Half term – a productive week

What a productive week.

I almost started with “what a week!”, but that has a sort of dual meaning, both positive and negative. I had a good week, but/and a busy one.

We started half term – I took the week off along with M to work on the house – with a visit from the electrician who came to do a whole house survey. Thus far, the only reassurances we’ve had that the house’s electrics are sound are a) that nothing, so far as we can tell, has gone wrong yet – not even a tripped fuse; and b) an electric cooker was installed, and this has to be done by a qualified sparks. As well as checking our earth and voltage (current?), the cooker installer also looked over our consumer unit and general cupboard-under-the-stairs situation, and, far from recoiling in horror, he reassured us that he could see nothing untoward.

But we still wanted/needed the whole house survey, mainly to answer one big question: do we need a rewire? And the answer, fortunately, is no. As I understand it, this means that the fundamental construction of the house’s circuits, and the types of cables used under the floors and in the walls, are of a standard high enough to be safe to use and to not need complete replacement. A huge relief.

There are many areas around the house that do need sprucing up – many of the sockets/outlets are dated and one or two have even physically seized up, so we will replace those as and when. But knowing that the underlying systems are fine has given me the confidence to replace more things on my own. Our electrician talked us through a lot of stuff, explaining logically why things are the way they are, and he took the time with us to muddle out the handful of bits that have been added later which took some head-scratching for us all to understand.

We (and by we, I mainly mean M’s father) had already replaced a couple of light fittings and one switch, and I had done some other switches – including a dimmer; what a saga that was.

But now that someone has physically checked every end of the whole system, I am filled with renewed confidence to do more work on the lights, sockets and switches around the house. And, as I reasoned to M, it is these elements that we come into contact with the most – so refreshing a yellowed, dated unit with a smart white unit (or maybe a more charming, individual one here and there), will make such a difference.

This all came in handy as this week our main project was the box room, aka my home office. It’s a decent-sized third bedroom, which will serve as an extra bedroom for visitors, and will provide lots of storage for books and CDs. It also serves as a home office for me three days a week, so it’s a room I spend a fair bit of time in.

As with other rooms in the house, the decor was dated, it felt quite dark and gloomy (north-facing), the carpet was old and stained, and the ceiling wallpaper showed signs of some sort of prior, unknowable catastrophe.

And so we (and by we, I mean mostly M – I had more of a sous chef role) stripped the wallpaper, pulled up the carpet and underlay, sanded the skirting boards and window frames, filled the holes in the walls, sugar soaped and treated all the surfaces, pulled out random tacks in the floorboards, and then proceeded to put primer/undercoat on all the walls and ceiling before painting the whole thing a crisp white.

Once you start painting a dim and gloomy room white, you begin to notice all the beige/yellow elements of the room – and how many coats of white it takes to suitably cover those parts.

And finally, we didn’t paint it entirely white; M had the great idea of incorporating a bespoke motif of strong vertical bars and hemispheres done out in oranges and teals and so on. She did these free-hand, first measuring out the shapes and their specific geometries in relation to the wall they would go on, and then traced this out on the bare wall. It is a remarkable job, and the incorporation of round mirrors is ingenious. Those, combined with the beginnings of a gallery wall opposite, make the space inviting and intriguing and very pleasant.

Aside from my supporting roles – I managed to do two or three coats on the ceiling amongst other things – my main jobs in this room were replacing the light switch, light fitting and a double plug socket.

The light switch was simple enough – I just replicated what I found inside the old one and spent a good few minutes flicking the new one on and off again, satisfied.

The light fitting was a bit trickier. I’ve watched a couple of YouTube videos now on the standard wiring of a British home, but it still surprises me a little when I find quite as many cables as I do hidden inside a ceiling rose. It makes sense: three cables (each with three cores) – one going to the switch, one coming into the light, and one going to the next light. It’s simple enough. But it still feels like a lot when you first encounter it inside that tiny fitting.

Added to this three-squared bundle of copper wires I find, I also have to juggle some colours in my head: most of the wiring I’ve encountered is old enough that it follows the old standard colour-coding – red for live, black for neutral. It’s now brown for live and blue for neutral.

With practice I’m sure this will become second nature to me, but I do still find myself having to check out loud or via a visual reference that, yes, where it says brown, I must do the same with the red.

