Blue View - Master Electrician Exam

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As an electrical engineer, I spent most of my working life in the electronics industry. I know lots about microprocessors and making whiz-bang little boxes that measure things and collect data, then do something useful with the information. What I know about AC electrical circuitry, however, was what I learned along the way on the boat and in the various houses we've lived in.

A few years ago, I thought it might be fun to actually become a licensed electrician. I'd have to do some studying and probably pass a test, but learning new things at my age can't be bad - and just think about all those scintillating BV blogs I could write on topics like “how far from the kitchen sink does an outlet have to be before a GFCI is no longer required?”.

So I looked into it, and found that each state has its own requirements - and that their requirements vary widely. In most states, a newcomer starts out as an apprentice, then after a few years experience and passing the appropriate tests, the journeyman level can be attained. After a few more years experience and another test, one can reach the master electrician level. Some states give credit for having an electrical engineering degree. Colorado, for example, allows anyone with a BSEE to become a master electrician after a year's experience in the trade and successfully passing a test. Nevada, our current state of residence, has the most liberal requirements of any state I know of, however. All that's required in the Silver State is to pass the Master's Electrician Test and pay my fees, and voilà, I can become a licensed master electrician! Since I'm already an electrical engineer, how hard can it be to pass a test on my favorite subject?

The exam is standardized nationwide and is based on the National Electrical Code, which is spelled out in a 1258 page book, entitled the NFPA 70: National Electrical Code Handbook. The test consists of 100 questions and a grade of 75% is necessary to pass.

There are a number of study guides and practice exams available. I took one of the practice exams about six weeks ago, just to see how I'd do and where my weak areas were. I failed miserably. I was scratching my head over questions like “A 25-hp, 230-V, 3-phase motor is to be supplied from a branch circuit that has 2/0 AWG THW copper conductors which have an ampacity of 175 amperes. Determine the correct size for the tap conductors.” Huh? This was going to require some studying.

Since then, I've averaged about 2-3 hours at the books every day. Some days I worry that I may set the alarms off from all the smoke being emitted from my overworked brain cells. But I'm getting there.

The book covers all the basics like terminology, wiring, materials, grounding and protection, which take up the first 470 pages. Then it talks about motors, transformers and air conditioning for another 100 pages or so. A good part of the book is devoted to different environments, like hazardous locations, healthcare facilities and marinas and boatyards. Not much is missed – want to know how far from a power line the carnival can put their Ferris wheel? ... What the load demand factor for stage lighting in a motion picture studio is? … it's all there, and it's a lot to learn.

The test is scheduled for Friday, - and amazingly, since the test is administered by a company that does this around the country, I can take the exam for the Clark County, Nevada license right here in Chesapeake, VA. I'll be hitting the books extra hard this week. It's a fine line between learning as much as I can without injuring myself. Marcie, meanwhile, has been very quiet and patient, trying hard not to start conversations while I'm studying a few feet away… definitely a challenge for her.

I just want everyone to know that if I do manage to pass the test and become a Licensed Master Electrician, I'll still be the same old David. No need to address me differently. It'll be tough, but I'll work hard at not letting it all go to my head.

BTW, does anyone know where I can find an electrical outlet checker that will fit in my pocket protector?