The Little Red Switch (or Why I Paid Someone $50 to Reset a Circuit Breaker)

A couple of former expat friends of mine both once told me that there would be times that I would just feel stupid here in Germany.   This is one of those times.

You see that little tiny red button on the back of our computer? You probably  have one of those on your computer too, and 99.9% of you will never need to worry about what it does or what it is.   But I know what it is -I knew exactly what it was before all of this even happened. After all, I’m a degreed electrical engineer. Little red buttons are my thing.

That, my friends,  is a switch that controls the power supply on your computer. Computers are made to be used all over the world. When computer is in the US on 110V systems, the switch is set to 110v. However, when the computer is sold and distributed in countries that have 220v power, that switch is flipped by the manufacturer to 220V so the computer doesn’t get fried when you plug it in to the grid. Most people don’t need to know about it because its set by the manufacturer and people usually don’t up and move to a new grid. But we are not most people….and  I knew all of that that:  About 110v vs. 220, all about manual switching power supplies, and about that little red switch. I also know not to plug it into the wall here before setting it to 220V, or bad things happen.  How do I know all this? Because I’m a degreed electrical engineer. Its my thing.

My 5 year old son, however, is not.  A couple of weekends ago, soon after our computer came over on the air shipment, my son found the computer sitting on the floor newly unpacked and decided to fire it up.  I was outside with some guests, and the first time I realized things had gone south was when he came out onto the deck and said, “Dad, I plugged the computer into the wall and then there was a pop and now all of the  lights are off  can I have some apple juice?” Wait, what was that first part about the lights not working?   What did you do again? The computer?   The red button!  The 220V grid!  Snap. 

Ah, but no worries, because your Dad is  a degreed electrical engineer,  so I can fix that. Fo once,  I can be the super hero with geeky but practical super powers.   You see, houses have circuit breakers that are designed to flip when there is a potentially hazardous short circuit, son (says me).  So all I have to do is find the fuse box and reset the breaker, says me.   Its no problem, says me, the electrical engineer.

After about 5 minutes of checking breakers though…small problem.  All of the breakers are fine.  There are two fuses boxes in the house, one up and one down (geek that I am, I had already scouted them out. You know, in case).  Normally breakers are labeled with what section of the house they control.  Few of these were, and the ones that were were labeled in hand-scribbled German. But no worries…just find the one that is flipped off and reset it. A degreed electrical engineer should be able to do this in the dark (which, incidentally, it was). 

Except, upon inspection I find that  all of them are flipped on? Now what? No worries, I’m a degreed electrical engineer, says I.  And of course, things are a little different in Germany, but Ohms Law isn’t…something is breaking the circuit, and I just have to apply some brain power and figure out what.  After hunting and peering and checking the fuse boxes and light switches, etc, I finally notice a row of fuses below the circuit breakers.  A ha! Fuses! Now that’s different… most American houses stopped using fuses decades ago because breakers are more convenient (they don’t have to be replaced when they pop), but Germans aren’t as much into convenience as they are precision, and so it makes perfect sense! We must have popped a fuse (says me).  Mystery solved! No problem.

Except these are little cannister fuses like I’ve never seen. Precise German fuses.  None of them really looked blown to me but I chalked that up to my untrained eye with respect to these fancy German fuses.   That must be it, the lights are off because a fuse is bad. Has to be… and son, you can trust me on this. After all, I’m an electrical engineer. 

So off to the store to find some fuses. Only one problem, this happened on Saturday, and by the time I was satisfied all of the breakers were fine and the culprit was the fuse the stores were all closed.  And in Germany, once stores close on Saturday they don’t open again until Monday.  So we sat in the dark in our living room for a couple of days, stretching extension cords from the TV to the nearest functioning wall outlet in the entry way, daisy chaining the cords to lights and wireless routers and cell phone chargers…until Monday came. 

Armed with a sample fuse,  while I was at work Melissa ran to the closest BauMarkt (think German Home Depot) for some replacements. They were waiting for me when I got home that evening.  She asks me if I know how to change them.   No problem, says I, I’m a degreed electrical engineer and this is what I do! I’ll have things working in a jiffy, says I (starting to feel like the geeky Mister Incedible again).   30 minutes later, I had replaced every fuse in the fuse box with a fresh one…and no power. Nada.

And so here is the point where I officially threw in the towel.  I know when I’m in over my head. The fuses were fine, the breakers fine, and obviously the worst had occured. We had damaged an outlet, or a maybe a switch or even some wiring in the house and now something was going to need to be replaced and repaired. There was now, clearly, some serious work to do.  It had to be, after all Ohms law is Ohms law, and something had to be broken., and if its not the fuses or breakers than its something big that requires somebody with a license and some training.  So I gave in and finally called electrician (actually, called someone who spoke English and asked them to call the electrician).  I was at least satisfied I had done everything else I could and could justify finally calling in the pros to do the heavy lifting. 

And so it was that Tuesday afternoon I was sitting in my office when the phone rang. It was Melissa, and she said the electrician was all done. Really? Already? Did he have to rewire something? Replace an outlet? Were the breakers bad? Floating ground? Contacts need cleaning? Was there some schpilkus in the genektigezoink? 

“He’s done now. He showed me that there was a 3rd fuse box at the bottom of the stairs you didn’t notice (pretty much in plane sight, you know, the one you walked by 50 times last night).  In that fuse box there was a breaker flipped off. He just left. I seriousy think he was here for 2 minutes.”

So that’s the story of the little red button, or “How I, a Degreed Electrical Engineer, Paid an Electrician $50 Bucks to Come Flip a Circuit Breaker.”

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6 thoughts on “The Little Red Switch (or Why I Paid Someone $50 to Reset a Circuit Breaker)

  1. Hahahahahaha!!!!!! After a long and stressful day I needed this story! Thank you so much for this blog, we really enjoy it.

  2. Aaron your sister is correct, you DO need to write a book, or at least narrate some stories on NPR or Oprah or the Leaning Channel. You could have an ongoing column in Newsweek or Time. I had a very bad week and I was delighted to see you had something new on your blog. I am officially in awe of you. I didin’t know my brother Mike had such a neat kid–geez where was I all your life!!

  3. Aaron-Just wanted to let you know that I really enjoy reading your blog! You crack me up just like you did back at ISU. Sounds like you are on a great adventure, and I can’t wait to read more about it!

  4. Ha! This is hillarious! Reminds me of the time my blinker fluid was low in my car! We love reading your blog. Hope u and your family are well. Praying for u. Miss u guys. K&M

  5. Ha, cant believe that you paid $50 bucks for somone to reset a breaker. After a long day and the loss of $40 bucks this was a great story that i needed

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