Bodie Kellogg
Workers on the roof. Inadvertently cutting an electrical wire cost a Miehle dishwasher. Workers on the roof. Inadvertently cutting an electrical wire cost a Miehle dishwasher.

After a fruitless search for an electrician the author grabs pliers and roll of tape

A saga of construction in Mexico — Part 6

As we entered the fourth week of our renovation project, it was time to lay out the new electrical plugs and switches.

This was also the time to sort through the existing electrical wiring, much of which looked like multi-colored worms having group sex. Of course, I know that living through a home remodeling project is like living in the wild; you do whatever is necessary to survive.

In keeping with that knowledge, I contacted the electrician I have so successfully used in the past. The first shock was to discover that he wanted way too much money to do the work we now needed. It seems he has been doing work for gringos who were willing to pay exorbitant rates just as long as it was less than “back home.”

So the search for another competent electrician began in earnest.

There is no shortage of men in our area who will look you in the eye and calmly claim to have the requisite skill set of an electrician. Years ago, I discovered that in Mazatlán anyone with a pair of pliers and a roll of tape would proudly claim the title.

Is it wiring or multi-colored worms having group sex?
Is it wiring or multi-colored worms having group sex?

The bright side is that a person who has not been electrocuted in the first few years of practicing his trade might hold a tenuous grip on electrical theory. After all, this is true Darwinism in action.

Here in Mazatlán the prudent rule of thumb is, rather than listening to a person’s claims of his own great competence, hire someone who has been recommended by a person whose judgment is disinterested, yet tempered by experience.

So we put the word out to our friends and acquaintances that we needed a seasoned electrician. As our list of possibilities dwindled to a couple of choices for various different reasons, including the lack of availability due to the building boom here, the next step was to visit an ongoing project to inspect the workmanship.

It was on one of these workmanship inspections that I encountered a practice so deceptively ludicrous I thought I had fallen down the rabbit hole. With a grin akin to that of the Cheshire cat, the electrician explained that he was replacing all the copper wire in the project we were viewing, not because it was believed to be troublesome in any way, but because it was over 10 years old.

He had convinced the homeowner that copper wire wears out over time and 10 years was the expected lifespan. And thus, all homes needed to have all the wiring replaced after 10 years, regardless of whether any inadequacies existed or not.

I was very tempted to ask the so-called electrician or the homeowner, “Will he come back in 10 years to replace it again?” How many people in the past had trusted this man for his expertise? I politely disengaged myself from this tea party before the mad hatter showed up.

A jumble of wires at the meter box.
A jumble of wires at the meter box.

Copper wire along with copper pipe are both coveted in this part of the world and either is quickly stolen when left lying about or unsecured. This shrewd electrician did not need to engage in any type of covert theft.

Not only was he being paid for completely unnecessary work, he had also devised a way by which an unsuspecting homeowner would freely hand over kilos of copper wire, believing it to be past its useful life. The beneficiary of this largess would then burn off the insulation and sell the copper to one of the metal recyclers.

As both the electrician search and the demolition work progressed, I discovered one of my peons had worked with an electrician for an undetermined amount of time. He had a vague concept of plugs, switches and lights, plus I had seen that he was capable of running power tools without inflicting serious injuries on himself or others. I made him my electrical helper, after I located my rusty pliers and roll of tape.

Since I had done both residential and commercial electrical work back in my dark and jaded past, I felt I could deal with a few switches and plugs as well as lights and a/c. I mean, how hard could it be?

When electrical work is done in the excessively regulated countries north of the border, it follows a standardized set of guidelines called the National Electrical Code (NEC). These guidelines are religiously pursued because electricity is the most dangerous element in most homes. Think about it — have you ever heard of someone being killed by their plumbing?

Anyway, one of the most important guidelines set forth in the NEC is the proper color coding of all electrical wiring i.e. green for ground, white for neutral, and anything black, red or blue carries line voltage and is hot. This knowledge alone keeps people in the English-speaking world from inadvertently getting zapped by a hot wire.

However, here in the land of tacos and tequila, the color coding of electrical wiring is what I like to call a la fiesta. In other words, a colorful jumble of disorganized wires which can hold exciting surprises for curious gringo intruders.

Another frightening aspect of Mexican wiring is its ability to change color from one point to another. For example, a black wire will leave the breaker panel and run through its conduit to reappear in an outlet box which has all the colors except black. This means the wire has been spliced somewhere in route to the outlet box; this is not a good practice.

The propensity to attach two or three wires to a single breaker is also a common aspect of Mexican wiring. And the list goes on ad infinitum, but you get the idea. Fortunately all the homes in our area of Mexico’s west coast are constructed with bricks, mortar and reinforced concrete. If homes here were built from flammable materials, our entire town would have burned to the ground years ago.

Mexican electrical is not quite as dangerous as dropping a toaster in your bath water, but there can be similar moments. Several days ago I went into our kitchen, one of the few undisturbed rooms of our home, and smelled burning electrical wires.

I immediately killed the power in the panel for that end of the house and broke out my test meter. Of the two legs of single-phase power which feeds the panel, one leg bounced between 268 and 210 volts and the other leg fluctuated between 20 and 70 volts. I had never seen anything remotely like this before, ever.

It seems the demolition crew, on the roof at that time, severed the neutral line from the CFE (the Mexican power company). This caused the power to jump back and forth between the two main feed lines and the line with the highest voltage just happened to be the one which sent power to the kitchen. The fridge and the coffee maker survived, but the blender, microwave and The Captured Tourist Woman’s Miele dishwasher did not.

This incident brought home a reminder that the direct costs of construction in Mexico can be roughly calculated, but the indirect costs can suck pesos like a black hole.

The writer describes himself as a very middle-aged man who lives full-time in Mazatlán with a captured tourist woman and the ghost of a half wild dog. He can be reached at buscardero@yahoo.com.

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