All Wired Up-Crossing Wires with Master Electrician Raymond Cornell

02 22, 2011

Published in Mike Holmes Magazine

While other Montreal tweens were tapping away on Nintendo controllers, Raymond Cornell’s diversion of choice was an old school electrical fuse testing board. The son of an electrician, the devices were as ubiquitous around the Cornell household as poutine on a Quebec bar menu.

“My father always had one with him no matter where he went,” Cornell reminisces. The testing board was made up of two pieces of copper bus bar mounted on a small piece of plywood in the shape of a V connected to a 24-volt AC transformer and a bell. When you touched the fuse’s metal contacts to the device to complete the circuit if your fuse was good the bell rang. If it didn’t ring, your fuse was garbage.

“My friends would have contests to see who could hold their hand on it the longest without taking it off. The more surface area you put across the bus bar, the more intense the jolt or buzz.”

A regular livewire, one of Cornell’s favourite arcade game at Montreal’s Six Flags amusement park was the Adams Family Shocker. You had to hold on to two probes as Uncle Fester incrementally jacked up the voltage. While his pals would bail half way through Cornell would keep holding on till he beat the game.

Cornell is one of six siblings and all but one entered into the electrician trade. Of the Cornell clan who entered the field, only one left doing so to become a mechanical drafting technician. At Cornell family Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners the holiday banter is charged with electrical jargon. “We all eat, sleep and breathe electricity and whenever we all get together it’s the talk,” says the 33-year-old president of Drycore Electric Quebec, who works with his brother Robert, the project and service coordinator and his sister Beaudette who handles the company’s financial affairs. Cornell has been working in the industry fulltime since 1996 and he passed the Corporation of Master Electricians of Quebec exam in 2005.

Cornell cultivated an early passion for electricity watching his father and marvelling at his dad’s heroic fearlessness. He never seemed afraid of getting shocked. “He’d be doing something at home and touch a live wire with his fingers and go ‘ok now it’s got current. ’ This was in the time when laws didn’t require you to shut things down before you started working on them, and I’m like wow, he just touched a wire.”

Cornell’s favourite subjects in high school were math, physics, and chemistry and he enrolled in John Abbot College in Montreal to study Sciences. Cornell got part way through his diploma and decided he wanted a change of pace and switched into creative arts. The arts failed to captivate Cornell and he decided to join the family business. “It’s just one of those things like the mafia, you keep trying to get out but they pull you back in,” he jokes.

Nowadays it’s the troubleshooting aspect of the trade that keeps it continually fresh for him. He bought an older home with polarized electrical wiring, tin and copper with no grounds. He re-wired it from A-Z with standard NMD-90 (non metallic sheathed wire with a 90°C temperature rating). “I was installing a three-way switch. You’re supposed to do it power off, but here I am just like my old man doing it. I’m testing it and everything looks fine, but then I’m getting current back on a line that shouldn’t be getting any current. I’m thinking what’s going on here?” So, Cornell turned off the breaker took it apart and put it all back together But, he was still baffled, there was no change. Finally he got fed up, called a colleague in to give him a hand and troubleshoot the issue. His colleague mentioned he had scratched his head for hours on end on a similar issue. It turned out that Cornell was using the same circuit to provide lighting in another bedroom and there was a compact fluorescent light bulb that was backfeeding power because of the transformer inside of it.

Such troubleshooting is par for the course in the trade, as is fixing or testing an electrical system on the fritz which makes up the bulk of service calls Drycore receives. “There was a job at a Home Depot store. They had lost all emergency power in a store but they had normal power. We went out there thinking there was maybe a problem with the generator or the transfer switch, but after checking it all out it was none of that.” While trying to figure out what the problem was, the system reset all of a sudden and everything went back to normal. The next day he got a call from Home Depot; it was down again. “It turned out the breaker inside a panel was fried and we hadn’t seen it.” So to alleviate the situation they had to find a six-interval breaker an item that isn’t typically stocked, and get it up and running as quickly as we could over a weekend.

