Electrical Tools

Read our guide to handy tools to have around during electrical work.

Photo: Flickr

For many people, electrical work is daunting, to be feared and avoided. If you feel that way, then you should remain in your comfort zone, and keep away from tasks that make you anxious.

On the other hand, if you’ve always suspected that many basic tasks around the house involving electricity are within your skill set – well, take your time, do your homework first, and give it a try. Of course, that’s after you’ve made sure the power is off on the circuit you want to work on.

Although you may intend never to do a single wiring job, there are several electrical tools that are still basic requirements for anyone involved in home maintenance tasks. No toolbox is fully equipped without a flashlight, extension cord, and droplight.

Flashlight. You can buy flashlights that fit in your pocket or attach to your head, that can spotlight an entire roadway or peek through a keyhole. You can spend a lot of money or a little. It’s your call.

Let me recommend a minimum. Purchase an inexpensive flash­light that takes two D-cell batteries. You’re familiar with the variety I have in mind—it’s a bit thinner and longer than a twelve-ounce soda can. Keep it in your toolbox: it’ll prove invaluable in the attic or for peeking behind or around your furnace or water heater.

Better yet, buy several, and keep them handy (one in the kitchen, one in the car, one with your tools, and so on).

Extension cords. A twenty-five-foot-long extension cord is ideal: Its length will not produce a significant voltage drop but will be enough to get you into the further reaches of your house. The wire should have three conductors; extensions made of two-conductor lamp cord are inadequate or even unsafe for running power tools. The plug and receptacle at either end should be grounded (three-pronged).

One design I favor features three or more plug receptacles. This allows you to keep, say, a drill and driver and portable circular saw plugged in at one spot, saving you the time and trouble of unplug­ging and replugging various tools. A number of variations on this theme are sold.

Droplight. This is just a long cord that has a light socket at the end, with a cage or housing to protect the bulb. Flashlights can provide only limited illumination; a droplight can bring bright light into al­most any dark corner.

A droplight can be purchased with either fluorescent or incandes­cent bulbs, though the incandescent models are more popular. When using the droplight, you’ll probably find it necessary to hang it conveniently over your work area. Don’t leave it to roll or get kicked around on the floor.

Given its portable nature, the droplight is subject to bangs and blows that will abruptly end the life of its bulb. Buy construction- grade bulbs, as they have stronger filaments than standard bulbs and will survive some of the inevitable knocks and abuse.

Cable Ripper. This simple, inexpensive tool is used to slice open the plastic sheath that protects the wires in cable that contains two or more con­ductors. The tool fits over the end of the wire; its single, triangular tooth is pressed into the plastic covering, and then the tool is tugged off the end of the wire. The result is a tear in the sheathing that makes the conductors within accessible.

This tool is not essential: A knife can be used to slice the insula­tion; or two pairs of pliers, gripping the conductors, can rip the covering away. But the cable ripper is quicker, safer, and easier. And quite inexpensive, too.

Line Tester and Electrical Meter. Everyone who does any electrical work needs to have a line tester at hand. It costs only a couple of dollars, is small enough to fit into a pocket protector (supposing you’re willing to wear one), and may save you the shock of your life.

The line tester is really just an indicator light with two leads. Keep­ing your fingers on the insulated portions of the tester, you press the metal electrodes into a receptacle or onto the terminals you wish to test. If the light comes on, there’s power there; if there’s no juice, as they say in the trade, the indicator light will not illuminate.

Get yourself a simple tester and use it as often as you need it.

If you want to get beyond that most basic determination (whether there’s power in the line or not), the line tester won’t be much help. Enter the electrical meter.

Meters come in big packages and little ones, with small price tags and hefty ones. The fancy ones have clamp-on ohmmeters and voltmeters, can measure frequency, and capacitance, and will test transistors and diodes. Your needs should dictate which device to buy, but these tools are very useful in troubleshooting electrical problems, especially when repairing appliances.