning that J hit his head on the light fixture many times. I am not actually sure what prompted the previous owners to even install this lighting fixture. It doesn't really work for the room. (We do know it was the previous owners who put this light in because the lighting fixture is dated 2007 and we can see the faint outline of a previously installed rectangular florescent light on the ceiling.)

We were also planning on re-wiring the microwave onto its own circuit breaker. But we ran into difficulties. When I had originally looked at the situation from the basement underneath the kitchen, it looked as if the microwave wire came down from the first floor and tied into the circuit breaker at the box (i.e. it had been added at a later time). It turns out this was not true. The microwave circuit was actually original to the house, which means it tied in to the first floor "lights and plugs" circuit breaker elsewhere. My dad saw no evidence of any new circuits in the breaker except for the hot tub (which we do not have). We eventually got a really good picture of what had happened. Originally when the house was built, there was a vent hood and light over the stove. Neither drew that much power and so they were tied into the circuit which controls most of the first floor including one side of the kitchen lights, the dining room lights and the living room outlets as well as the second floor guest bathroom light, the half bath light and the plugs in the smaller guest room (now computer room). At some point in the 90s, the previous owners decided to swap out the appliances and opted for an over the stove microwave. Not only that, but they installed a mega microwave that draws 1800 W and uses the existing outlet from the vent hood to tie into the microwave instead of running a new 20 Amp line (like they should have). It is very likely that they tripped the circuit and knew it was a problem when they sold the house, but they didn't have nearly the same wattage requirements that we have on that breaker which includes our TV & equipment as well as the items listed previously. It is no wonder that we were tripping the circuit, considering the microwave itself can draw 15 Amps (which is the current rating of the circuit). Yikes. To fix this, we would need to run an entire new circuit. Which means that we probably need a permit (if we are going to follow the rules). So, we decided a work around for now and to put that project on hold. Our work around was to buy a 14 gauge extension cord and plug the microwave into the kitchen appliance circuit which runs off a different breaker that essentially carries no load. We tested this out and it seemed to be working fine. We plan on getting a permit and running a new circuit for the microwave later.

On to the lights. The original plan was to put 6 6" recessed lights into the kitchen. Needless to say our plan was modified considerably, but we still have recessed lights. First, we took a look at the existing lighting fixture's housing.
And discovered that the housing was actually a junction box for the circuit. Which meant that we could not get rid of the box itself. At minimum a cover plate would be needed. But we could still run recessed lights off of it. Once we knew we could put in recessed lights, we started planning how many to put in. We also had to consider the trusses that were spaced every 2 feet. We could not plan a light where there was wood. We soon discovered that 7 5" lights would work better with our spacing than 6 6" lights (or so we thought). So, we returned the 6" cans and bought 5" cans. We spaced out 4 lights along the long counter with one in the corner, 1 over the sink and two by the french kitchen island.

After figuring out spacing, we traced out the outline (given with the cans) and started to cut.

And immediately discovered a problem. My dad ran into ductwork. We went upstairs and discovered where the duct was and were able to move over and start again without an obstruction.

Here is a photo of the hole. The ductwork is visible.

This moved the two holes closest to the sink over 2 inches. The next hole we wanted to tackle was the one closest to the microwave. This was due to the fact that the vent was very likely to interfere (see above the microwave in the photo below).

By poking some holes in the ceiling, we were able to discover where that vent hole ended and moved our location over. 

Unfortunately, we did not test deep enough. We caught the vent, but not additional duct work which was enough to prevent a hole in that location.

We figured that the hole needed to be moved 3 inches towards the cabinets in order to work properly. But the structural integrity of our hole was now gone, and another hole could not be put in the same area. In a sense, it was back to the drawing board for the hole positions. We ended up choosing to put 3 holes along the long counter instead of 4 and hope that we would get enough light. So, we re-worked the spacing, this time doing more in depth testing prior to cutting.

This time, we were much more successful. The "oops" hole would have to be patched later.

We had a slight hiccup that is not apparent in these photos. When working with the holes over the kitchen island, we had re-done the spacing and had checked for ductwork, but had neglected to think about the trusses and ended up drilling into a truss and having to move the hole over slightly. But since, we were checking, this did not end up being a huge deal.

After finally getting done cutting all the holes, we were ready to snake the wire. Since we have open trusses, this really was not that bad at all, even with the duct work obstructions.

Then, it was on to wiring. We first wired together all of the recessed lights (apart from the actual power). My dad did all of the wiring, while I assisted and learned. J also got in on the action. The first step was to un-sheath the wire, which exposed the black, white and copper wires. Next, the black and white wires were stripped. The wires were fed into the electrical housing of the recessed lighting can. And then, the wires were joined copper to copper (ground), white to white (neutral), and black to black (active or high). These cans has easy wire-nut configurations which made them easier to join than using  regular wire nuts (the screw on type).

Once all of the cans were daisy-chained together, the feed wire was connected to the switched feed at the junction box in the ceiling. At this point, we cut power. But again, the feed wire was connected to ground, neutral and hot as before (copper, white and black). For the time being, we left the central light connected as well.

Then, it was time to test. The cans were loosely fixed into the holes and we screwed in bulbs. And...

The bulbs we used are compact fluorescents to cut down on the power load on that circuit and to provide more uniform light and less heat. Next, my dad put in the clips that secure the cans to the ceiling. Once in place, the trim was put in and the bulbs re-installed.

At this point, we noticed something funny. When the central incandescents of the previous fixture were screwed in, the lights were all nice and stable, but when they were unscrewed, the fluorescents would flicker. We are thinking it could be a number of things including the way we wired them in (branching in two directions from the feed) or a problem in the circuitry of one of the bulbs. It could also be that the switch was on a dimmer (later replaced with a regular switch). Fellow EEs, any technical explanation for this? Regardless, the incandescent seemed to stabilize the lights. We did not like the current fixture, so my dad and I went searching for a small flush mount light that we could put one or two small incandescents. We found one that would work, removed the old light fixture and installed the new (better pictures to come later). It also warms up the fluorescent light in the room for better overall light balance.

After that, we had to fix the one hole that was still open. Dad epoxied a shim to the circular piece of drywall that he cut out. and pulled it tight.

Then, he used drywall compound over the holes and cracks to clean it up.

After the ceiling was all cleaned up (after about 3 layers of compound - not pictured), we were done the big kitchen lighting remodel.

It is so light and beautiful in the kitchen now! We can now see everything! It is absolutely amazing!

As for the old light fixture, I wanted to use it still. But the kitchen was just not the right place for it. So, we replaced the half bath light with it. This is a picture of the "before" light.

It was really much too small and high for the bathroom. After checking the polarity on the old kitchen light fixture and taking out some links, we installed it in the bathroom.

And now, the half bath has also become much brighter!

One last note, I kept saying, "we" throughout this post, but really, I have to give a huge thanks to my parents for all of their hard work this weekend.

We absolute love our new lighting!

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