Saturday, October 14th, 2006
12:36 pm - The Casa Machina How-To Guide - Fun with Exterior Lighting...  
Overthinking Home Improvement, Chapter One...

Step 1 - Identify the problem(s)

The ProblemSo, a bit more than a year ago, one of the porch lights on either side of my front door stopped working. I installed them back in 2001. I got them at Wal*Mart. They were cheap (inexpensive, too), but they were the only fixtures I was able to find that had dusk-to-dawn photosensors. It seems like the manufacturers of better quality fixtures don't install them in any but the very largest fixtures, most of which are larger than my front door. (What knockers lamps!)

Anyway, two years after I installed them, the photosensors died. Oh well, cheap fixtures, shoddy electronics, right? I replaced them with sensors sold by Home Depot for use in the more expensive fixtures. They had to be better quality, right? Two years later, they were dead, too. Also, the cheap steel that the Wal*Mart lights were made of was becoming seriously rusted. I needed to find some sort of replacement.

As I mentioned, I wanted some kind of set 'em up and forget 'em lights. I don't want to have to remember to turn them on and off every damn day. I want them to be on already when I come at night in the winter. That means either some sort of photosensor or timer. Timers are a pain, more expensive than photocells, and would require a new living room switchplate. OTOH, the good quality fixtures don't come with photosensors. I'd have to install them myself, which would involve drilling holes. Also, the sensors don't seem to last all that long. I decided to go ahead and buy the new fixtures, and worry about how best to automate them later. Surely I'd think of something. That was a year ago September.

The other problem is that the house has clapboards spaced about 4" on center, while the fixture's base is 4½" in diameter. The circuit boxes are located in such a way that the fixture has to overlap the clapboard above, resulting in a substantial gap between wall and fixture. That gap may have been a contributing factor in the death of all those photosensors, since there's no way to keep the weather out. Last time around I made a crude gasket out of some flexible foam to try to seal it, but it was not only inelegant and ugly, but also didn't seem to work very well. I had to figure a better way to close the gap.

Step 2 - Formulate a plan

So, I had my non-sensor equipped fixtures. How to automate them? There is actually a third choice besides a hard-wired sensor or a timer. I could use a sensor that screws into the light socket, and then screw the lightbulb into that. That's exactly what I'd already done years ago with the post lamp that's stuck out in the middle of my front yard, and it's never given me a lick of trouble. The thing is, the glassed in part of that lamp is about double the size of the door fixtures. The sensor socket is a couple of inches tall, and by the time you screw in the bulb, the whole contraption is just too tall to fit in the smaller fixtures. Bother.

Skip forward several months. One night whilst strolling the electrical aisle at Wal*Mart, I noticed a much shorter sensor socket. They also had some very short globe-shaped bulbs. It could just work. Bought a set, and tried them in one of the fixtures when I got home. They fit. Just barely, but they fit.

So one problem addressed. On to the clapboards. Actually, I already had a pretty good idea of how to fix that. Up in the attic there are some extra clapboards left over from when the house was built. If I took a piece of one of them, trimmed it to match the exposed width, and turned it upside down, butting the wide bottom edge up against the upper clapboard, it would provide a nice, flat, reasonably vertical surface behind the fixture.

Step 3 - Fabricate the base. Lather, rinse, repeat...

All I had to do was cut a hole in the middle of the piece to accomodate the wiring and bracket, and all would be golden. My first experiment, however, was a disaster. I drew a circuit box sized circle on the wood, drilled a pilot hole, and tried to cut out the circle with a saber saw. Bad idea. A saber saw is a rough tool, and red cedar is not a particularly sturdy wood. (They make pencils out of red cedar. I mean, how hard is is to break a pencil?) The saw trashed my prototype, shattering it along the grain. Sigh.

I tried cutting the hole by hand with a coping saw, but even that proved too violent for what I was trying to do. I decided to rethink what I needed. Most of the piece would be behind the base of the fixture, hidden from view, and coincidentally in the way of the bracket and the wiring. Perhaps all I needed to do was cut some shorter pieces, attach them just outside of the circuit box, and fit a third piece along the bottom.

What Lies Beneath Now up until this point, I hadn't actually examined the circuit boxes in detail, at least, not since I'd last replaced the sensors three years ago. All my planning so far had assumed that everything behind the fixture was pretty much flush to the surface of the clapboard. Silly me. The bracket was more complicated than I remembered, and there were screw heads sticking up, and so on. Even the smaller pieces of clapboard would need to have chunks cut away to make them fit around the brackets.

