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Is your computer plugged in?

January 15, 2007

There are countless little anecdotes floating through the ether about doorknob end users or inept customer phone support techs.   The customer who calls asking how to order a replacement “cup holder” for their desktop PC.  (Its the CD/DVD Rom drive – when the tray is extended to load a disc, you could place a cup on it ).    Or perhaps it’s the stereo-typical support tech, speaking in the foreign accent, asking seemingly inane questions like whether the computer is plugged in or turned on, etc, etc.   The jokes abound from both perspectives.

Alas, even those of us with IQs well above room temperature make joke worthy gaffes from time to time.  This weekend, I must confess to one.   On the lower back porch of my home, I have 3 ceiling fans, each with a light, and they are all wired together to common switches.   I noted sometime last week that only 2 of the 3 lights were lit, how long this condition has existed I can’t say.   With the switch on, and the two lights on, I tried the pull chain for the light on the 3rd fan – nothing.  I tried the other pull chain to make the fan work – again, nothing.  Aha!  probably  a marginal wiring connection – we were in  a hurry when we were putting in all these fixtures.  I got a ladder, turned off the switch and took apart the cover at the ceiling and remade all the connections.  They looked fine, but I re-twisted them just to be sure and checked to make sure all the wire nuts were tight.  Same problem.  I then took the light attachment off, and checked all the connections inside – still broken.  The source wires were doubled, indicating that this fan was not the last in the chain, which if it were, could signal the problem was upstream at one of the other fans.  I dismissed this inconvenient fact as I had to try something else, and took apart the next fan and rechecked all it’s connections.  Still broken.  I tried all the switches inside as we have several 3-way switches, and perhaps one had a marginal connection, but all produced the same results.  I threw up my hands and called my friend, an EE who was out golfing at the time.  He said he’d drop by latter and sort it out.  So he did.  He took the suspect fan apart, and using a gizmo that detects voltage by proximity, noted that the wires for the light were hot, but the ones for the fan were not (remember earlier that pulling the chain on the fan didn’t make the fan work).  He then asked if I had checked the light bulbs.  What?  That can’t be it – but it was.  Both bulbs in the fixture were indeed burned out.  It was so simple that it wasn’t even on my mental trouble shooting flow chart.  I quickly re-thought all my other assumptions and went back inside.  The switch I had been using for all the testing was indeed a single switch for just the lamps, but by another door to the porch was a bank of four switches – one, tied to the first, was a 3-way switch for the lights, but there was another switch that I had flipped that didn’t appear to do anything – it controlled the fan motors – and by pulling the chain again, with that switch on, the fan worked.  Doh!

Morale of the story?  Sometimes it’s easy to overlook the most obvious of explanations – ala Achems razor.   Despite all the jokes to the contrary, it is reasonable to ask whether something is plugged in, or whether you checked the bulb, because while we all would assume the other person did, sometimes they did not.


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