Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Doorbell of Doom

So the pixels weren't really dry on my last post when I finished up a little project that turned out to be a lot more trouble that I had thought, something that required a bit of Tool Man chutzpah, and partially restored my faith in my own abilities.

Yep, I replaced our doorbell button.

This was not my first foray into the world of announcement devices. I had attached a knocker to the door of our old house. Here, I had replaced the old chime mechanism with a new, louder one, and added a wireless extension to it to boot. But these matters were small beer.

The doorbell proper was a serviceable bit of white plastic. When you depressed the button the chimes would sound and when you let up they would stop, which is pretty much the least you can ask of a doorbell. But for reasons unknown to me, I grew to detest the thing. It was, frankly, far too utilitarian.

I like to think of myself as immensely practical, and sometimes I am, but not here. Here I was a slave to appearances. Here we had this gorgeous door and cool hardware for it, and the device people used to signal they needed us to come to this door was a hunk of ancient Bakelite.

So I looked around and nowhere in the regular hardware stores did I find a suitable replacement. Eventually I returned to the place where we got the door and the locks/knobs etc that went with it and it turned out that the lock manufacturer had a nice doorbell that went with our lockset. But they didn't keep that in stock, I would have to have them order it. So I did.

After a week or two it arrived. So then I got ready to install it. I gathered up my cordless screwdriver and drill, and set them down next to the front door. Then I went to the electrical box to see about shutting off the power to that part of the house, something you generally should do when working with electrical stuff. Only I couldn't figure out which breaker might do the trick. I could have eventually managed the feat, if only by trial and error, but I was frankly afraid to. The folks who did the electrical work on our remodel had kindly labeled all the breakers (yep, when we bought the house, the breaker box was a veritable tabula rasa), but none were marked "doorbell", and it was clear to me that, like much else that had been done to the house in the past, the layout of the electrical circuits could only charitably described as "eccentric". It was entirely possible that killing the power to the doorbell might also shut down the refrigerator, or even SAC/NORAD.

I knew though, that doorbells run on a low power circuit, stepped down by means of a transformer (which for some reason was installed in the HVAC closet). It was highly unlikely that it could injure me, though it would probably sting a bit if I shorted the circuit. So I decided I would simply have to be careful. After all, I wasn't rewiring a power station, all I would need to do was attach a couple of leads to some posts and tighten the screws. Nevertheless, I stopped by the tool room for some gloves. Don't try this at home, kids.

I picked up my screwdriver to remove the screws of the old button only to discover that the head of my cordless driver was too large. The screws holding the old button in place were tiny little guys. I went back into the house and pulled my jewelry screwdrivers out of my desk. I had never used them for jewelry repair, nor so far as I knew, had my dad (they had originally been his), but they were useful to have at times like these. With some effort (the screws were tight and screwdrivers small) I got the doorbell housing free of the wall. I then used the same screwdriver to loosen the post screws and detach the thin electrical wires from it. Halfway home, I thought.

Not so. I couldn't pull much of the old wire out of the hole in the wall, which meant it was going to be hard to attach the wires to the new bell; there wasn't much slack to play around with. The old wires were also stiff and a bit brittle, a bad combination.

That was bad enough. But the posts of the new doorbell were also small, and the screws for them did not come out very far before coming off. The wires were thin, all right, but not compared to these small screws. There wasn't much space for me to squeeze the wires in. There was also the issue of my trying to avoid getting an unpleasant shock.

Well, there was a simple trick for getting wire onto a screw post, and was to shape the end into a hook, and wrap it around the screw. So back to the tool room for some needle-nosed pliers. I made my hooks, and then spent a good ten minutes trying to get the old wires wrapped around the new screws, and then tightened down into place. It was maddening. I could get one on, but then struggle with the other. The wires were tight, as I said, so there was little slack. The screws were small, so I had to use the jewelry screwdriver, which allowed little leverage. And I was wearing gloves to avoid shocks.

At one pint, I managed to get both wires on and screws tightened. As I tried to ease the new doorbell into place, I discovered that its innards were not flush with its edges. They stuck out a bit, and the small cylinder that was doing the sticking was just a tad bigger than the hole in the wood from which my wires came from. And then the second wire fell off again.

At this point, I was beginning to get a little bit crazed. Without thinking, I grabbed my drill and stuck in the largest bit I had at hand, intending to drill out the hole so the doorbell would fit properly. I stuck the bit in, pulled the trigger, and watched as it spun slowly, then slower and slower.

The battery had gone dead. And since I had pulled the drill off the charging cord on my way out of the tool room, that meant it was really dead not just mostly dead.

It was at this point I decided I had better take a break for lunch in order to clear my head. I returned about half-an-hour later to try again.

With the benefit of food and some rest I could see that the drill option for enlarging the hole was a real bad idea. The risk of tearing up the wires I needed was simply too great. I was fortunate to my drill battery go dead when it did. The call to an electrician to fix my mess would have been more than a little embarrassing.

Not that I was out of the woods yet. I did need to enlarge the hole. So, back to the tool room, where I was able to find some woodworking gear I had picked up when Jacob was doing a science project on atlatls. With these carving gadgets, the names of which I don't even know, I was able to dig out enough wood without slicing the bloody wires.

Ah yes, those wires, the bane of my project so far. I needed another solution here as well. And with some time to think, it was actually pretty obvious. If the problem was not enough wire that was just a bit too stiff and thick, I should splice on some more, not so thick or stiff.

It took me a while to locate some wire suitable for splicing. I ended using some bits that were left over from a failed attempt to set up a pair of wireless speakers. Of course, even so basic an operation as this had its complications. For some reason, I was using my dad's old hunting knife. I was able to strip the protective covering off the wire okay. But when I went to cut off a small piece of electrical tape, the blade tip scraped across the underside of the middle joint of my left middle finger.

I stopped and looked at my finger. At first, I thought it had just been a literal scrape; the blade had hurt but not actually cut the skin. But when I pressed on it, a thin line appeared, outlined in blood. I sighed. It wasn't bad, but it was irritating. So cleaned off the wound and stuck a bandaid on it.

I finished the splicing job, being a bit more careful with the knife. And the thinner, more flexible wires were the answer I had been looking for. They wrapped nicely around the small post screws, and tightened down firmly. I eased them back into the hole, and held the doorbell up to its spot. I pressed the button and heard the chines ring inside the house.

One handed, holding the doorbell in place, I reached over and grabbed my cordless screwdriver, pulled a screw out of my mouth (where I had placed it just before finishing up the splice), and managed to get it started and in on the first attempt. I then inserted the second screw, tried the bell again, and I was done.

My fifteen minute project had ballooned to almost an hour and a half. But it worked! I had "adapted and overcame" as Clint Eastwood said in Heartbreak Ridge.

And, may I say, the new doorbell looks pretty darn spiffy.

1 comment:

Mike said...

Should have called SeƱor Ding Dong's Door-Bell Fiesta.