The residential work he does is most often related to energy efficiency via solar power. One of his first forays into a photovoltaic array install was a DIY project rescue. A technologically ambitious Montreal homeowner had attempted to install a system himself. But when it came down to the nitty-gritty of actually connecting the equipment into the electrical grid system, he needed help, and so enlisted Cornell. “I’m almost in a sense frothing at the mouth here to work with the equipment, to connect it up, test it all, make sure it all works in proper form, and then to watch that electricity being pumped back into the grid,” says Cornell of working the technology that’s only become popular in Quebec in the last couple of years. A big proponent of self-sustainability and cogeneration Cornell had been researching and keeping abreast of solar technology long before harnessing the sun’s energy through rooftop panels was an economically feasible home improvement project to consider.

“I like photovoltaic jobs because they are very technical; it’s not let’s add a plug here, lets fix a switch. You’ve got to be able to really troubleshoot and plan well in advance. If you call me up and say I want a put an extra plug in my kitchen wall, it’s not that difficult a job. When you do a solar install you have to work with the utilities, meet all sorts of requirements, design the system around them and make sure everything is copacetic in regards to code.”

Right now Hydro Quebec doesn’t have any offers to incent homeowners to install solar panels, so it’s truly and solely for people who believe in the cause. Ideally Cornell would like to see a program similar to the FIT (Feed-In Tarrif) program in Ontario where homeowners are paid up to 80.2 cents per Kilowatt-hour produced from the renewable energy generated from roof mounted solar arrays for 20 years.

A supporter of alternative energy, a pet project of Cornell and his siblings’, which they aim to get off the ground in a few years, is to install a wind turbine to power his family’s place in Newfoundland. “We’ve already coordinated with the utility with regard to the information they need, and we’ve already got the product picked out. It’s just a matter of waiting for a more economically [viable] time to do it, when there is some kind of incentive that we could grab onto.”

As is Cornell calculated that the cost of the project would run between 15-18k and at that sticker range it’d be around twelve to fifteen years before they’d re-coop their investment. “As much as we’re in it for the long term it’s still prohibitively expensive.”

Whatever your electrical conundrum you are up against, whether your adding receptacles or redoing your lighting or Cornell always recommends hiring a electrical specialist rather than a tradesman who switch hits and also tackles plumbing, HVAC, or what have you.

“I’m a firm believer that you can’t be a jack of all trades because then you are a master of none. You don’t want someone who spends half their time doing plumbing and half their time doing electrical because are they going to be up to date on everything? I mean it’s hard enough to keep up to date myself.”

Q + A

What’s your favourite variation on the classic how many guys it takes to change a lightbulb joke?
My favourite one comes from where my parents are living now, in Newfoundland, where my mother is from. How many Newfies does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Answer: 3. One to hold the lightbulb and the other two to turn the guy.

Are transformers like they are in the movies, you know more than meets the eye?
Electricity seems scary to those who don’t know basics about it. I wish they’d teach it in high school in home economics courses. I think everybody should get a basic grasp of what electricity is and how it works. Once you know what it is and how to safely work with it, it is not scary at all. I have no fear of doing something when it’s done right and so yah transformers are more than meets the eye.

Transformers are basically sheets of metal wound around each other and they work by induction. They can convert 14-25 000 volts outside your home down to 120 or 240 volts. That’s a huge jump, there’s a lot of potential energy inside transformers and when lightening storms hit and those things blow you can see it from miles away.

Do you prefer AC or DC?
AC is always straightforward and clear. You’ve got “A” “B” and “C” or “A” and “B” and only a certain number of colored wires you use. Unless you have time to sit there and read through a wiring diagram, DC is not fun to work with. It’s a whole different puppy, it’s almost like learning a whole different [language] and you can’t treat AC and DC similarily. Also one of the limitations of DC is you can’t send it long distances. It is also more of a volatile voltage than AC so you have to take a few more safety precautions. AC at 120-208v or 120/240v will give you a jolt that won’t necessarily kill you but with DC high voltages are mortal.

Which electrical pioneer is a bigger hero of yours: inventor Thomas Edison or physicist Nikola Tesla?
I gotta go with Tesla. Because while I like AC and Tesla is the DC guy, I like his ingenuity and forward thinking. His concepts and drawings and products he was theoretically working on—like induction lamps such as parking lot lights with big metal halide or high-pressure sodium with a mercury bulb inside—were well ahead of his time. Even today we’re still just starting to grasp some of the concepts he was developing. The theory behind induction is you’re basically wrapping a magnet around a gas chamber and the magnet excites the atoms inside to create the light and that is leaps and bounds more energy efficient than Edison based technology, and that is what we are living with right now.

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