Who Turned Out the Lights?
One of my wet-behind-the-ears electricians recently got the scare of his young lifetime. He was trying to figure out why a new light fixture wasn't working at an office building still under construction when power was lost to the entire building. He immediately called me on my cell phone and frantically told me what had just happened. “I flipped the breaker for that circuit, and the entire building lost power,” he said. “The other subs are screaming at me to get the power back on. What did I do?” As I jumped in my truck and headed to the site I knew his actions couldn't have caused such a widespread outage, but I had to check things out in person. My gut told me that the outage had to be the result of some other action, and sure enough, a quick call to the local utility revealed that a car hit a utility pole down the street just as he flipped the breaker, temporarily blacking out this part of town.
When I was a young apprentice working in New Jersey around 1985 or 1986 I went with a more experienced electrician to an arcade on the boardwalk to do some minor service work — replacing some outlets or lamps or something like that. While I was helping to update the panel directory, I noticed that there were a bunch of spaces with no branch circuit breakers. Being the good helper I was and because I wanted to show some initiative, I decided to rearrange the branch breakers, install breaker blanks, and re-label everything so that the panel would look neat and organized. A couple of days later my boss asked me what I had done because some of the arcade games had emitted a puff of smoke and ceased to work. After I proudly explained my improvements to the appearance of the panel, I got a stern lesson in what exactly a 120/240V delta system was! I'd previously heard rumors about this 3-phase system with an alleged “bastard” leg, but I'd never before worked on one. Luckily, the games had internal fuses, so neither they nor I suffered permanent damage.
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Illustrations by Clint Metcalf