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6 Things I Learned as an EE doing Electrician Work


Here at CircuitBread, we actually get a lot of questions about electricians wanting to be electrical engineers and seeing if there is any relationship between electrical engineers and electricians.  We’ve tried to answer them as best as possible but, to be frank, we haven't had a whole lot of experience doing the electrician side of things. But recently, my wife and I finished doing the rough-in wiring for our house.  We just moved and are homeless at the moment - it's very sad.  But we spent a little over 2 weeks roughing in the electrical for our house and it has been a crazy learning experience and just an interesting experience in general. Now, I would like to share 6 of my personal impressions as an electrical engineer of what it is like to do electrician work. Hopefully, this will help those electricians that are thinking about becoming electrical engineers but probably it's going to be more for electrical engineers that think they can do electrician work.  Which, I thought I could do, and it was quite a humbling experience. So let's start the list. 

1)  Electrical work = Construction work

The first thing that I learned is that electrical work particularly on the construction site is a lot more construction than I was anticipating. It was almost more construction than electrical wiring, particularly at first. You’re figuring out where you're going to put the boxes, and you’re hammering in the boxes, and then you figure out you’re going to run the wire, so you're drilling holes and cutting pieces of wood to block the outlets and the switches. I was surprised that in the last 2-3 weeks, I have swung a hammer probably more than the rest of my entire life combined.   And seeing as how I grew up on a farm, that's quite a bit.   Of course, we used more sledgehammers and shovels on the farm but whatever. I swung a hammer a lot over the last couple of weeks and I was just surprised at how little I was actually working with wiring when I was doing it.  

2) Electrician work is very physically demanding.

The second thing that I learned is that it’s physically demanding. I should have known that, it seems self-evident, but here I am closer to 40 years old than I am 30 years old.  And even though I haven’t worked on it for several days now, my hands are still swollen. I have scratches on my arms. I would wake up in the morning and all my knuckles were swollen and I was stinking tired. It is a physically demanding thing, you're up pulling wires and using weird muscles in your back that you didn't even know existed and, as I mentioned, you're swinging hammers. Now, it was probably more physically demanding for me because 1) I'm probably a little bit older than your average young electrician. Don't think about that statement too much.   And 2) I'm not used to it. My wife makes me exercise and I'm fairly active but I'm not doing those movements, not pulling the wires and hammering and doing things upside down.  I will say that if you’re doing this as your job, you’ll probably only be doing it 8 to 10 hours a day.  Since we were clueless, we were spending quite a bit more time than that for 6 days a week.  And I think that really took its toll.    However, it’s still very tough, so let's just give a little bit more respect to the difficulty of being an electrician out there and the physical demands placed on their body to do what they do.

3) Everything is Rules Based

The third thing that I thought about when I was working on that is that being an electrician, everything is based on rules.  You do things because the NEC says that you need to do it.  And based on your location, certain aspects of the NEC are adopted and you need to know which ones apply. This is very different from the electrical engineering side where you learn concepts and you learn principles - then you make decisions based on that. For example, if you have a bathroom, the bathroom needs its own dedicated circuit and you need a 12 gauge wire for your 20 amp outlet.  This can be shared with another bathroom but they have to be dedicated to the bathroom and GFCI protected.   That's the rule.  As an electrical engineer, I would say, “Because this is a guest bathroom and nobody should ever be using a blow dryer in here we can get away with a 14 gauge or a 15 amp circuit and you will be okay.  And a blowdryer uses less than 15 amps anyway.”  But that’s not the rule. And there are a ton of rules - it was crazy.  The only reason we were able to even do it at all is that we have a good friend who is an electrician and we bugged him so much. He was incredibly patient and I'm certain that he's just as glad that we finally got the permit approved as we were.  Everything was good but we just kept on having to ping him with questions. So, while you need to learn a lot of electrical concepts as an electrician, it seems the majority of work electricians do is based on rules and local ordinances.  On top of this, there are also best practices that electricians learn that we did not know, besides the rules, that were also shared with us sometimes.  Most of the time, though, it felt like we were just muddling along.

4) Being an electrical engineer helps with electrician work - a little.

The fourth thing that I learned is that being an electrical engineer did help to do electrical work. But not as much as I expected. The only place that I really saw the benefit was when I was trying to figure out what wires go where and how to create the circuits. There were times that I was talking to my wife, who is more in the medical field, and not at all on the engineering side. She would look at me like, “I don't know why we're doing that.”  And I try to explain it to her and she's like, “Y’know, I don't care.”    Whereas I was able to figure out where things go and how they all connect.  Other than that I really felt that my background in electrical engineering brought nothing to the table. I'm not gonna lie. I felt like I was pretty useless as an electrician.

5) Trade workers are cool

The fifth thing is that I got to rub shoulders with the HVAC guys and the plumbers.  They were all there, running pipes and ducts and it was great to get to know them.  These are incredibly talented people that were passionate, surprisingly passionate, about their work. There was this one guy named Talyn and he was not a journeyman yet, he was still an apprentice.  But he was so passionate about HVAC work. He loved it, he was proud of what he's doing and proud of his tools and it was just really cool to me.  I was incredibly impressed by the professionalism and the joy that they took in doing good work.  It was just such a neat experience to rub shoulders with these guys and not have them treat me like an idiot.  Because, unlike them, I had no idea what I was doing and they weren’t jerks about it and I really appreciated that.  So, I got some really good experiences working around these tradespeople and it just made me appreciate them more, and to see the quality of people that are out there and it made me feel a lot better about the whole experience.

6) Despite the pain, there were practical benefits.

The last thing that I thought about as I was doing all this was basically the practical benefits. The reason my wife and I decided to do the electrical roughing was to save money, I mean it wasn't something like, “Hey, this sounds like a good way to spend a couple of weeks of our lives and get behind on all of our social and work obligations!”  No, we wanted to save money because everything's crazy expensive right now.  And, I guess, technically we did but it was a challenge.  Thank goodness we had our friend and even with him, it was rough.  Though we did save money, it did take a little bit longer than if we had had an electrician come and do it.  And that’s with two of us working well more than 8 hours a day.  Just because we spent so much time looking at things just staring and making decisions.  There was a lot of that that took up a great deal of our time because we just didn't know what we were supposed to be doing. So, while we did save money, it took a lot longer in man-hours and overall time. I think we took about a week longer than a real electrician would have but we were glad we were also able to make things exactly as we wanted. We were able to envision where we were putting furniture, lights, and our fish tank and make sure our outlets were in the right spot.  Otherwise, an electrician just walks around and puts in outlets according to code only.  At the same time, the electrician has the more practical experience and could say where people generally want outlets, so we may have missed some important things.  We will see what happens.  But these practical considerations were interesting and frankly, I think I would be willing to do it again in the future but my wife has definitely said she's never ever doing it again.  She has absolutely no interest.

So those are the 6 impressions that I had as an electrical engineer doing electrician work.  I'd be really interested to hear what any electricians watching this have to say. I want to hear your perspective because I could be totally off base here. I don't know as this was a completely new experience for me. The only electrical work I've done to this point has been doing switches, adding outlets, changing out outlets, but nothing to this level and certainly not this early on in construction.  So I would love any of your insights and hear anything that you disagree with. Please leave it in the comments below because I would be fascinated to hear what you have to think about this. 

I had a fascinating experience doing that electrical work and learned so much but if you want to learn about being an electrical engineer go explore CircuitBread.com, subscribe to our channel on YouTube so you can learn about circuits, microcontrollers, semiconductors, and all that good stuff.

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