I made a pattern on some card stock, and did the cutting with the bandsaw, which is a far better tool for delicate work. (I hadn't tried it before because the bandsaw blade is a continuous loop, so there's no way to insert it through a pilot hole. By using the smaller pieces, I'd removed the necessity for that.) The pieces looked good, so I nailed them up, and put the fixture over them. It would've worked fine if the fixture's base was square, but since it's circular, there were some unsightly gaps as the round peg failed to cover the now square hole. Back to the drawing board. I cut some new pieces, this time more carefully fitting them around the brackets. Still no joy. The problem was that there were bits of the bracket that actually extended beyond the base of the fixture. Well, crap.

Step 4 - Make the basement smell like a pencil sharpener

The Solution There was nothing for it. If I wanted a nice, flat, gapless base, I was going to have to hollow out the underside of it to fit over the various bits of the bracket. So I cut some new pieces of clapboard, full size this time, and set up the router table with a ½" flat bottomed bit, a fence, and stop blocks at either end of the fence so I wouldn't screw things up. That part worked great, but I still had to cut out the hole. Working with the smaller pieces convinced me that they were easier to install than a single plate would be, so I cut the large piece in half, and then cut out the interior with the band saw. I still had to cut out some chunks for the bracket, but I'd measured them pretty carefully. Or so I'd thought. Nailed them up, put the fixture over them, and... There were still gaps. Much smaller ones, but still noticeable.

Perfect Fit Back down to the basement, and made another set, this time deliberately cutting the chunks short to ensure they wouldn't show. I had to do some further cutting, fitting, and chiseling out, but eventually I got them to fit, and not show a gap. Fourth time's the charm. Go me!

Step 5 - I can paint an entire apartment in one afternoon... Two coats!

I wanted to prime the pieces before I nailed them up, so Saturday night I started to spray the undersides with primer... And ran out of paint. D'oh! First thing Sunday morning I went to the Depot and got some more, and finished the job. Once the pieces dried, I installed them, and splashed some house paint on 'em (two coats).

Step 6 - Wire it up, and attach to the wall

It Works! All Trimmed Up The electrical work went much more smoothly. The only tricky part was that the screw for attaching the ground wire is behind the outer part of the bracket. Before I installed the bases, you could get at it simply by loosening the bracket, and rotating it enough to expose the screw. The newly installed bases now prevent the bracket from rotating, so I had the remove the outer part completely. Not at all difficult, it's just that I was working with tiny screws over a garden strewn with the rotting shrub trimmings. Fortunately, I managed not to drop any of the teeny screws this time around, although now that I think of it, I should've spread some newspaper down below to catch anything that might fall. Oh, well, that's why I write this stuff up.

They Work Anyway, I attached the ground, replaced the bracket, then connected the electrical leads with wire nuts. Now for the moment of truth. I flipped on the switch, and the light came on. Then it was just a matter of attaching the fixture to the wall, and installing the ornamental bits.

Step 7 - Looks good, but does it work?

The lamps looked great, and I eagerly waited for sunset to see how my cobbled up photosensor system would work. And it did work. Sort of. The lights came on, but they never got very bright. My guess is that there was enough light reflected off the wall into the photocells to prevent them from fully working. It looked like I was going to have to install sensors in the base of the fixture if I wanted it to work properly. Sigh. Back to the Depot...

Step 8 - Meet the new fix, same as the old fix

Printed Circuits Make Everything Better Fortunately, I had Columbus Day off, so I was able to head up to the Depot to pick up the sensors. I took down the lights, and hauled everything back down to the basement, where I (very carefully) drilled the requisite holes in the fixtures. I installed and wired in the sensors, then removed my failed sensor-bulb contraptions, replacing them with normal bulbs. Hauled everything back upstairs, and reinstalled the fixtures. They worked, and the lights were clearly brighter than the night before. (I must say, I'm hugely amused by the number of safety warnings that have been plastered inside the fixtures. Imagine if there were a spark in there.)

Step 9 - Turn on the lights

Finis! Eureka!

Step 10 - Will it last?

Beats me. I'm hoping that closing the gaps along the sides of the fixtures will extend the life of the sensors beyond what I've seen in the past. If not, I've got about two years to come up with a new plan.

( Post a new comment )
arlissarliss on October 14th, 2006 - 05:55 pm
Well the result looks amazingly good. In contrast, the glowwormy pictures are just really sad.

'Course, in the good old days you could have just paid some servant to stand out there all night with a torch.
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