Okay, maybe not electrocuted. But shocked pretty badly.
I acquire new tools the way most home tinkerers do: as needed. I bought an impact driver the first time I had to take the lug nuts off my tires, a framing square to do work on our back two steps, a planer when I built a kitchen table with my brother-in-law, and a nail gun after I borrowed a friend’s and learned how much fun they are. But those were items that I realized I needed before I started the project. One of my most important tools, the noncontact voltage sensor, didn’t make its way into my toolbox until a little too late.
My task that day was easy. I was replacing an old electrical outlet, something I’d done dozens of times before. The few tools I needed were arranged in front of me. The new outlet was out of its packaging, and the circuit breaker controlling the power in the living room was turned off. After removing the cover plate and screws, I grabbed the outlet. Every muscle in my body clenched. My arms shimmied uncontrollably as 120 volts of electricity took over in the second or two before I could drop the outlet. Another trip to the circuit panel showed me that there were two breakers for the living room. I’d seen only one.
When I mentioned it to a friend a few days later, still a little sore from the shock, he said something I wish would have come up weeks before: “Why didn’t you use a volt pen?”
I didn’t use one because I didn’t know what it was. A volt pen, also called a noncontact voltage sensor, is a simple and inexpensive device that you hold near an electrical outlet, light switch, or any other wire you think might have electricity running through it. I recently used mine to make sure the power was off to the garbage disposal before attempting to repair it. If the pen lights up or makes a sound, then you know there’s still electricity flowing. And you know not to touch it. It’s as important to have in your toolbox as a hammer or screwdriver.
There are a lot of options out there, and most will do the job. The most important feature to me is an indicator light so that you always know that it’s working. You don’t want to think the power is off and that you’re safe, only to find out that the pen’s batteries were dead. After my experience, I always go one step further and test it first on something I know has power, like a lamp that’s turned on, or the outlet that controls our running air conditioner. It’s worth that extra second not to accidentally adjust my EKG again.
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