Red should make sense for danger, but brown is a little… subdued for what is actually the live wire. (Yes, I’m aware of the mnemonic for remembering what colour your underwear will go if you touch the live wire…) And although black is nice and, well, neutral, I find that the blue brings to mind an electrical spark…

At least the earth is either green or green and yellow. (But, wait, isn’t actual earth – like soil – brown…? Oh dear…)

But I did manage to swap out the light fitting successfully – the crucial bit I had to remember was keeping in mind the switched live wire and making sure this one goes to the right bit of the new fitting. I’m still not totally sure what would happen if I neglected this part – perhaps the switch wouldn’t work, perhaps the house would burn down – and at one sweaty-palmed moment when visually checking my work I thought I’d done it completely wrong. But no. All good.

And finally there was a double plug socket to change. Most, if not all, of the houses sockets and switches are, alas, surface-mounted. This makes them slightly easier to deal with, but means they all stick out in slightly annoying places like along the skirting boards or in corners, making furniture placement tricky.

Removing the old-style MK sockets dotted around this house is an ongoing project of mine – they’re classic and robust and have served us well, but they now look faintly like something Doc Brown might hook up to an experiment in the 1950s.

I had by accident picked up a new MK socket which has screwless terminals – well, I was happy to go with this choice when I saw it, but slightly less so when a) I found out that they’re quite new, and b) that I couldn’t get the bastard thing to work initially.

On standard fittings with screwed terminals you have a little brass lug and a small screw. Loosen the screw, stick in the copper wire, then tighten the screw, locking the wire in place, making a solid contact. Simple.

On these newer screwless terminal MK units, you have a row of flappy plastic tabs, colour-coded to each wire’s function. The tabs are small, and feel delicate, and the problem I had was simply that I wasn’t opening them enough. They have a natural, spring-based latching mechanism and I felt that they were open wide enough to receive the wire*, but it just wasn’t seating properly.

* More than once I found literature related to electrical components speaking of ‘offering’ a cable to something, or another part ‘receiving’ it.

After some frantic YouTube searches I found that they’re a little more robust than I’d first expected, and the tiny flappy plastic tabs should in fact be forced up to about 90 degrees, pushing them well past the point at which it feels like you might snap the mechanism and ruin the whole unit. I’m so used to tinkering inside modern electronics with tiny tolerances and delicate connections that I had forgotten how robust MK brand home electronics devices should be.

So once I’d sussed out the screwless terminal mechanism – one which I now quite like for its speed and simplicity, I just had to squeeze all the wires inside the backplate behind the socket, screw it together, and test it. Fortunately it worked.

It should here be noted that the above electrical work took a lot longer than I’d expected. Each process was soundtracked by me speaking out loud my thoughts and processes; M now knows to a certain degree what it is like to inhabit my mind while tackling a new and complicated task. And I kept having to double-check stuff because while I would understand the basic concept, each fitting had a little gotcha that I then quickly needed to check before proceeding.

But it all worked – and I changed another light fitting in the dining room, too, which had its own little gotcha: a metal fitting, and instructions from Dunelm which said it MUST be earthed, but no earth terminal to attach the wire to. I have now learned that some metal light fittings can be what’s called ‘double-insulated’, meaning the live bits are inside a plastic case within the fitting, and an earth connection is in fact not needed. There’s a small symbol to confirm this: . So in the end I just had to park the earth in a choccy block and tuck it out of the way. Look at me, don’t I sound like I know what I’m doing?

Towards the end of the week, we reassembled the room so that it would become an office again, and also to take some ‘after’ pictures to go with the now rather bleak ‘before’ shots. I then had the pleasure of spending Monday this week in my new office, finding it to be a delightful space, surprisingly bright with its new white paint, and enjoying various little views of the walls and the new view out of the window now the desk has been moved into the corner. A very pleasant space to be.

And this has all been said without reference to the two storms which rolled through over the past week: Eunice and Franklin brought high winds and amplified the spring tides. The house took quite a blasting from the gusts of wind – no damage that we’ve spotted yet, though at times the roof sounded like it was about to be wrenched off – and we were without electricity for a couple of hours on Friday, resorting to BBC local radio to hear what was going on.

It was a revelation experiencing a powercut in a smaller town for the first time in many years: when our own power died, we found that the mobile data signal was cut, too, and for a short time even the FM signals went out. That was a first!

But we weren’t hindered too much: it was during the middle of the day, and we were only painting and cleaning at that time. We filled a couple of flasks with boiling water between power cuts in case any future outages lasted much longer, but by the sounds of other local outages, we got pretty lucky with our power being restored by early afternoon.

It was a pretty packed week with the house stuff. We feel very satisfied with all that we’ve achieved and learned. And we even had time this week to get out and explore town some more – finding new pubs to hunker down in, exploring new bits of the coast in varying conditions, visiting new exhibitions to take inspiration from, dipping our toes in the sea (and by our, I mean M’s), and looking at upcoming events to get tickets for and partake in.

It’s all quite exciting.